Burr, in the closet during TV career, comes to life in new book

  • by Ed Walsh
  • Wednesday June 25, 2008
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Robert Benevides, the longtime partner of the late actor<br>Raymond Burr, at the Raymond Burr Vineyards in Healdsburg. Photo: Ed Walsh
Robert Benevides, the longtime partner of the late actor
Raymond Burr, at the Raymond Burr Vineyards in Healdsburg. Photo: Ed Walsh

The longtime partner of Raymond Burr says he has not seen the new book out on the late actor but is planning on writing his own tome about his life with Burr.

Robert Benevides, 78, told the Bay Area Reporter that he is working with a writer to tell the story of his 33-year relationship with the TV legend.

"[Burr's] relatives have died off, so I'm not concerned about offending them," Benevides said.

Burr, best known for his role as TV's Perry Mason, died with Benevides at his side in 1993 in the home the couple shared in Healdsburg, in Sonoma County's wine country. Burr was once TV's highest paid actor and through syndication, continues to be one of the most recognizable celebrities in the world.

The new book, Hiding in Plain Sight by New York Post TV writer Michael Starr, details Burr's life as a closeted gay actor. It also unveils the lies that he and publicists created to help deflect attention from his homosexuality and to paint a more sympathetic image of himself.

Benevides told the B.A.R. he turned down the author's requests to be interviewed because he wanted to tell his story in his own book. Benevides said that although he has not seen the book he thought it was probably a "hatchet job."

Aside from accounts of Burr being difficult to work with at times during the Ironside TV series (1967-1975), there is little to back Benevides's concern of the book being a hatchet job.

"I don't think the book is negative at all," Starr told the B.A.R. in an interview last week. "I did come out liking [Burr] very much after writing this book."

Starr, 46, is not gay and told the B.A.R. that working on the book left him with an understanding of what gay people in Burr's era felt they had to go through to hide their sexuality.

"I really had a lot of empathy for what it must have taken for Raymond Burr to have to keep up this �" for lack of a better word �" this charade about his personal life," Starr said.

Burr was only briefly married once in 1948, but Starr noted that Burr and his publicists concocted a biography that included two other wives and a dead son who never existed.

Starr added, "If [Benevides] ever sees the book, he will see that it's a very fair job. No finger pointing because there's really no one to point the finger at. It's more of why he had to invent these stories and why he felt the need to do that."

Starr spent two years working on the book and interviewed 30 people who knew the actor. Among those Starr interviewed was Barbara Hale, who played Della Street in the Perry Mason series. Fifteen years after Burr's death, Benevides told the B.A.R. that he remains close to Hale, who most recently came to visit him during his birthday celebration in February.

The book details Benevides's relationship with Burr but it contains no pictures of Benevides.

"That's one of my regrets," Starr told the B.A.R. "I just could not find a photo that was in the public domain that I could use without being sued. I do think there should be a picture of Robert in there."

No choice

Although Benevides did not talk with Starr, he is quoted in the book through interviews he gave to other journalists, including Andrew Mersmann of the gay travel magazine, Passport. That interview was published in an article in October 2005.

The Passport interview was not the first time Benevides spoke about his relationship with Burr. Five years earlier, in November 2000, Benevides first talked with the B.A.R. about his life with the actor.

Benevides told the B.A.R. that Burr believed he had no choice but to hide his sexuality if he wanted to continue to work.

"He was very old fashioned in that the only way that he ever felt that he could be a leading man was to be unbesmirched and that he would not be accepted any other way," he said. "And it�s true. In Hollywood, they are very homophobic. Although it's basically run by gay people, even the gays have their homophobia. They're still dealing with the same kind of idea that you can't be gay and play a husband. It is supposed to be acting but you don't get that kind of mentality yet. It may come. It may not."

The couple's relationship began in 1960, Benevides said. Benevides told the B.A.R. that they first met when he delivered a script to Burr's home. Benevides worked as an actor and once played the part of a casino pit boss in a Perry Mason episode. With Burr's support, Benevides decided to quit acting. Burr hired him to write for Perry Mason and he eventually worked as Burr's producer.

Benevides now runs Raymond Burr Vineyards in Healdsburg, which includes a tasting room and a greenhouse that contains orchid plants that were one of Burr's passions. The picturesque property sits on 40 acres and regularly hosts a number of special events. Benevides noted that he will be hosting a same-sex wedding next month for his stock broker and his partner.

The 15-year anniversary of Burr's death from cancer is in September. Burr would have been 91. With gay marriages now legal in California, would Burr have married Benevides today?

Benevides told the B.A.R. that it would be doubtful that they would, in part, because Burr was such a private person, but he added that it wouldn't be totally out of character for Burr to do so.

"It's hard to say because things have changed a lot," he said. "But maybe, because he was very adventurous, too. So he might have done it."

Political stand

Starr's book details that unlike other closeted celebrities who shun any involvement in gay issues, Burr campaigned against Colorado's anti-gay Amendment 2, which voters approved in 1992. The law never took effect because of a court injunction. The United States Supreme Court eventually ruled that the amendment was unconstitutional.

Starr explained that Burr was not outed by the press because of a number of factors. Before Perry Mason's debut in 1957, when Burr was 40, he had acted in a number of movies, usually as a menacing heavy, but never as a leading man. Starr told the B.A.R. that that helped him slip under the radar screen. Burr also benefited from a longtime friendship he had with gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, whose son, William Hopper, played private detective William Drake in the Perry Mason series. Finally, Starr added that the studio system was able to control the press by actively denying access to publications that didn't toe the line.

The closest Burr came to being outed, according to Starr's book, was in New York in 1960. Burr met Ray Reynolds in the Greenwich Village bar where Reynolds worked as a bartender. Reynolds also regularly performed as drag queen "Libby Reynolds." Starr wrote that Reynolds said he and Burr had a one-night stand and that he sold information about the fling to Confidential magazine. But instead of outing the TV star, Confidential printed a "sanitized" version of the story that had Burr kissing Reynolds in the lobby of a hotel while Reynolds was in drag, implying that Burr had haplessly mistaken Reynolds for a woman. After kissing, Reynolds ran out of the hotel and left in a cab. Starr wrote that the magazine likely reached a "cash compromise" with Burr to change the story.

Benevides said he didn't know anything about the Confidential magazine story but he strongly disputed an account in Starr's book and other media reports that Burr died leaving him with an estate valued at $30 million. Benevides said that just the opposite was true, that Burr died owing about a half million dollars to the government.

Burr's niece challenged his will but a judge denied her claim in October 1994, just over a year after Burr died. In a 1994 article about the lawsuit, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat reported, "Tabloids estimated Burr's estate at $30 million, but lawyers on both sides have stated they don't think it's anywhere near that amount."

The paper added, "Burr left most of his estate in a trust that is private and not subject to probate proceedings. Benevides is the beneficiary of the trust. Thomas Cariveau, the special administrator of Burr's estate, said the portion of the estate that is subject to probate consists of about $100,000 in residuals from the Perry Mason TV shows, but more than $1.6 million in claims have been filed against it."

Benevides told the B.A.R. in the 2000 interview in his Healdsburg home, "At the end of his life he was very upset because of the hole he was leaving me in because there's a big mortgage on this house and there still is."

Benevides said that Burr often gave away large sums of money to friends and charities and didn't have investments. Benevides explained that Burr lost a lot of money after he invested in apartment buildings in Los Angeles and that soured him from making other investments.

In his first interview with the B.A.R. , Benevides poignantly recalled his last minutes with Burr on September 12, 1993. Burr was 76. He was dying of pancreatic cancer and insisted on being in his home in Healdsburg rather than in a hospital.

"He was probably a fifth of his body weight," said Benevides. "He was down to nothing. He didn't look like Raymond at all.

"When he was dying, I held onto his hand. And I told the doctor, 'I think we've lost him.'"

At the end of that interview, Benevides stood up and glanced at a portrait of Burr, as he remembered him most, dressed simply in what he usually wore when he wasn't in front of a camera: denim pants, a white shirt, and a denim jacket.

"Needless to say, I think of him every day," he said. "It's a hole that will never be filled."

He added, "If you have just one person that loves you that unconditionally in your life, you are very lucky."

For more information on Raymond Burr Vineyards, visit www.raymondburrvineyards.com. Michael Starr's book, Hiding in Plain Sight, is published by Applause Books ($24.95), and is available online or in bookstores.