Raymond Burr was an unlikely choice to play Perry Mason, and toiled to prove everyone wrong
"It's been six days a week, 18 to 20 hours a day," Burr said. "I just don't have time to eat."
Perry Mason is a television classic, but at its inception, it was a risk.
You know how you feel about reboots? Well, remember, Perry Mason was a reboot. The legal crime drama was also something rather new for TV — and it was quite expensive. (One of the most expensive shows on TV at the time, with a budget in the six figures for episodes.) Remember, the medium of television was still fairly new, and seen as a far cry from the art of cinema. Well, Perry Mason aimed to change that. In fact, the network and trades considered Perry Mason to be a series of "movies."
CBS thought of Perry Mason as a "new hour-long 'movie quality' film," Hollywood columnist Erskine Johnson reported in early 1957, months before the premiere. It was a new model of "big, expensive hour-long TV movies based on the weekly series idea." Which is a roundabout way of saying "quality television."
So that was a risk. To up the stakes, the show cast an unlikely actor as the lead. Yes, Raymond Burr was seen as a wild choice. The industry had typecast him as a bad guy.
No More the Villain — He's On Our Side Now, a Detroit Free Press headline declared. The producers were reluctant to book him as Perry — they saw him as the adversary, Hamilton Burger.
Burr insisted on auditioning for Perry, though he did agree to test as Burger, too. The producers were still not convinced. Not that it mattered. One key person backed Burr: Erle Stanley Gardner, the creator of the character. Gardner saw Burr in the role and simply said, "That's Perry Mason."
Burr had done his homework.
"I thought I'd read all your books but I keep finding more," Burr told Gardner, then asked, "How many have you written?"
"I lost count after the first 200," Garner said.
All those books gave fans a bias of what Perry Mason looked like, what he sounded like.
Burr was a workaholic and punished himself to make the show fantastic — and to make himself the best Perry Mason possible.
"There have been over 100 million Perry Mason mysteries sold in the United States alone," Burr noted. "That's a lot of people with preconceived notions about the man."
"It's been six days a week, 18 to 20 hours a day," Burr told Detroit Free Press.
Every article focused on his weight. "He Lost 100 Pounds to Take the Role," Detroit Free Free declared in large print. Those bygone 100 lbs. were mentioned in every article. "His six-foot-two frame adds poundage faster than a dowager on a bon-bon kick," columnist Hal Humphrey cattily wrote.
"I just don't have time to eat," Burr explained to the NEA in 1957.
He awoke at 2:30 a.m. to arrive at the studio at 3:30 a.m., when he would begin his makeup and script studies. If he was lucky, he might snag a cat nap before the cameras started rolling at 8 a.m.
"It's killed any other existence for me," Burr said, "and it may kill me." He hoped to keep it up for "three years" so that he could retire rich. "But, mister, I'll never do it again," he promised. Of course, the show ran for nine seasons. And Burr did everything but retire.