Today it’s 21 years since we lost our Perry Mason, Raymond Burr. It’s hard to believe it’s been that long.
Raymond was, and really still is, the quintessential Perry Mason. His acting style isn’t appreciated by everyone, of course, but I and many others found him just perfect in the part. His ability to deadpan and be serious is what’s often remembered about his interpretation of the character; even Raymond himself forgot that Perry also has a definite mischievous streak, usually in the form of teasing Paul Drake. And he often smiles in amusement at things that are going on or being said by other characters. It wasn’t just in the later television movies when his sense of humor came out.
Perry can become emotional in court, even raising his voice when speaking to certain witnesses (often the real murderers). Other times he becomes very sarcastic and mocking, such as when he talks to fortune-teller Marius in The Fatal Fortune. It doesn’t happen often, so it might be easy to forget, but I enjoy The Fatal Fortune in general and found the role-reversal of Perry’s sarcasm and Hamilton objecting to it to be very interesting. Hamilton certainly doesn’t believe in fortune-telling and the like, but he still found Perry’s sarcasm inappropriate in the cross-examination.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Perry is very kind. Raymond always brought it out perfectly, showing how Perry would help many destitute clients who wouldn’t be able to pay, patiently teach David Gideon in the matters of the law, and even refuse to prosecute a juvenile for the stripping of his car. And who can forget the lovely exchange between Perry and Della from The Weary Watchdog:
Della: How far would you go for a friend?
Perry: How far is forever?
And with Perry, you know he’s not exaggerating. Many of the impossible cases he takes on are for his friends. And he’ll keep fighting to save them as long as there’s even the slimmest thread of hope. Even if one doesn’t always agree with his methods, his intense loyalty is certainly an admirable quality. It would be difficult to find a more faithful friend than Perry.
I read something recently, perhaps at the Yahoo Group, where someone commented that the reason The Restless Redhead may have been chosen as the first episode aired was because of how excellently it shows how Perry champions the underdog. That was one of the main themes they wanted to sell in the series, and it’s very true that Redhead shows some classic examples of it. (It also right off the bat shows some of Perry’s most jaw-dropping less-than-legal actions by firing more bullets around the crime scene!) While I still sort of wonder why The Moth-Eaten Mink wouldn’t have been either the first aired or one of the first eight, I do agree that if they were trying to sell the underdog concept, Redhead was probably the better choice for the first one aired between those two.
Raymond was always excellent at any part he took on. Robert Ironside is a much gruffer man than Perry, but his heart is just as big underneath all the growls. I don’t like how Perry in the reunion movies sometimes acts more gruff like Ironside, but if it was a deliberate action I suppose it was the fabled grouchiness of old age.
Perry is definitely the role for which Raymond is most singularly remembered, and with very good reason, since Raymond not only did a perfect job, he played Perry right up to the time of his death. His final role was the television movie The Case of the Killer Kiss, which was actually released more than two months after his death. I still have it recorded from MeTV and haven’t seen it yet, and it will likely be a very bittersweet experience when I do.
I wonder what it was like for people watching the original broadcast in 1993? It must have been extremely sad and bittersweet, knowing it was Raymond’s final performance and that he had passed on over two months earlier. The emotional wounds of the fans would have still been very fresh.
21 years later, it’s still very sad to think that Raymond is gone. But it’s a comfort to know that there’s such a treasure trove of his work available for us to still share in the joy of watching. My friend Crystal often bemoans how the BBC destroyed many priceless recordings of their old shows. Thank goodness that wasn’t the case in America! We can still watch every episode of Perry Mason, Ironside, the Perry television movies, and many other things that Raymond Burr appeared in. And while of course watching them is not like having him still here, I like to think that he’s happy knowing he still brings happiness to people with the shows he made.
Here’s to you, Raymond. Still remembered, missed, and loved.