FOR TWO-HOUR TV MOVIE : BURR BACK IN COURT AS PERRY MASON
“Here, take this, would you?” Raymond Burr asked, holding out a tissue box.
But as his visitor reached for it, the burly actor abruptly let go, allowing the box to fall to the floor.
In a bit of histrionics worthy of Perry Mason, the quintessential TV lawyer he portrayed for nine years, Burr was demonstrating why he wouldn’t consider doing another television series.
“If you’re giving something to someone, unless you hand it over all the way, you’re not really giving it to them,” he explained.
And at 68, the former star of “Perry Mason” and “Ironside” says he doesn’t have the strength to give as much as a series demands.
“I’m in the best health I’ve been in 20 years, but I don’t think I’d be alive after three years (of a series),” he said during a recent visit here. “I’m serious. If you want to be a success, you’ve got to lead the other people around.”
That is not to say, however, that he would not play Perry Mason again. In fact, he has. Burr is reunited with Barbara Hale, who played Della Street, the lawyer’s loyal secretary, in “The Return of Perry Mason,” a two-hour TV movie that NBC plans to broadcast Sunday.
“I had always wanted to do a two-hour ‘Perry Mason,’ ” Burr said. “It gave us an opportunity to do all sorts of things we’d never been able to do before. We had to capsule so much in an hour; we never did one of Erle’s (Stanley Gardner) books properly. He filled them with multiple clues and wandering pathways. We had to throw out a lot of that, and we couldn’t do the sort of character delineation that we would have liked.”
The movie, coming 19 years after the series ended its run on CBS, finds Mason as an appellate court judge who is called back to the other side of the bench when Della is accused of murdering the wealthy industrialist for whom she has been working. Mason discovers there are eight other people who had a motive for killing the man. His investigation leads, naturally, to a courtroom confession by the guilty party.
Aiding in the detective work is Paul Drake Jr., son of Mason’s former personal gumshoe, who is said to have passed on. (William Hopper, who played Drake in the original series, died in 1970.) The younger Drake is portrayed by William Katt, the former star of “The Greatest American Hero” and the real-life son of Hale.
Burr, grown heavy and gray but still possessing that distinctive, commanding voice, said he thoroughly enjoyed making the film, which was shot in his native Canada earlier this year. He deemed the script by co-executive producer Dean Hargrove “masterful--it’s just like one of Erle’s books,” and said the production team was first-rate. But he was especially delighted to work with Hale again.
“I tell you, when you have as much affection as I do for Barbara. . . . Well, you don’t often get a chance to knock off 20 years of your life,” he said. “It was just like we’d finished working the day before and started right up again. It was that easy.”
During the long run of “Perry Mason,” Burr and Hale often whiled away the time plotting practical jokes, and Burr said his reputation preceded him to the Canadian location for the new film. So he came up with a twist.
“I kept everyone on pins and needles until the last moment of the last scene of the last day. I let everybody’s imagination run wild with what might happen,” he recalled. And? “My big practical joke on this one was that I did nothing!”
“Perry Mason” ran on CBS from 1957 to 1966 and has been running in syndication ever since, testament to its status as television’s most successful lawyer series. Burr overcame being too closely identified with the character by quickly segueing to “Ironside,” where he played a wheelchair-bound police detective from 1967 to 1975.
But “Perry Mason” lived on, and not always to acclaim. Over the years, many attorneys have blasted it for giving the public a faulty view of what happens in a courtroom, conditioning future jurors to expect that someone would break down on the witness stand and confess to the crime--an act that rarely happens.
Burr dismisses much of the criticism as grandstanding by publicity-hungry lawyers. “I’m not particularly unhappy with anything we did on ‘Mason,’ ” he said, “because every bit of it was within the framework of what could happen in a court in the county of Los Angeles or the state of California.”
He noted that Gardner had been a lawyer himself, and added that when Gardner wasn’t available to advise on a legal procedure or courtroom machination, Burr would consult with a group of six judges he knew. “If even one of them said yes, that was something he would allow in his courtroom, we went ahead and did it,” the actor said.
On balance, he said, he believes “Perry Mason” and TV’s other lawyers have had a much more positive than negative impact by educating the public about the legal process and creating interest in the legal profession.
After “Ironside,” Burr starred in another series for NBC, “Kingston: Confidential,” about an investigative reporter, but it lasted for only 13 episodes in 1977. Since then he has appeared in occasional TV dramas, done a couple of plays and made a handful of movies, including last summer’s “Godzilla II.”
Until 1983, he had been living on his own island, Naitauba, in the Fiji chain, where he had a 930-acre cattle ranch and a coconut farm. He sold it for $2 million and now has a 40-acre spread near Santa Rosa in Northern California, where he says he grows grapes, sheep and orchids.