Jun 30, 2013

Perry Mason: the Gay Lawyer of the 1950s

Many of the first generation of Boomer kids were inspired to become lawyers through watching Perry Mason (1957-66), who represents only people falsely accused of murder, and uses courtroom theatrics to compel the real murderer to confess: "I had to do it!  He would have ruined me!  Don't you understand!"

I never saw it, but older Boomers tell me that Perry (Raymond Burr) was a refreshing change from the girl-ogling swinger-detective-adventurers of the period: he didn't ogle, didn't have a wife back home, didn't express any heterosexual interest.  Indeed, other than his secretary, Della Street (Barbara Hale), he surrounded himself completely by men: detective Paul Drake (William Hopper), district attorney-antagonist Hamilton Berger (William Talman).  

How did the writers manage to avoid heterosexualizing Perry?  

Raymond Burr wins the honor of having the longest Hollywood career without playing any significant characters who get girls. 

He has a wife in Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954) (but no romantic scenes of any sort), but there's no girl-ogling in His Kind of Woman (1951) with Robert Mitchum (top), Tarzan and the She-Devil (1953) with Lex Barker (left), Khyber Patrol (1954), A Cry in the Night (1956), The Curse of King Tut's Tomb (1980), or any of the Perry Mason reunion movies. 

Or in his other famous tv program, Ironside (1967-75): the wheelchair-bound detective, doesn't date women.  But he does have a cop buddy (Don Galloway) and a juvenile delinquent-turned-bodyguard, Mark (Don Mitchell).

Of course, the portly Burr would not be often cast as a romantic lead anyway.  But the almost complete omission of hetero-romance is curious.

Raymond Burr was gay in real life, partnered with Robert Benevides (right) from the early 1960s to his death in 1993.  He was strictly closeted, always covering by discussing the girls he found attractive and making up ex-wives. But surely he had some control over how his characters were played, particularly after he became famous as Perry Mason.

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