Raymond Burr had a key role in the very first episode of Dragnet
1951 was a breakout year for the future Perry Mason.
When you think of Raymond Burr, you think of Perry Mason. How could you not? Burr portrayed the ace defense attorney on television for 36 years, from 1957 until his death in 1993. In the span of time, he carved out other characters for himself, such as the wheelchair-bound crime-solver Ironside.
But long before all that, Burr was a hard-working actor taking roles where he could find them in black-and-white productions. Early on, he was pegged as a tough guy, typically a crook in noir flicks. Burr made his debut in a prison film, San Quentin (1946). He lit fires as a pyromaniac in Raw Deal (1948). He was a Communist agent with a Lenin goatee in Walk a Crooked Mile (1948).
Burr booked loads of films in the years immediately following World War II. He also turned up in tons of radio programs. In 1951, his television career took off with a flurry of small roles. He popped up on now-forgotten anthology series such as Chesterfield Sound Off Time, Stars Over Hollywood and The Bigelow Theatre. His most notable role came on a crime series. This time, Burr was one of the good guys.
Like Burr, Jack Webb honed his acting craft over the radio airwaves. In fact, in 1946–47, both Webb and Burr had roles on a radio show called Pat Novak, for Hire. In 1949, Webb created his own radio program, Dragnet. Burr joined the cast, too, playing chief of detectives Ed Backstrand. The cases of Sgt. Joe Friday clicked with audiences.
As fledgling television networks began to look to radio for programming ideas, the popular Dragnet series made the leap from radio to small screen. Joe Friday's monotone delivery worked just as well coming out of Webb's mug in black-and-white.
Webb brought his old radio colleague Burr along to television, too. Dragnet premiered on NBC on December 16, 1951. Burr played a lead role, that of Deputy Chief Thad Brown. The debut episode, "The Human Bomb," revolved around a man trying to blow up City Hall. For added realism, the production filmed at City Hall in Los Angeles.
"This guy knows what he's doing," Deputy Chief Brown notes. "He's no pushover."
Friday asks Brown for a plan to deal with the bomber.
"Well, he's in there and he's got a bomb," Burr's character says. "Take it away from him." Dum-de-dum-dum.
Burr was billed simply as "Ray Burr," befitting his hard-boiled performance. He might have been on more episodes, had it not been for the theater. In her book Raymond Burr: A Film, Radio and Television Biography, Ona L. Hill writes, "Raymond had to leave Dragnet after the first episode was on the air because he was playing Henry VIII in Anne of the Thousand Days."
Had it not been for Henry VIII, Burr might have become a regular fixture on Dragnet. Brown or Mason. Either way, he ended up bringing people to justice in downtown Los Angeles.
Now in the public domain, "The Human Bomb" can be watched on the Internet Archive.