14 March 2005 | Cue-ball
More proof of Raymond Burr's genius
There are precious few actors who can create two successful television characters. More recent examples include Mary Tyler Moore (Mary Richards and Laura Petrie) and Bob Newhart (Bob Hartley and Dick Loudon). In 1966, Burr completed a nine-year run as the most recognizable attorney on television. In 1967, returning to television, his challenge was to create a new character that wouldn't stand in Perry Mason's shadow. The result was Ironside -- a rough, former chief of the San Francisco police forced to retire when an attempted assassination leaves him paralyzed. (The theme music is reprised in "Kill Bill Vol. 1", whenever the Bride flashes back on her paralyzing injuries.) Bob Ironside had none of Perry Mason's polish, frequently spoke without thinking, and enjoyed fast cars as much as he relished good police work. He was given a special task force that included a regular joe beat-cop, Ed Brown (even in the sixties, a more vanilla name was never given a character); a highbrow, educated female detective (Eve Whitfield); and a troubled black youth, Mark Sanger, who was to Ironside what Charlie Young is to President Bartlet on "The West Wing". Instead of the Los Angeles setting of Perry Mason, Ironside was in San Francisco. In addition, while Perry Mason kept the lights on at CBS for nearly a decade, Ironside was a steady performer for NBC for almost as long. The show was an instant critical and commercial success.
I think the reason Ironside is not as popular in reruns now as it was in the late 70s and early 80s is it will always be in the shadow of Mason, and that's a shame. The two shows are not the same, and there are many memorable episodes of Ironside. One in particular features Ironside isolated in his apartment, being stalked by a killer, that always reminded me of the climactic scene in "Rear Window" -- in which the killer was played by Raymond Burr! One of my favorite lines of dialogue, from the pilot, was his ribbing of his female detective: "By all means, ask Detective Whitfield. She's had the benefit of a classical education." That line -- which would never have passed Perry Mason's lips -- is a good sample of Ironside's tone through the series.