[H]ollywood in the middle of the 20th Century was not the most gay-accepting of places. TV and movie studios, often in collusion with gossip columnists, worked quite diligently to paint a rosy, familial picture of the industry’s stars both on and off screen. Sure there was a knowing nod to Paul Lynde or Liberace, but for gay stars whose popularity was predicated on some level of machismo, letting the world know about their sexual orientation was never an option. Such was the case with Raymond Burr who portrayed America’s favorite attorney, Perry Mason, as well as Chief Ironside and several film villains. Burr died in 1993, but his partner of 33 years, Robert Benevides, today runs the family vineyard in California.
It was still late morning when I sat down with Benevides on the deck outside the Raymond Burr Vineyards’ (www.raymondburrvineyards.com) tasting room in Dry Creek Valley in California’s Sonoma County. The vine-covered hills undulated in front of us like a great swatch of green corduroy. Benevides is quietly funny, with experiences to fill many lifetimes, and the hours we spent together passed all too quickly.
The vineyard, named in tribute and memory of Burr, was a joint venture, like so many of the pursuits of the Benevides/Burr family.
“Ever since I was ten years old and read The Good Earth by Pearl Buck I’ve wanted to own land, and I never had,” says Benevides. “[My father] found the [original] piece of property for me—eight acres.”
Originally it was just about having some beautiful property near family, but eventually, “Raymond said, ‘I think we should put in some grapes.’ He’d always had this dream about having a wine because he loved to cook. That was his favorite thing of all, cooking for people. Of course, he couldn’t cook for less than 20 people at a time, but he loved it. That was 1985, in ‘86 we put in the grapes. Our first wine was [bottled in] ‘89. We’ve been making wine ever since.”
Now a model of green industry, the vineyard is solar-powered and chemical-free. Benevides explains, “We have a no till vineyard—we don’t dig it up. In between the rows we have vegetation, grasses, and we mow it. It harbors a whole colony of beneficial insects. If you put chemicals on to kill some of the insects, you kill the good ones too, so we don’t do that.”
The bench land makes the vines struggle for their heartiness, which ultimately results in better quality from the grapes that produce Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc (plus a few bottles of Port for friends). As to his favorite, “I like them all—that’s like which child do you like the best? It depends on what I’m eating. A good spaghetti dinner with our Cabernet Sauvignon is probably one of my favorites.”
Life with Raymond Burr often presented challenges that heterosexual couples never have to face. Fake wives and a child that likely never existed were attributed to Burr, while Benevides was referred to in print as his “business partner” or “friend.”
The men met in 1960 when Benevides was still pursuing a performing career, but dreamt of change. “I was an actor, I did a lot of television and plays. The last thing I did was in 1963 on stage in Hollywood. It was a play called Seidman and Son. That was when I decided that I no longer wanted to do that. I came home one day to talk to Raymond (we had been together about three years) and I saw how easy it was for him and how much he enjoyed being in front of the camera, but it was so difficult for me. It was just agony. He said, ‘Well you don’t have to do that any more.’ I’d never thought of that, and it was such a load lifted off my shoulders.”
Benevides pronounces each word carefully, “I don’t have to do that any more. Raymond told me, ‘You’ve been doing production stuff for me already. You’ve been working on my scripts, you’ve been doing it all, why don’t you just go into the production side?’ So we set up an office in Universal City and I was a producer from then on.”
They worked through two entertainment companies, Harbour Productions (“because we used to go to a little island in the Bahamas called Harbour Island”), and later RB Productions. “Our initials were R.B., both of us,” Benevides quips. “Strangely enough, the secretary was R.B., everybody was R.B. I used to have RB Productions on my license plate—that was a Jaguar, but I sold it for [wine] barrels one year.”
Benevides remains close to cast and crew members from both Perry Mason and Ironside. “I am still very much in love with Barbara [Hale, who played Della Street in the Perry Mason shows], and she with me. I just spent two dinners and a brunch with her down in Los Angeles. We get along beautifully. She’s the only one from that cast (the original Perry Mason) that’s still alive. From the cast of Ironside, I still have contact with Don Galloway [who portrayed Detective Sergeant Ed Brown]. He’s the reason I have a tattoo,” he says, rolling up his sleeve to show me a demure bird on his forearm.
“Raymond, Don, [producer Guy Della] Cioppa, and I were in Raffles Hotel in Singapore. Don had a tattoo on his arm and he wanted to add to it—to put his wife’s name in a heart. Right around the corner from Raffles was a tattoo shop run by a Siamese gentleman called Johnny Two Thumbs. Johnny had two thumbs on each hand. We had been drinking pink gins and Cioppa decided he wanted the Singapore Lion all the way up and down his arm. We finally convinced him to get just the head…and I got the sweet little bird of youth here.”
In addition to running their show business empire, the couple loved to travel and they had getaway spots in several locales. One favorite spot was the Fijian island of Naitauba (pronounced Nye-tum-ba) which they purchased and where they later built a hospital and other services for local islanders.
“Raymond was looking for a place to get away and we were looking at Hawaii. It seemed like every time he found a little beachy place he wanted, the property next door was always being considered for a large hotel of some kind.”
Never the ones to be stopped, they simply looked at other pages of the world map. “Raymond said, ‘Why don’t you write a letter to the Chamber of Commerce in Fiji?’ So I did. Of course there was no Chamber of Commerce in Fiji, but somebody there, a shady Australian—I won’t tell you the name, he might still be alive—got the letter and mailed me back and said they had an island of about 10 acres. When we got there, this gentleman said, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, but that island has been sold. But! There is another island that just came on the market, but I’m almost ashamed to bring it up to you because it is so difficult to get to. From [Fiji] you have to go by plane to another island, then go by taxi 45 minutes to a little dock where a little boat will pick you up and take you six hours over…’ and as he was telling this to us, Raymond’s eyes got bigger and bigger and he said, ‘Oh-we’ve got to go see that.’”
The island they would eventually acquire was 4,000 acres of cattle and coconut trees. Benevides laughs, “The cattle were used mainly to cut the grass for the coconuts—the cows were grass cutters.”
In spite of the rugged nature of the place, their first impression was a lasting one. “We went out to the island in the little boat. I get seasick so I was taking Dramamine and it was putting me to sleep. Raymond shook me and said, ‘We’re getting close!’ and he opened a bottle of champagne. A shaft of light came down on the island—it was very cloudy and stormy—and he said, ‘It’s a sign.’ So we drank the champagne, stayed there for two days, and he fell in love with it. That was 1965 and we sold it in ‘85.”
Hollywood superstars, land barons, vintners, why not add another job description to the resume…like orchid farmers? Raymond loved orchids and had a seriously green thumb before Robert met him.
“He had a house way down beyond Malibu on the cliffs and he tried to raise all sorts of exotic plants there. He just thought he could, and he did. He raised a lot of weird stuff. To import a lot of this stuff he needed a license, so he got a license for Sea God Nursery,” remembers Benevides. During the next years, and at several locations (two greenhouses remain on the Sonoma County vineyard property) the couple created over 2,000 orchid crosses, and registered about 200 in the American orchid hybrid catalogue. The “Raymond Burr” orchid Robert shows me in the humid jungle of the greenhouse puts out many blue flowers—blue was his favorite color.
I’m not there in season, so there is much more foliage than blooms, but the ones in flower are brilliant to behold. Robert picks up a pot and announces: “The Good Doctor. This one was named for Doctor Ruth. She is a great friend—was a great friend of Raymond’s—he fell in love with her immediately.”
The chuckle begins low and grows as he continues, telling me of their first meeting, “We were at a hotel getting ready to go out and there was a knock at the door. I looked out the peephole and couldn’t see anyone, so I knew it was Ruth. I opened the door and she blasted past me,”
Then the stately Mr. Benevides breaks into his best falsetto Ruth Westheimer imitation, arms raised up, waving, scurrying down the line of plants, “‘Where iss he? Where iss he? Where is Mr. Burr?’ You can imagine the funny picture they made.” He laughs, “He could have put her in his pocket.”
Today, Benevides spends a lot of his time traveling the world. “I made a promise to myself that I would travel every month. Some months it’s not very far. This month I’m only going to L.A. to see the opera. Next month I’ll go to the Azores for two weeks.” His eyes twinkle more brightly as he enumerates his upcoming adventures, “Then I go to Guerneville for Lazy Bear, which is the most fun week of the year for me—I love Lazy Bear. [After that] it’s Valencia, Spain; Wales for an opera festival; then Borneo.”
When not on the road he spends his time at home in the art-filled house he and Burr shared in Sonoma, and he delights in educating visitors about the wines quietly produced in his “undiscovered gem” of a vineyard. He places a high value on making people feel welcome. The vineyard’s wine club hosts regular events from casual barbecues and tastings, to wine cruises, to a celebration of Raymond’s birthday each year.
“We get a lot of people who are very charmed by the laid back, easy quality we have. I like people to come here and enjoy a picnic and have a good time. That’s our basic premise here.”
While Raymond Burr never had the chance to taste the bottled product from the grapes he and Robert nurtured from idea to literal fruition, each bottle is a heartfelt tribute to him.
“It was never my dream, it was his dream,” reflects Benevides. “When he died in ‘93 we still hadn’t released any of the wines. I finally decided it should be called Raymond Burr Vineyards. He didn’t want it named after him, I know that. We had talked about that possibility and he didn’t like that at all, but we’re making great wines now. It’s a memorial to him, to his idea, and I think it deserves to be named after him.”