'Borderline' in Classic Cool Context

This Saturday at 9 p.m., KCET brings you the 1950 film noir, "Borderline," about two undercover cops infiltrating a drug-smuggling ring from Mexico. It stars Fred MacMurray, Claire Trevor and Raymond Burr. This is the latest entry in KCET's "Classic Cool Theater" series, which aims to give you not only a great film but also a vintage cartoon, two newsreels and an of-the-era musical number. All those extras add up to what makes "Classic Cool Theater" so special: context. In the spirit of this unique package, we're offering you a peek at the America -- and the Los Angeles -- that received "Borderline" on March 1, 1950.

"Borderline" baddy Raymond Burr is probably best known for his role as "Perry Mason" in the popular CBS series for which he won three Emmys. However, show creator Erle Stanley Gardner came close to casting one of Burr's "Borderline" co-stars as the brilliant defense attorney. Fred MacMurray, equally famous for his light-hearted Disney characters as for his darker turns in "Double Indemnity" and "Pushover," was a finalist for the part until Gardner allowed veteran character actor Burr to test for the lead. Burr wowed Gardner and wound up portraying "Mason" on the small screen for nine seasons, from 1957-1966.

Here's the screen test that won Burr the role. The part of "Della" eventually went to Barbara Hale.

After "Perry Mason," Burr would always be linked with a courtroom. He made fun of that reputation by playing a judge in the 1982 spoof, "Airplane II: The Sequel."

Watch for Burr at the 1:06 mark:

Burr's road to leading-man status was long and grueling. He made his name playing ominous heavies, but it was his heavy-set frame that led talent agents to tell him he'd never make it in Hollywood in the mid 1940s. Then in his late 20s, the Canadian-born Burr had been husky since he was a kid.

Burr drastically altered his diet for six months, reportedly eating only 750 calories a day. Afterwards, the slim-and-trim, 210-pound actor got his break as a bit part in the 1946 Claudette Colbert film, "Without Reservations."

He spent the next decade or so playing creepy characters such as the threatening district attorney in "A Place in the Sun," and the shy wife-murderer in "Rear Window."

Burr did put some of the weight back on during his later "Perry Mason" days, and in his follow-up series, "Ironside."

This is a publicity photo of Burr as the disabled detective:

Burr married actress Isabella Ward in 1949 and the couple divorced in 1952. He fabricated two other marriages and a child to cover up his homosexual relationship with Robert Benevides, whom he met on the set of "Perry Mason." The relationship lasted until Burr's death in 1993. Benevides named the vineyard they operated together after his deceased partner:

Take a Closer Look Back

The Mexican drug war has splashed gory headlines across newspapers for the past several years. But as "Borderline" shows, drugs were a very real problem in the 1950s too.

Check out this drug-awareness video from a bygone era. The animations at 1:58 are particularly inventive: