The Day I Realized the ‘Perry Mason Guy’ Started as a Bad Guy

Raymond Burr in ‘Raw Deal’

My first exposure to Raymond Burr was in his role as the Symbol of Justice that was Perry Mason. As a child, I was awed at his ability to dig the truth out of people by careful questioning and put them in their place, as needed. And I use to think, “I could never be a lawyer. I’m not that clever.”

But I was just a kid and never considered that Mason’s cleverness came from the minds of the show’s writers. Even so, the ferocity of Burr’s personality brought the character to life in stories that combined law with elements of what I’d come to learn was film noir. Hardboiled detective style film noir, that is.

And, as a child, I had no idea that Burr’s intense performances had served him in other (very different) roles. In fact, Burr’s dark energy, sonorous voice, and his obesity (let’s just call it what it was) gave him not just the perfect set of traits to play Mason, but created a high demand for his services as a B-movie heavy villain.

My first taste of Raymond Burr as film noir’s icon of villainy may (arguably) have been his role in Rear Window, but the first one to make an indelible impression on me was Raw Deal. Not only does Burr channel all his energy toward portraying an extremely vicious and controlling man, he does it so well that it shocked me to compare that guy with my childhood memories of him playing Mason the Determined Friend of the Underdog.

In Raw Deal, Burr plays a sadistic criminal named Rick Coyle. Our protagonist, Joe Sullivan, took a post-heist rap for Coyle. After he breaks out of the joint escapes the prison, Joe expects Coyle to pay him his share of the $50,000 spoils. Little does he know that Coyle has arranged his escape early release, intent on making sure he’s too dead to collect he no longer has reason to collect, because he’s dead.

The part that truly seals the deal on Burr’s performance in this film is the menace in his voice and the slightly-mad look in his eyes, as he flings a glass of flaming brandy in his mistress’ face. Punishment for the capitol offense of accidentally spilling a drink on him.

Much of the effect is due to creative cinematography, in which the brandy is tossed at the camera, i.e., the audience. This instills in the viewer greater empathy with the hapless mistress. But the offhand way Coyle admonishes her after the fact (“She should have been more careful.”) is stated so coldly. And the words suggest a subtext that goes well beyond clumsiness with beverages.

Thus, this is the film that seared the image of Raymond Burr as criminal psychopath into my mind.

The Many Faces of Raymond Burr (Images: The Everett Collection)

Now that I’ve become more familiar with Burr’s early work, I am doubly (triply?) impressed with his talent. This led me to check out his Wikipedia entry, where I found out so many things I never knew about him.

And, FWIW, here’s a quote that’s really stuck with me:

“I was just a fat heavy,” Burr told journalist James Bawden. “I split the heavy parts with Bill Conrad. We were both in our twenties playing much older men. I never got the girl but I once got the gorilla in a 3-D picture called Gorilla at Large. I menaced Claudette Colbert, Lizabeth Scott, Paulette Goddard, Anne Baxter, Barbara Stanwyck. Those girls would take one look at me and scream and can you blame them? 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.”

I ask you … look at these eyes. Is this man not handsome?

TV actor Raymond Burr, who plays “Perry Mason,” is shown, 1959. (AP Photo)

But for a few extra pounds, Burr could have been a matinee idol.

Submitted for your consideration as part of The Great Villain Blogathon 2019! hosted by Speakeasy, Shadows and Satin, and Silver Screenings. 🙂

Perhaps I should have waited for this blogathon! 🙂

Coming soon!

PS: Here are 11 things you might not know about Raymond Burr.

PLUS: The 5 best Raymond Burr movies of the 1950s.

This entry was posted in Actors, Blogathan, Film Noir and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to The Day I Realized the ‘Perry Mason Guy’ Started as a Bad Guy

  1. Kristina says:

    Perfect example of nice actors making the best villains, Burr was so good as a baddie and had a lot of meaty villain roles. Great choice and post, thanks for being part of the blogathon!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Paddy Lee says:

    You made me chuckle, although Rick Coyle is certainly no laughing matter.

    My daughter was maybe 12 when I showed her Rear Window and she responded “Are you sure that’s the Chief?”, referring to Ironside. How that Raymond Burr liked to confound and delight us with his talent.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You’re so right – Burr is a handsome devil and he could easily have been a matinee idol.

    I like him as the heavy in his earlier roles. He was the Bad Guy in a film with Claudette Colbert – I’m too lazy to do an online search – where she’s an undercover cop trying to break up a drug ring in Mexico. Raymond B. had lot of menace in that film, just like he does in Rear Window.

    Great choice for the blogathon!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I enjoyed your write-up, Debbi — what a great choice! I’ve seen Raw Deal several times, but that scene with Burr and the flaming drink is the main thing I remember. Like you, I first met Burr as Perry Mason, and I was floored by his many bad-boy noir roles. He was so good! Also enjoyed the list of things we didn’t know about Burr. Thanks so much for joining the blogathon!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Debbi says:

      Oh, yeah. That flaming drink scene … makes an impression! 🙂

      It’s nice to know there’s someone else out there who’s had a similar experience with watching Burr.

      He was amazing!


  5. Carol says:

    God I love this movie. One of the best noirs and you are so right about his character!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. mercurie80 says:

    Like many in my generation, I knew Raymond Burr as Chief Robert Ironside on Ironside and, of course, as Perry Mason in reruns of Perry Mason. It shocked me when I first saw Rear Window and he was the villain! I’m not sure what was the first film noir I saw in which he was a bad guy (I’m thinking it was The Blue Gardenia, but I can’t be sure), but it was even more of an eye opener than Rear Window has been. Raw Deal definitely features one of his best villainous roles. Rick Coyle is an outright psychopath and a very frightening one. Never mind Mr. Burr’s size, he could be menacing just using his eyes!

    Anyway, I have to agree with you. Raymond Burr was handsome. I think he could easily have been a matinee idol if he had lost weight!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Debbi says:

      I know what you mean about Rear Window. I couldn’t quite believe Burr as a villain, either. Despite his incredible ability to emanate menace.

      His performance in Raw Deal just blew me away.

      One of these days, I simply must see The Blue Gardenia. Sounds awesome.


  7. talkchatter says:

    Raymond Burr was a very accomplished actor . His expressive face helped alot.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. J-Dub says:

    The “Perry Mason Guy” title sounds like something I call “reverse type-casting.” This happens when you discover the works of certain actors in reverse order. Examples include Buddy Ebsen…when you see him in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” the first thing you said was “Hey, that’s Jed Clampett!” It also applies to Raymond Bailey…when he shows up in “Picnic,” you think “Hey, that’s Mr. Drysdale!”

    Yeah, I watched a lot of “Beverly Hillbillies” as a kid…don’t judge me 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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