SONOMA COUNTY, CALIFORNIA
by Andrew Mersmann
Hollywood 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 industrys 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 Americas
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
tasting room in Dry Creek Valley in Californias
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
Ever since I was ten years old and read The Good
Earth by Pearl Buck Ive wanted to own land, and
I never had, says Benevides. [My father]
found the [original] piece of property for meeight
Originally it was just about having some beautiful property
near family, but eventually, Raymond said, I
think we should put in some grapes. Hed
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 couldnt 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. Weve been making wine
Now a model of green industry,
the vineyard is solar-powered and chemical-free. Benevides
explains, We have a no till vineyardwe dont
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 dont
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 allthats
like which child do you like the best? It depends on
what Im 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 dont have to do that any more. Id
never thought of that, and it was such a load lifted
off my shoulders.
Benevides pronounces each word carefully, I dont
have to do that any more. Raymond told me, Youve
been doing production stuff for me already. Youve
been working on my scripts, youve been doing it
all, why dont 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 platethat 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. Shes the only one from
that cast (the original Perry Mason) thats still
alive. From the cast of Ironside, I still have contact
with Don Galloway [who portrayed Detective Sergeant
Ed Brown]. Hes the reason I have a tattoo,
he says, rolling up his sleeve to show me a demure bird
on his forearm.