Monday, January 10, 2011
When I was a kid I used to sulk like hell when my parents put on Perry Mason. The minute I heard the music I knew we were in for what is now known as "adult drama," nothing that could possibly interest a kid. I mean there were philanderers [what the hell was that?] and suspects and long, boring courtroom sequences, and people screaming "I did it, yes I did it" from the witness stand. Nothing to engage the limited attention span of a child.
Years later when I was all grown up I actually enjoyed Perry Mason. I thought some of the stories were clever, and I enjoyed the badinage between Perry, his secretary Della Street, and his buddy-private eye Paul Drake. Then there was the craggy Lt. Tragg and the always-losing district attorney Hamilton Burger.
Paul Drake, played by William Hopper, always flirted mildly with Della ("Hello, beautiful") but he never asked her for a date. Perry and Della had dinner frequently, but Paul was often there, or even Burger or Tragg, and they generally talked about a case. Neither Mason nor Drake were seen very often, if ever, with a female date.
Hmmm ... Paul and Perry? Why not?
I had always heard that William Hopper, Hedda Hopper's son, was gay [which may be just another of those Hollywood rumors, let me make that clear] but I heard nothing about Burr, who also went on to play Ironside in another successful series. After his death, of course, it came out -- pun intended -- that Burr had had a long-time male companion. I finally got around to reading Michael Seth Starr's [don't know anything about this guy, but jeez is that a "gay" name or what?] bio of Burr, Hiding in Plain Sight: The Secret Life of Raymond Burr.
Burr went so far as to fabricate a marriage [there was one genuine short-lived marriage], a deceased son, and military heroism, but on the other hand, he sounds like a kind-hearted man who was a friend for life if he liked someone. "Hamilton Burger" [actor William Tallman] was fired from the show after being caught in a nude party [apparently not a gay one] and Burr rallied to his defense and finally got him reinstated on the show. Plus there was his entertainment tours for servicemen, which he never publicized a la Bob Hope.
Some of the people quoted by Starr make rather ridiculous comments about Burr. There's some nonsense about how he supposedly greeted workmen in a shocking pink bathrobe, and other allegedly "gay" stuff that people think they can get away with because Burr was homosexual. (You can't blame Starr for this if that's what people told him.) As Perry Mason, Ironside, and as various heavies in film noir thrillers [including Hitchcock's classic Rear Window] Burr never came off as dainty or stereotypically effeminate.
Burr may have made some outrageous assertions to cover up his sexual orientation, but [except for one brief period] he didn't use a wife as a beard, but lived with his male lover for a very long time. The one and only time he got political in a gay sense was when celebrities were urged to boycott Colorado because of the state's passage of an anti-gay amendment. Burr didn't agree with the amendment, thank goodness, but he didn't think boycotting the state was the correct way of fighting it.
It's interesting to contemplate what Burr might have been like had he been born into a later generation. For nowadays it is not uncommon for actors, character actors at least, to come out of the closet once they've become established or even before.