Robert Benevides of the Raymond Burr Winery

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RAYMOND BURR VINEYARDS
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 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.”

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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.”

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Comments

I just visited your beautiful winery for the second time in one month. We had gone to not only taste your amazing wines, but also to view your orchids. I was sad to learn that the nursery was sold four days earlier. Going back in a few weeks. Can’t wait!
- Lucy Kim , Fremont, CA, USA

Enjoyed the artical, about you and RB, you both have led a wonderful life. Hope you can get to St. Louis, we have a wonderful summer opera theater, that Richard Gades put together before moving on to the Sante Fe Opera. hope to visit in the near future,
- nelson flemingb , st.louis,mo

So lovely to read about Raymond and Barbara and Robert and family and friends. Lovely people who have given much in their lives to others. Bless you all
- Janice Seare , Bournemouth England United Kingdom

Robert was a great friend all through our high school days. We remember with great fondness how quietly sweet he always was. It is nice to see how truly good looking he still is and we wish we lived closer to continue our friendship. We still love you!
- Tom & Ruth oung , Longview, WA

My mother watched Perry Mason when I was a child and I watched with her. When I was older we all watched IRONSIDE together as a family & THE PERRY MASON MOVIES. I’m so glad to know he had a warm & loving partner & life. That is how he came across.
- jrsygrl , Waretown, NJ – USA

Mr.Benevides you were truely blessed to have a partner in RB and he in you Been a while now since he passed, like you lost a partner and understand the loss. I as many others wish you the very best. Always rember the memories, smile because they happend!
- Paul Brass , Sarasota,fl.

I believe the two of you are testament of true partnership. You both were so blessed to have met each other. Mr.Benevides thank you for sharing some of your lifes story with Mr.Burr, I am sure you have many fantastic memory’ and I wish you the very best
- Paul Brass , Sarasota, Florida. United States of America

I loved the Perry Mason series when I was young and am now enjoying the re-runs now that I am old!! I think Raymond Burr (just like a good wine!) aged beautifully! You had a fabulous life together and you must miss him very much.
- Hilary Lynch , Co. Dublin, Ireland

I am a Fan of life. Live and let live and enjoy. Besides the winery is beautiful (God’s Country) and the wine is EXCELLENT and the owner, Robert, has a heart of PURE GOLD…
Michael A. Fiumara Santa Rosa, CA since 1992
- Michael A. Fiumara , Santa Rosa, CA. United States of America

I agree with your comments from Priscilla, TX, Bay Area, CA, and Houston, TX. I grew up on Perry Mason, still enjoy watching the series, which I have on DVD, and, as far as I am concerned, leave the man alone! His personal life is of his own choosing.
- Phil Kinsey , Philadelphia, PA, United States of America

I have been watching reruns of Perry Mason and I enjoy everyone of them. I am so happy to know that he shared his life with a good kind person like you, your life together must have been very nice. Hope someday that you will write a book.
- Gisele D, Toronto , Scarborough, Canada

I’ve been a fan of Perry Mason and Raymond Burr for years. I’m still watching Perry Mason reruns in the afternoons. I remember reading the Perry Mason books and that Raymond Burr WAS Perry Mason!
Great to hear he had a caring, generous, fulfilling life
- Priscilla , Texas

Hard work made the winery successful. Burr didn’t discuss his sexuality, why is this author doing it? Author, enjoy the wine but stay out of other people’s personal lives.
- Gloria Herrera , Bay Area, California

Mr. Burr’s sexual orientation was his private business–he was an outstanding actor. I grew up on Perry Mason and Iron Side. I still love watching reruns of Perry Mason. He’s an American hero!
- Patricia Moore , Houston, TX USA

always a fan of raymond burr
- bob jones , jacksonvile fl,

My family has always loved “Perry Mason” and when I read the story here it seemed to verify for me what an outstanding person Raymond Burr was – and now by association Robert Beneivedes.
- Pat Nacol , Fort Myers, FL

I thought Raymond Burr was at his best in his darker roles, Like “Rear Window”. I loved that movie. Lars Thorwald was the type of character you just loved to hate.
- Martin Spiegelberg , Modesto, CA

I,too, am a relative of Raymond Burr. His Grandmother and my Grandmother, Annabella Johnston Ledgerwood., were sisters She married Alexander Ledgerwood. I am doing a history on the family and wondered if Raymond had information on the family. Thank
- Ethel V. (Ledgerwood) Davis , Portland, Oregon 97201 USA

I am a distant relative of Raymond Burr through his brother James, and I love to read about him and his life. This piece especially, since it is so recent. Though I was born long after he stopped acting, my mom and I watch reruns of Perry Mason often.
- Heather Dominguez , Yuma, AZ, USA

Mr. Burr truly was a great American — intelligent, talented, generous, artistic. It’s just a shame that back in the early years of his career he had to live a “hidden” life. But then, we all had to do that then. Proud to have Mr. Burr a part of us!
- Dale Lerch , Modesto CA

It is wonderful that we continue to honor Raymond Burr’s memory . I grew up enjoying his shows and my thoughts have been onscreen and off what a wonderful human being. Raymond in 2010 still is bringing love and joy to our screens. Debra Lee
- Debra Lee , Melbourne Australia

Just like Susan Stevens from Missouri said, Mr. Burr’s persona on camera suggested he was a kind, caring, intellectual person. It’s great to see that Raymond Burr was a terrific role model both in front of the camera and in private life.
- Mike Harrison , Greensboro, NC

I could tell by his acting demeanor that Raymond Burr was at once intellectual, well-read, and a “heart person.” I still find the courtroom scenes (in re-released DVD episodes) fascinating–as your own lives together must have been: orchids, wine, art.
- Susan Stevens , Saint Robert, Missouri

I could tell by his acting demeanor that Raymond Burr was at once intellectual, well-read, and a “heart person.” I watched the television shows years ago and now the DVD re-releases; the courtroom scenes are still fascinating–as your lives surely were.
- Susan Stevens , St. Robert, Missouri

Having been a fan of Raymond Burr, it gave me great pleasure to find out that in his personal life he was a kind and generous man and had a soul mate to share his life with. Robert Benevides, you were blessed.
- Stephanie Olig , Mequon, WI USA

My father and I were great fans of Raymond Burr. Thank you for keeping his memory alive for the next generation. I sincerely appreciate you for giving him a wonderful and happy life together. Elizabeth, Oakland, CA
- Elizabeth Santos , Oakland, Ca

Raymond Burr was a truly classy actor and gentleman. I’m a legal assistant because Della Street has been my hero since 1959! So good to know Mr. Benevides maintains the winery.
- Linda Chudej , Lufkin Texas United States

I had been and still am a fan of Raymond Burr It is sad that things back then had to be kept secret i still watch the reruns of Ironside Good luck to you in your life
- crystal lemoyne , dover New hampshire usa

I miss him. I’d like to know more about your relationship and hard it must have been in the early years. I’m just a fan, no one important, but I was born in Newfoundland, CANADA and he died on my 50th birthday.
- Patricia Macias , Salt Lake City, UT

Dear Sir, This is the second time I have written you, the first was when Mr. Burr passed, you were most kind to reply, as did Mr. Burr to a letter of appreciation I wrote him. I grew up with Mr.Burr. In such a cruel world,we are blessed he walked among
- Jake Franz , San Diego, Ca.

I still watch Raymond Burr’s shows – Ironside and Perry Mason and remember them when a child in the ’50s. He was a wonderful man, a face no one could ever forget, kind and strong. I hope to see your wines in Australia, good luck and kind wishes to you.
- Jan Neilson , Melbourne Victoria Australia

My daughter and I have visited the vineyard several times on our annual trips to California.It is an especially treasured place because of its charm and the presence of Raymond Burr and, of course, the wine! We have taken wonderful bottles home to NY.
- RENA COREY , chelsea, NY

HELLO ROBERT, I WAS A GREAT FAN OF RAYMOND BURR AND I AM SO HAPPY YOU HAD A GREAT LIFE TOGETHER. I HAVE A BROTHER WHO I VISIT OFTEN IN SAN FRANCISCO AND HOPE SOME DAY I CAN VISIT WITH YOU AT THE WINERY . KATHLEEN KENNEDY WOOD
- KATHLEEN KENNEDY WOOD , BLACKSTONE, MASS.

Mr. Benevides, very compelling read! Not in the “lifestyle” but not judgmental either. You’re a remarkable individual that I’d love to spend an afternoon with someday – you may be able to enlighten me on family history, my great uncle was William Swan.
- David , North Pole, AK, USA

So glad to read of your happiness together. Some day write a book of your happy and exciting lives. It would be a really good and enlightening read.
- Mac , Michigan, USA

Glad to hear the facts of Raymond and Robert emerge. I’m certain they shared an incredible life journey of 35 wonderful years together. I wish ALL couples, regardless of orientation, could experience the love and respect shared by these two individuals.
- D.G.C. , Palm Springs, CA, USA

Note to Robert Benevides – will be stopping by the vineyard after Thanksgiving and want to share a picture of R.Burr and Robert Van Decar from a segment on TV that they played together on Ironside.VanDecar passed away in July 1993 – both men are special.
- Nancy Kastor , Meadview, Arizona, USA

Just finished reading, Hiding In Plain Sight, and enjoyed it immensely – mainly because my significant other named Robert Van DeCar, a paraplegic, played in a segment with R.Burr on TV and I have a picture of Robert & Raymond which I would love to share
- Nancy Kastor , Meadview, Arizona,USA

Sorry not having actually met Raymond and visiting you both. Best to you and winery tribute to Raymond. His kindness exuded his portrayals. The latter Perry Mason resembled my brother who passed earlier. Also, if Aaron Burr descendant, could be related.
- MJ Reynolds , Wolfe City, TX

What a wonderful story. I’m so glad that Raymond Burr had someone wonderful in his life. I’d never known that – but I’m so glad to learn it now. Bless you both. :)
- LM , Small Town by the Great Lakes

I am a great fan of Raymond Burr and have enjoyed hours of perry mason. I am heartfelt by your relationship and dedication to making his memory live on strong. I hope to visit your vineyard in the near future.
- TerryAnn O , North Pole, Alaska USA

For twenty years or more I’ve been head over heels in love with Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale. I’m glad to see I’m not the only one and that both RBs legacy will always live on.
- Dedra Kaye DeHart , Clay City, Illinois USA

Having accidentally stumbled upon the history of both your relationship with Raymond Burr and the business you’ve fostered together, I just want to say how much I admire your courage to keep his memory alive and continued success with the winery!
- Steve G. , Indianapolis IN.

It is so nice to read about your vineyard and the connection with Raymond Burr!I loved him. I have watched reruns of Perry Mason dozens of times and never tire of it because of him. He seemed like such a kind soul.I hope to visit your vineyard someday.
- Donna G , Indiana

Fabulous article!I loved Raymond all my life. I’m SO happy to know that he had such a good, loving, intelligent partner. Both of them were so generous and kind in many areas. I know he is happy in Heaven seeing that Robert carries on. Love Barbara, too!
- Eileen Fay , Saugerties, NY , USA

What a wonderful relationship, thank you for sharing. I loved Perry Mason and Ironside, I still watch the reruns when I can find them!
- Kimberly , Binghamton, New York

Big fan of Raymond Burr, this made good reading and was nice to see how he enjoyed life with a partner he loved, just a shame he didn’t live longer to enjoy more.
- patricia clarke , England