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Raymond Burr


A VISIT WITH IRONSIDE

By TOM SOTER

As a journalist, meeting celebrities is par for the course. But meeting childhood heroes is something special. Sure, it was fun interviewing Robert De Niro, Michael Keaton, and Michael J. Fox. But meeting Patrick McGoohan, or Fess Parker, or Raymond Burr. Now that was something special. 

The Burr interview came about through my own initiative. I had long been a fan of him in Perry Mason and especially Ironside (which I grew up watching on NBC), and when, in 1986 he was appearing on TV in his second Perry Mason comeback movie (the first having been a blockbuster hit in 1985), I thought he'd be available for an interview. I contacted his agent, set up the interview, got a photographer (Phil Greenberg from Habitat), and then sold the story to my editor, Ira Robbins, at Video magazine. Burr and I were set to meet in his hotel lobby. I was there ten minutes before our 1:30 appointment. At exactly 1:30, I heard a booming yet familiar voice coming from behind the chair in which I was sitting. "Mr. Soto," it said. I turned, and there was Burr looming behind me. He was a big man, maybe 300 pounds. "I'm Tom Soter," I said, correcting him. "I beg your pardon," he said, warmly shaking my hand and offering a pleasant smile. "Come with me." We went to his hotel room, and I noted there were a few unwrapped packages on the table by the couch. "It's my birthday," he explained, even though I had said nothing. "I'm 69 today." I wished him a happy birthday, we sat down, and the interview began.

Usually, Q & As like this are simple affairs: I would meet with the subject, we'd talk about his or her new project, go a little bit into his or her life and opinions, and wrap it up in a half-hour or so. Burr spent 90 minutes with me, and I've never known an interviewee to give such exhaustive answers to my questions. When I asked him whom he admired, he went through a list of about a dozen people, with detailed explanations of why they were important, starting with the pope and ending with his mother. He could also be very polite and charming but could just as easily turn on you, showing flashes of Ironside-like irritation at stupid questions (for instance, when he mentioned that he had his suits tailored, I said, "Really?" and he gave me a withering look and shot back, "Yes. Did you think I bought them off the rack?") Other times, he was solicitous and curious about me. He asked about my family and, when he heard that we were Greek, praised the Greeks effusively, asking if my mother was a good cook, and saying he must sample some of her cooking the next time he was in New York. He also praised me for my punctuality, saying he couldn't abide people who were late. "If that happens once, the next time I have an appointment with you, I won't be there," he noted. (His friendliness even extended to the photographer, Phil, to whom he said, "I have a photo project we should talk about.")

 After an hour and a half of questions and answers, we posed for a photograph together. He put his arm around my shoulder, as though we were old friends. After that, I asked him if he would sign a photograph I had brought with me of him as Perry Mason. He smiled and said, "I'll be happy to sign this, or," he added suddenly, "I can sign the photo we just posed for if you send it to me in California. I'll do that on one condition, however. You must print two copies of the photo and send them both to me. I'll sign one to you – and you sign one to me." I was very flattered, and I thanked him for his time. Like an old friend, he promised to look me up the next time he was in town, told me to call him anytime I was in L..A., and even had his press aide give me a phone number at which I could reach him. I thought, "This is cool. Raymond Burr is my friend." A week or so later, Phil gave me copies of the photograph. I dutifully (and with some embarrassment) signed one, "To Raymond, from Tom (Soter)," and enclosed a note saying, "Here's the photograph you requested and also one for you to sign. Hope you are well," I added, as though we had known each other for years. I sent the photos off. And I never heard from him again. July 2008