The oldest of three children, Raymond Burr was born to William Johnston Burr, an Irish hardware salesman, and his wife Minerva (Smith), a concert pianist and music teacher.
While still young, his father moved the family to China after he secured a position as a trade agent. When the family returned to Canada, Raymond’s parents divorced; his mother then took him to California, where she raised him with the aid of his grandparents. Raymond would eventually take jobs to support his mother, younger sister and younger brother.
Burr served in the US Navy during World War II. However, he was sent home after being shot in the stomach. Soon after this, Burr made his film debut in ‘San Quentin’ (1946).
Other film appearances included ‘You’re Never Too Young‘(1955), ‘Please Murder Me‘(1956), ‘Affair in Havana‘ (1957) and ‘Desire in the Dust‘(1960), to name but a few. He had roles in around 90 films before making his debut in the world of TV.
Burr emerged as a prolific television actor in the 1950s.He made his debut on an episode of ‘The Amazing Dr. Malone‘. The part led to other roles in shows such as ‘Dragnet‘ (1951), ‘Chesterfield Sound Off Time‘ (1951) and ‘Four Star Playhouse‘ (1953).
However, his big break came in 1956 when he auditioned for the title role of ‘Perry Mason‘, a new courtroom drama, a part which eventually became the role Burr was most closely identified with in the public mind. He won two Emmy awards for his performances.
Between 1967 and 1975, Burr moved to CBS and assumed the role of paraplegic San Francisco Chief of Detectives Robert T. Ironside. This gave Burr another hit series for which he won two Golden Globes and six Emmys. He is also remembered for his film roles in ‘Godzilla: King of the Monsters!’ (1956) and ‘Godzilla‘ (1984).
His later projects included the short-lived TV show ‘Kingston Confidential‘ (1976), a cameo in ‘Airplane 2: The Sequel‘ (1982), and 26 two-hour ‘Perry Mason‘ specials, filmed between 1986 and 1993.
Burr’s official biography states that he had been previously married, but both his wives and one child had died. In 1942, while working in London, he met Scottish actress Annette Sutherland, and that year they married.
Shortly before her death, Burr received a letter that Sutherland was working in Spain and would return to England and then America; Sutherland then boarded a flight from Lisbon to London and it has been widely reported that Sutherland then perished on BOAC Flight 777-A, the same flight that claimed actor Leslie Howard.
However, Burr’s biographer Ona L. Hill writes that “no one by the name of Annette Sutherland Burr was listed as a passenger on the plane”.
It is not known if this marriage ever existed. In the late 1950s, Burr was believed to be in a romantic relationship with actress Natalie Wood, with her agent sending the pair on public dates to raise her profile. It also acted as a cover for Burr’s true sexual orientation.
In 1958, Raymond Burr started living with former actor Robert Benevides. They remained together, as both a couple and as business partners, until Burr’s death from cancer in 1993.
During the time spent with Benevides, Burr turned his interest in orchids to a business called Sea God Nurseries. Over 20 years, the pair opened nurseries in Fiji, Hawaii and California and cultivated 1,500 new orchids, with one named the Barbara Hale orchid, after his Perry Mason co-star.
They also cultivated Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Port grapes at Burr’s farm holdings in California. Burr was also known for being a great philanthropist donating his salaries from his ‘Perry Mason’ films to charity. He also fostered 26 children through Save The Children or the Foster Parent’s Scheme, with many of the youngsters in need of medical help.
Burr had fallen ill during the filming of his last ‘Perry Mason’ special and was told he had liver cancer that was inoperable. Burr held several farewell parties before his death on 12 September 1993 at the age of 76. Burr was buried with his parents at the Fraser Cemetery in Canada.
On 1 October 1993, 600 family members and friends including Benevides attended a memorial service at the Pasadena Playhouse, where he had made his acting debut 50 years earlier. His friends were invited to sit in a director’s chair with his name on it when paying tribute to Burr.