Raymond Burr was an unlikely choice to play Perry Mason, and toiled to prove everyone wrong

"It's been six days a week, 18 to 20 hours a day," Burr said. "I just don't have time to eat."

Read to Me

Perry Mason is a television classic, but at its inception, it was a risk.

You know how you feel about reboots? Well, remember, Perry Mason was a reboot. The legal crime drama was also something rather new for TV — and it was quite expensive. (One of the most expensive shows on TV at the time, with a budget in the six figures for episodes.) Remember, the medium of television was still fairly new, and seen as a far cry from the art of cinema. Well, Perry Mason aimed to change that. In fact, the network and trades considered Perry Mason to be a series of "movies."

CBS thought of Perry Mason as a "new hour-long 'movie quality' film," Hollywood columnist Erskine Johnson reported in early 1957, months before the premiere. It was a new model of "big, expensive hour-long TV movies based on the weekly series idea." Which is a roundabout way of saying "quality television."

So that was a risk. To up the stakes, the show cast an unlikely actor as the lead. Yes, Raymond Burr was seen as a wild choice. The industry had typecast him as a bad guy.

No More the Villain — He's On Our Side Now, a Detroit Free Press headline declared. The producers were reluctant to book him as Perry — they saw him as the adversary, Hamilton Burger.

Burr insisted on auditioning for Perry, though he did agree to test as Burger, too. The producers were still not convinced. Not that it mattered. One key person backed Burr: Erle Stanley Gardner, the creator of the character. Gardner saw Burr in the role and simply said, "That's Perry Mason."

Burr had done his homework.

"I thought I'd read all your books but I keep finding more," Burr told Gardner, then asked, "How many have you written?"

"I lost count after the first 200," Garner said.

All those books gave fans a bias of what Perry Mason looked like, what he sounded like. 

Burr was a workaholic and punished himself to make the show fantastic — and to make himself the best Perry Mason possible.

"There have been over 100 million Perry Mason mysteries sold in the United States alone," Burr noted. "That's a lot of people with preconceived notions about the man."

"It's been six days a week, 18 to 20 hours a day," Burr told Detroit Free Press

Every article focused on his weight. "He Lost 100 Pounds to Take the Role," Detroit Free Free declared in large print. Those bygone 100 lbs. were mentioned in every article. "His six-foot-two frame adds poundage faster than a dowager on a bon-bon kick," columnist Hal Humphrey cattily wrote

"I just don't have time to eat," Burr explained to the NEA in 1957.

He awoke at 2:30 a.m. to arrive at the studio at 3:30 a.m., when he would begin his makeup and script studies. If he was lucky, he might snag a cat nap before the cameras started rolling at 8 a.m. 

"It's killed any other existence for me," Burr said, "and it may kill me." He hoped to keep it up for "three years" so that he could retire rich. "But, mister, I'll never do it again," he promised. Of course, the show ran for nine seasons. And Burr did everything but retire.


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Wiseguy 19 days ago
The article is a bit misleading concerning how many Perry Mason stories that Erle Stanley Garder actually wrote. He wrote 82 Perry Mason novels and 3 short stories, published between 1933 and 1973 (the last two published posthumously). Two reboot novels (with characters from the later TV movies such as Paul Drake, Jr.) by Thomas Chastain were published in 1989-90. Gardner also wrote six short novels concerning a lawyer named Ken Corning during 1932-33, a precursor to the Perry Mason character (published in "Honest Money and Other Short Novels" by ESG).
AgingDisgracefully 20 days ago
I liked the final scene of the final episode.
Perry, Della and Paul were preparing their next case...
I agree, but I did not like what they did to Berger in that episode. He was far too caustic. He would have had more respect for Perry by that time.
Wiseguy Lacey 19 days ago
Although some early published Perry Mason novels spelled it "Berger," it had been changed to "Burger" a long time before the series.
SteveThames 21 days ago
He stopped appearing on the Tonight Show after Johnny Carson mercilessly taunted him about his weight; despicable move by Carson
Tlor 21 days ago
Anyone watch the old black and white films with Warren Williams and Mary Astor? it is definitely worth a watch, a different scenario between Perry and Della. They made 6 of them starting with the Howling Dog. They are very good!
IdaKnow56 22 days ago
I love Perry Mason! I also love Raymond Burr, ever since I saw him in the American version of Godzilla, where they dubbed him into the movie and made sure the Japanese actors he interacted with kept their backs to the camera so no one would know they were not the original actors. The ones whose faces you saw were local actors; probably hired because they spoke English and saved the studio the expense of dubbing their lines. BTW Raymond Burr starred in another crime drama, after he put on a bit of weight. All I can remember is one particular scene in a hospital, where one of the actors points to his big belly and comments, "You're just in time, it looks like it's gonna arrive any minute." Can anyone remember the title of this move or TV drama?
jonnieking IdaKnow56 21 days ago
idaKnow56...
The series you're thinking of is "Ironside" in which he was wheelchair bound from 1967-1965 on NBC.
Wiseguy jonnieking 19 days ago
Obviously that should be 1967-75. But I don't recall that line at all.
JHP 22 days ago
to all that think "I hate" Me-Tv ; Raymond Burr aka Perry is my 2nd fav show

all the characters are stellar

my #1 is Svengoolie (hands down)
Mike 22 days ago
Perry Mason was in production for a decade - 1956 (when the pilot was made) through 1966.
Several things to remember:
- If you're my age ('50s kid), maybe you remember how low-definition TV sets were in the Fifties and Sixties; seeing the same black-and-white films on a digital flatscreen is the difference between night and day.
- Also, remember that these shows were not intended to be shown every day, but once a week, and over a period of years (if they were lucky enough to run a long time).
Thus, while Raymond Burr was slowly regaining his old weight, Ray Collins (in his seventies) and William Talman (who was ill with cancer) were losing theirs.
Compare early episodes in which Burr and Talman appear to be about the same size and build, to later ones where Burr seems to half again as large as Talman; a ten-year passage of time will do that to people.
CaptainDunsel Mike 21 days ago
"seeing the same black-and-white films on a digital flatscreen is the difference between night and day."
And here I always thought that the difference between night and day was a title card and a gray lens filter!
Toonhead 22 days ago
Wow! A new Perry set in the 30’s! I never heard about it! I guess I don’t get out enough. Who starred, dish, people, dish! Enlighten this traveler when is tired of “new” TV! Jeez, I still can’t believe I missed it!
Wiseguy Toonhead 19 days ago
It was first announced long ago (perhaps almost a decade) first to be starring Robert Downey, Jr. and then Matthew Rhys. A second season is being planned.
Toonhead Wiseguy 19 days ago
Whoa! I gotta get out more! One more question please. Where would I look to see it? Network, etc...,thanks
StrayCat 22 days ago
As this article mentioned Burr was portrayed in the movies as this hulking heavy. The bad guy with the bushy eyebrows and sunken dark eyes. He was required to lose a whole lot of weight for the role and was also required to keep it off. However, as we all know his weight slowly returned over the seasons, but by then the show was so popular nobody mentioned this weight requirement anymore.
kimmer 23 days ago
I absolutely love this show...Burr is the original!
Wiseguy kimmer 19 days ago
Several actors played the part before Burr in movies and radio.
kimmer Wiseguy 19 days ago
Yes.. But for me...He is the one and only.
Pilaf kimmer 8 days ago
I agree 100%! No other actor has the authority, gravitas to play Perry Mason. Raymond Burr, William Hopper, William Talman, Barbara Hale & Ray Collins were the perfect team.
Toonhead 23 days ago
One last thing; I still watch twice a day, and after over 60 years it’s still the best courtroom drama ever. Sorry Matlock.
Toonhead 23 days ago
Raymond Burr is was Perry Mason and as good an actor as Robt. Downey Jr. is, (and he’s very good indeed) he ain’t Perry! Vincent D’Onofrio IS! If I misspelled his name , I am very sorry, but he’s the guy!
Wiseguy Toonhead 19 days ago
Although Robert Downey, Jr. was originally supposed to play Mason he remained as producer and cast Matthew Rhys in the role.
Toonhead Wiseguy 19 days ago
Thanks for the info, guy. I can’t believe that I missed it! How long ago did the show/movie appear? I love hearing from all of you, thanks
Pacificsun 23 days ago
I think Raymond Burr had the most incredible work ethic. Yeah, he was chasing his own demons. But it translated into impeccable entertainment for the audience. I don't think he was appreciated nearly enough in his day. And maybe that's what drove him as well, in terms of proving himself.
Andybandit 23 days ago
Raymond Burr played Perry Mason so well. I don't like the new version of Perry Mason.
Adanor 23 days ago
I'm not sure what made the show so expensive. Perry's desk was a table with pegboard sides. The hanging lamp over the table and the 3 horse wall hanging were leftovers from a movie. The same staircase was used many, many times. The same door with the three motifs was also used many times. Almost all the doors were extra wide so presumably they could fit the cameras through. A lot of times they filmed the outdoor scenes in a park, under a tree or just a woody area. In other outdoor scenes, they filmed scenes with the same very lovely staircase. In many of the indoor scenes in rooms, there was the ugliest ever wallpaper -- probably old sets from other shows. So I don't know where the money was spent -- it certainly wasn't the sets.
Pacificsun Adanor 23 days ago
Too funny! But still, I really enjoyed the comment! Thanks for that.

First, they didn't "dolly" the cameras through the set "doorways," All the facades were breakaway, because it wasn't just about the camera shots, but the lighting. And what's fun to notice in any of these classic shows, is how the shadows fall. Once in awhile you'll see a very faint shadow off of what is supposed to be a window with an outdoor view. They also smudged all the shiny pots and points of reflection.

But I digress.

The expenses in most of these high quality series, went to guest stars. And Perry Mason had a flood of them! Just last night they had Walter Pidgeon in a stellar role. Others like Betty Davis and more. They were movie stars, and unless they just wanted to do Perry Mason, their compensation was at the top of the billing. Most series of those times filmed on their own outdoor lots, or nearby parks and county spaces. Even so, shooting on location had it's own expenses. More difficulties with lighting (equals labor expense) and making sure there was enough continuity going on established at those remote sites.

So ... if a series is "going" to save on expenses, a good way is through set design and standard clothing for recurring characters. Simplicity mimicking quality or luxury, was the name of the game.

Series like Columbo (for example) that actually shot all the episodes on location, really capture a feeling of authenticity, because they were real homes. Although the interior effects "may" have been substituted if the owners insisted.
Moverfan Pacificsun 20 days ago
Not all of Columbo was shot on location. He did occasionally go into the precinct house...very occasionally, but he went. (Don't think he ever found his gun, though.)
Adanor Pacificsun 20 days ago
My only question then is why were all of the doors double wide? His office door was a double wide door. It must have been difficult for petite women to make a graceful exit or entrance through that door.
Pacificsun Moverfan 20 days ago
Did you see the episode where he gets an officer to take his gun test! That was pretty funny! No, I don't think we ever saw him holding a gun. But maybe a super-fan out there will point out the episode if so.
Pacificsun Adanor 20 days ago
Well the door that Paul Drake always enters through isn't double-wide. But it is a large door to accommodate his large frame. Same for RB. Also it's actually easier for an actor to make an entrance through a generously sized door, because if you watch closely, there's quite a technique to it. You'll almost never see them turn their back to the camera on their way out. They have a way of turning as the (usually) pull the door closed. Watch next time, and you'll see how they do it. The trick is keeping their face in the shot for as long as they can.
Moverfan Pacificsun 14 days ago
Well, he always said he didn't know where it was whenever somebody--usually his captsin--asked him about it.
Adanor Pacificsun 5 days ago
There was one set that they used multiple times, the opulent house with the dramatic open curving staircase in the two story foyer. Jackson Gillis worked both on Perry Mason and Columbo and you can see Jackson Gillis touches. That staircase was one. Another was getting rid of important documents by burning them in the fireplace.
JeffPaul76 23 days ago
What I would like to know, is what were his ages when Raymond Burr started ''Perry Mason'' and when he finished.
Jeremy JeffPaul76 23 days ago
Well, let see. He was born in 1917, which means he was either 39 - 40 when it started and he was either 48 - 49 when it finished.
justjeff 23 days ago
Burr evidently found more time to eat once Perry Mason became a success... You can see the obvious change to his physique from season-to-season. That's all right. He earned that privilege.

For my money, no one has yet to come up with a competently similar persona to Burr's Perry Mason, and more's the pity. I would love to see a serious and dedicated group of writers, director, producer and cast come up with some new stories - trying to emulate, but not carbon-copy the success of the original series.

It would also be nice if those cast for the parts actually resembled as much as possible the original cast, not just some "pretty faces" or "star names" taking on those roles...

Any idea of whom you'd choose for the parts - and who who be closest-looking to the original characters? Given the current crop in Hollywood, it's kind of hard to find people with a certain "look" - they're all too generically pretty or handsome. There are fewer character actors available than wannabe stars... at least in my unsolicited opinion...
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Pacificsun justjeff 23 days ago
I'm not debating the comment, just adding to it.
Those times were accurate. Good or bad, people smoked. How they did it (holding a cigarette, using it for emphasis, etc. etc..) it was part of the decorum. People dressed that way, for professional encounters. There was a sense of individuality about people. No matter how they would try to recreate Perry Mason in this day, no matter what the costuming and so far, it just wouldn't be the real deal. But only people who were part of that 50's-60's era would understand why.
“Sophisticated costuming...” love that phrase because it is bang on. Recently Della was wearing an amazing little black dress with illusion. Stunning! And yes, there is only one Paul Drake! 🚬
JHP justjeff 22 days ago
happy friday to you:) and a gold nugget of common sense in your reply
Pacificsun justjeff 5 days ago
Well said, you have a lot of "likes." So true about the absence of true character actors (diversity) anymore.

Raymond Burr, Tom Selleck, James Garner, all fit their parts so well. The "were" those characters, not just playing them. I can't think of anyone on TV currently who could fill those shoes. They just don't have the believability factor!!
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