Robert Benevides of the Raymond Burr Winery
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.”
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.”