Thursday, September 12, 2013

In Memoriam: Raymond Burr

Figuring out memorial posts grows more and more difficult. But I’ve been thinking long and hard of something to write for our Perry Mason, Raymond Burr, on this, the day marking his death twenty years ago. In the end, this post seems to have mostly written itself, in spite of any plans I had. And it's fitting that the 200th post for this blog should be significant, although a memorial post is always bittersweet.

Twenty years ago! It doesn’t seem possible that so much time has passed since Raymond’s departure from this life. And he was still involved with projects right before his death, including both an Ironside reunion and his final Perry Mason television movie.

Raymond was always so productive, both during his time in the movies and when he moved to television. For all his complaints about being tired of playing Perry and wanting a break, maybe moving to an island he’d bought, he was back in another steady television series the year after Perry ended. And Ironside ran almost as long as Perry; eight years to Perry’s nine.

I dearly love both characters. I feel they should be separate and distinct, but each one is an enjoyable protagonist to watch. Perry Mason is not as gruff as Robert T. Ironside, definitely friendlier (although he can be stern when the need calls for it), and is also more permissive in what to do to get his clients off the hook. Ironside, while often grouchy and aloof (although he mellows more over time), and insistent on sticking to proper police procedure, cares about his friends and the people he’s trying to help just as much as Perry does.

I prefer Ironside’s methods to Perry’s, as I don’t feel it’s right for Perry to bend the law or to continually ask Paul to get into situations where he’s bending the law too. But Perry feels that the end justifies the means, which would definitely make for an intriguing conflict between him and Ironside, if the two were ever to meet.

Following the end of Ironside in 1975, Raymond tried several other projects, including television series, but they were short-lived. The next really big project, I believe, was ten years later with the return to playing Perry Mason. And wow, those television movies must have taken off, with Raymond playing Perry 26 more times in all. Whatever one thinks of them overall, the Perry Mason movies are certainly among the longest-running television movie series involving a particular character, if not the longest-running of all to do so. Any other television movie series with certain characters that I know of (Columbo, Jim Rockford, etc.) stopped long before 26 (or 30) installments were made.

When I saw an interview with Raymond from around 1989 or 1990, I think, he expressed enthusiasm and excitement about the films and returning to playing Perry Mason. One of his favorite elements was the further fleshing out of both Perry and Della as characters, although I think he underestimated the times the original series did this as well. Many times in the original series, Perry showed a sense of humor, whereas Raymond felt that only the movies depicted this aspect. On the other hand, the movies did bring some unique information to the table, such as Della’s enjoyment of gardening.

I still can’t comprehend that The Powers That Be felt that they could still make Perry movies without Perry in them. And I suppose the films must have been marginally successful, since there were four without him. (People were probably mainly still tuning in to see Della, as well as other cast members if they were fans of those people.) Perhaps the plots were good; I couldn’t say. But ratings did steadily drop and the movies stopped, which is, as far as I’m concerned, a good thing. Trying to make Perry movies without Perry is preposterous. Perhaps they could have spun Della off into her own series of films, if they had wanted to try that, but just trying to market the Perry name and have other lawyers attempt to fill his shoes did not work. The public didn’t accept Monte Markham as Perry in The New Perry Mason, and they weren’t willing to accept other lawyers appearing in films under the Perry Mason name, either. For the majority of television viewers, Raymond Burr is the only acceptable Perry Mason.

I’m wondering how the new Ironside series will fare this year. Most remakes have badly flopped, but every now and then one succeeds, such as Battlestar Galactica or Hawaii 5-0. It would be kind of neat, if the new Ironside series succeeds. It could even bring added awareness of the original version. On the other hand, what a testament to Raymond Burr’s interpretation of the character it would be if the series fails!

Raymond always brought such varied and intriguing characters to life, from television’s Perry Mason and Robert Ironside to deadly villains in the movies and disturbed and heartbreaking characters such as the kidnapper in A Cry in the Night. It’s always a delight to view one of his roles. He was an excellent and very dedicated actor and will forever be remembered as such, as well as a caring, helpful man and friend.

As a parting note, MeTV has released the rest of their September schedule, and for some reason, they’re playing Perry movies every Friday in September. It’s very nice to see them giving such attention to the project. Perhaps their decision is both because of Raymond’s death this month and also the anniversary of the beginning of Perry Mason on September 21st, 1957.

I’m looking around the MeTV site for a Raymond tribute page, but I haven’t located one. If anyone catches a specific tribute on either the station itself or on the site, drop me a line.

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