|A Stranger After
Burr finally landed his first film role in the 1946 release, San Quentin. He went on to play in more than ninety films in the decade between 1946 and 1956. So he was hardly a newcomer to show business when he was selected to play Perry Mason on TV. He just wasn't well known.
Because he had the scowl, the jowls, the voice, and the demeanor of a villain, Burr was usually cast as the bad guy. Most of his filmsgangster pictures and Westernswere also-rans. However, he did turn in some notable performances, such as the butchering killer in Hitchcock's Rear Window, and the psychopath who stalked Natalie Wood in Cry in the Night. But then there was Godzilla, the 1956 film in which he costarred with Japan's resident monster. (Actually, Burr and 'Zilla never appeared on screen together. Because the film was originally shot for a Japanese audience, Burr was hired to film some extra scenes that were edited into an "Americanized" version of the famous monster movie. Thirty years later, Burr apparently couldn't resist starring in Godzilla '85.)
In several ways, it was his portrayal of the limping prosecuting attorney in the 1951 film, A Place in the Sun, costarring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, that turned out to be Burr's most important role. It was this part that got him a screen test for the Mason series.
Although it's hard to imagine anyone but Burr in the role now, some of executive producer Gail Jackson's initial choices included William Holden, Richard Egan, and Jack Carlson* (of sci-fi movie fame). Another candidate, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., was dismissed by Erle Stanley Gardner as too much of a "pretty boy." In March of 1956, Gardner sent a memo to Jackson, indicating the coveted role was to go to Fred MacMurray. Typically, Gardner had never even heard of MacMurray before, although the actor was a well-known film star at the time. But, for various reasons, plans to cast MacMurray in the lead role later cooled.
When screen tests for the show finally got underway later in 1956, just about every leading man type who was not currently working tried out for the role. Raymond Burr's agent, Lester Salkow, got him a chance to read for the part. In one of the stranger twists in the show's history, Jackson at first saw Burr as a possibility not for the Perry Mason role, but for that of Hamilton Burger!
Burr made a bargain with Jackson. He would test for the Burger role if he could also test for Mason. "All right, we'll humor him," Jackson said at the time. Burr agreed to lose some more weight and went off to study for the parts.
The day he returned to read for the Mason role, Erle Stanley Gardner was on hand in the projection room. The real-life lawyer took one look at Burr and, according to eyewitnesses, jumped to his feet, waving his hands and yelling: "That's Perry Mason!" Burr got the part. Gardner later told him: "In twenty minutes, you captured Perry Mason better than I did in twenty years."
* Webmaster's Note: Ram Anand points out that this should probably be Richard Carlson. There does not appear to be any Jack Carlson "of sci-fi movie fame" whereas Richard Carlson was in many such films.
|The Perry Mason TV Show Book Copyright © 1987 by Brian Kelleher and Diana Merrill. All rights reserved. Presented here by permission of the copyright holder. Commercial use prohibited. Web page Copyright © 1998 D. M. Brockman. Last edited 04 Nov 2004.|