As a Canadian-born actor, it seems a little ironic that Raymond Burr would wind up playing the iconic American defense attorney Perry Mason. But, as one who grew up watching Burr as the good guy lawyer who (almost) never lost a case, it was shocking for me to discover that his film career started in villainous roles.
To an extent, Burr’s career was hobbled or defined (depending on how you look at it) by his obesity. Burr once told a journalist, “I was just a fat heavy. I split the heavy parts with Bill Conrad. We were both in our twenties playing much older men. … I was drowned, beaten, stabbed and all for my art. But I knew I was horribly overweight. I lacked any kind of self-esteem. At 25 I was playing the fathers of people older than me.”
Perhaps this accounts for the seething ferocity in Raymond Burr’s performances. And, in another ironic twist, it was in the movie A Place in the Sun that Burr made a heretofore rare appearance on the right side of the law—as a prosecutor.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the movie, first be advised that this post is full of spoilers, okay? This film is about a young man, George Eastwood (played by Montgomery Clift), who comes from the wrong (aka, poor) side of the wealthy Eastwood family. He’s an ambitious guy, who ends up working as an entry-level manager at the Eastman Company factory and hopes to rise in the ranks there. Unfortunately, George falls in love with rich “society girl” Angela Vickers (played by the drop-dead gorgeous Elizabeth Taylor)—she serves as the physical embodiment of all his material desires—but he
knocks up impregnates one of the factory workers he manages, Alice Tripp (played dowdily by Shelley Winters)—who serves as unwelcome reminder of his poverty-stricken roots.
The news of Alice’s pregnancy and her insistence that she and George marry, because it’s the 1950s and abortion is
for sluts nearly impossible to get without dying dangerous, pushes him toward a deadly solution—to murder Alice. And he almost does this. In fact, George goes through all the motions of doing so, going so far as to plan on taking her out in a boat and drowning her. But he changes his mind at the last moment. A moment too late, as it turns out, because Alice Tripp lives up to her name, figures out he doesn’t love her, stands up in the boat, and upsets it, thus drowning herself through her own clumsiness.
The inevitable result is that George is caught in a completely unjust trap of his own making. And he ends up arrested for murder and tried for it. Raymond Burr plays the small, but memorable, part of the prosecutor and he really pulls out the stops. His aggressive questioning of the accused culminates in a scene where he smashes an oar down on a boat with such force, it smacks of the future courtroom theatrics of the part he’d end up playing later—only for the other side.
However, Raymond Burr’s performance in A Place in the Sun caught the eye of Gail Patrick and her husband Cornell Jackson, who considered casting Burr in the part of (ironically!) Hamilton Burger in the Perry Mason series. Can you imagine? 🙂