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THE DEFENSE RESTS

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He played brooding villains, he played humorless heroes. But Raymond Burr, who was 76 when he died of cancer at his Northern California ranch on Sept. 12, rarely played anyone in between. With those heavy brows and that dark-eyed stare, how could he? The Canada-born Burr’s height and bulk made him a natural as the obsessed-criminal type in nearly a hundred movies from 1946 to 1956.

Yet the same hulking stoicism helped him beat out Fred MacMurray and Efrem Zimbalist Jr. for the role of Perry Mason, TV’s preternaturally self-possessed defense attorney. Burr badgered witnesses into sob-filled confessions in more than 250 episodes (1957-66) of the highly rated show, then went on to star as the wheelchair detective Robert T. Ironside in nearly as many episodes of the series named for his character (1967-75). You can still catch both series in TV syndication, but to see Burr at his glowering best, sample his major films (besides two Godzilla flicks) on video:

A Place in the Sun (1951) Burr shakes the courtroom rafters as prosecutor R. Frank Marlowe. He’s creepily righteous as he brandishes his cane at the jury, winning a conviction for a murder that the defendant (Montgomery Clift) didn’t commit. B+

Rear Window (1954) Did Burr’s mysterious man in the apartment across the way really kill his wife? The unraveling of that mystery is positively sweat-inducing, especially as Burr manhandles a snooping Grace Kelly and, advancing through a fusillade of flashbulbs, a cast-encased Jimmy Stewart. A

Perry Mason Returns (1985) After 19 years off the air, Burr’s Mason is reunited with his intrepid former secretary, Della Street (Barbara Hale), whom he clears of a murder charge. This was the highest-rated TV movie of its season and sparked nearly two dozen follow-ups. (Burr finished his last Mason movie, The Case of the Killer Kiss, only a few weeks before his death; it will air Oct. 22 on NBC). B+