When it was announced that Raymond Burr was selected to play Perry Mason a number of critics voiced their skepticism. They reasoned that Burr was so typecast playing villains that viewers would have a difficult time accepting him in the Mason role. And there was some justification to their point. Burr had made a career playing heavies, and were not talking average bad guys here, he had played some of the most vicious and vile characters appearing on the screen in the film noir era. He played pimps, commies, drug smugglers, sadistic killers, and seemed to be always beating up women. Burr often tipped the scales at 300 lbs or more adding to his menacing screen presence. He was so ensconced as a heavy that he would show up in comedies, almost as a parody of himself. Actors with less a portfolio than Burr’s have been relegated to career villains.
So for many, it was a surprise when Erle Stanley Gardner gave his nod for Burr to play Perry Mason. For Burr to be selected was even more surprising when you consider the competition for the role. Nearly 100 actors tested for the part, including Efrem Zimbalist Jr, Mike Conners, Jeff Chandler, Gerald Mohr, Fred MacMurray and Richard Eagan. Burr won out, and Gardner stuck by his decision, even though some Hollywood critics didn’t think much of it.
The circumstances of how Burr was selected, against seemingly long odds, has become a topic of much discussion among the many aspects of the show. The storey has long been circulated that Gardner, upon seeing Burr enter the room on his screen test, jumped to his feet and proclaimed he had found his Perry. Other versions and stories abound. If you read Burr’s bio on Wikipedia for example, the storey goes that Gardner was present when Burr was testing for the role of Hamilton Burger and William Talman was auditioning for the Mason role. Gardner had them change roles and instantly found what he was looking for. Since there seems to be no attributable sources for any of this, it leaves much to doubt. The storey of Gardner’s epiphanies could have been perpetuated by Gardner himself, after Burr had become successful in the role, in order to enhance his image, . It seems illogical that Gardner would have made such a snap decision with so much at stake, but these are the things that legends are made of. We do know Burr was invited to test for the part of Hamilton Burger. He also managed to get an audition for the title role as well. His screen test took place on May 24th, 1956. From there the storey is whatever version you want to believe. But there may be another angle to this storey.
In 1955 Burr appeared in the low budget film noir Please Murder Me. In the film Burr plays a defense attorney defending Angela Lansbury. Could this long forgotten film have been a crucial element in helping Burr get the role of Perry? Is his performance in the film the inspiration for Perry Mason? Did Gardner see this film and make his decision before Burr’s audition? These are interesting questions and the circumstances seem to point that there was a connection. Here you have the film, released in March, 1956, less than two month before Burr auditioned for the Mason role. If you watch Burr in the film you find his actions and mannerisms are nearly identical to those he employed during the run of Perry Mason. He’s playing the same type of role in what amounts to an hour screen test.. It’s inconceivable that the producers or Gardner himself would not have taken the time to view it. And, the producers might have taken much more from this film inasmuch as courtroom style closely matches what would follow on Perry Mason. The scenes from Please Murder Me look as if they came right out of a Perry Mason episode. Is it a coincident that J. Paul Popkin, the production manager on Please Murder Me, would have the same job on 35 episodes during the first two years of Perry Mason? Al C. Ward, the screenwriter on Please Murder Me, was a writer on five early episodes of the show as well. And yes, that is Lee Miller playing a police officer, a role he would play on Perry Mason in addition to being Burr’s stand in. There certainly seems to be a connection here.
Raymond Burr was appearing in a lot of films in the late 40s and early 50s but not getting much credit. Here are theater posters from two films in which Burr had significant parts, but as you can see his name is far from prominent.
Before Perry Mason Raymond Burr was a character actor, albeit a very busy one. His ability to play bad guys so convincingly made him much in demand for tough guy roles . In 1948 alone, he appeared in nine films and another six the following year. At the same time Burr was working in radio. He had a regular role on Jack Webb’s radio program Pat Novak For Hire in 1949 and the following year he played Webb’s boss in Dragnet. He was concurrently appearing on a number of other radio shows as well. In the year before Perry Mason he had the leading role in the western radio drama, Fort Laramie.
It could be argued that Burr was the first actor to achieve stardom through television.
By the series fourth season Burr was as popular, well known -
In Pat Novak For Hire, Burr played Police Inspector Helman and nemesis to private detective Webb. The snappy dialog between Burr and Webb, delivered in a staccato manner is a work of art.
In these scenes from Please Murder Me, Raymond Burr had already developed his courtroom style that viewers would come to expect as Perry Mason.