Raymond Burr perfected this clever trick to deliver all those Perry Mason monologues
Here's the real reason why the defense attorney always looked so pensive.
Perhaps more than anyone else on TV, Raymond Burr was expected to memorize an impossible amount of dialog in his iconic role as Perry Mason. From 1957 to 1966, they filmed 271 episodes, and each one demanded longwinded arguments from the famous TV defense attorney. So Burr came up with a trick to help him cut out all that memorization.
According to actor James Hong (who famously played David Lo Pan in Big Trouble in Little China and appeared in two Perry Mason episodes), when he was on the show, Hong basically treated his guest part as an opportunity to take a master class in reading cue cards, watching Burr, who'd perfected a clever technique. “He had all these scenes with long dialog," Hong said. "And so he didn’t want to have to memorize it, day after day, in the TV series, which is a burden.”
Hong explained in an interview with the American Archive of Television that Burr would position the actor he was talking to onscreen, then mark that position, move that actor offscreen and place the cue cards just where the actor had been. Then, he'd sneakily read from the cue cards and mask it with all those pensive eye movements the actor is so well-known for from the show.
Who knew it was really just a smart way to cover up the cue cards Burr was imperceptibly reading on air? Hong said, "He perfected that technique of reading the cue card with the minimum movement of his eyes and that thinking quality, constantly thinking and reading as if he is talking to the person offstage, off-camera. And he was able to do that, with feeling!”
All this time, we'd assumed that Raymond Burr was the consummate professional with an actual ironclad memory for detail that helped him never flub a line. In reality, he already had a full decade of experience in the movies before his TV gig, so we should've known that an experienced actor like Burr just already knew how to game the system so he wouldn't have to waste so much time memorizing lines. You can hardly blame him, even if he is a little, shall we say, guilty — of taking a tiny acting shortcut.