Raymond Burr IS “Ironside”

Raymond Burr (1917-1993) was born on this day.

Over the years I have discovered and enjoyed Burr’s performances in many places, from his hit series Perry Mason to films like the Marx Brothers Love Happy, the original Godzilla (1954) and Gorilla at Large (1954), to the tv mini-series Centennial. But my original introduction to the actor came through his long-running hit tv series Ironside (1967-1975)

Ironside was a peculiar show, simultaneously boring and intriguing, a mix of old school melodrama and young blood. Burr played the title character, a former San Francisco Chief of Detectives whose spine is damaged by a sniper’s bullet and then manages to get himself reinstated as a special consultant to the department. He spends the entire series confined to a wheelchair in an attic over the police station, scowling, brooding and barking orders to his three young subordinates: Detective Sergeant Ed Brown (Don Galloway), a sort of straight arrow police square of the type then common in Nixon era television; Officer Eve Whitfield (Barbara Anderson), a socialite moonlighting as an undercover lady cop; and Mark Sanger (Don Mitchell), his African American personal assistant who is studying to become a lawyer. This trio formulation adds up to a sort of Republican version of The Mod Squad.

These three kids are Ironside’s legs; they run around and do the footwork while the boss is trapped in his attic. I must have watched tons of this show when I was a kid: the location and these characters (even their names) came flooding back to me as I worked on this post this morning. It was a very peculiar show to be so formative. The whole set-up simply intrigued me. Ironside is the kind of character you encounter in old time radio or old B movie serials. The name “Ironside” seemed so aptly chosen I wondered if it was a nickname (You know, like “Old Ironsides”). Burr seemed a bit like a crusty old battleship, damaged, yes, but ultimately indestructible. He was unlovable, even a little scary. A tough old bird. And sometimes he would leave the attic to go out into the field in a special van outfitted with an elevator so he could get in and out. I often make fun of shows from the era, like Cannon and Barnaby Jones, with their extremely slow-moving heroes endlessly getting in and out of cars and not running after criminals. Well, imagine Ironside’s endless shots of a man in a wheelchair waiting for the little elevator to reach the street so he could get into the van. But then his younger colleagues would get involved in gunplay and foot chases and the like and sometimes Ironside himself would get into physical trouble so it wasn’t all scenes of people talking in an attic, although a huge amount of it was. And while it was by definition a sedentary set-up, there was a fascination in the hero being a disabled man. As a kid, this was very intriguing to me. Certainly my first exposure to this kind of hero, or even this kind of human, however fictional.

The San Francisco location played a big role in the show. The city was certainly a muse for the cops-and-robbers genre in the ’70s. The Dirty Harry films were set there, as was The Streets of San Francisco. The subgenre is kind of like a post Haight-Ashbury Raymond Chandler land.

Anyway, for such a major, long-running show Ironside seems curiously forgotten today in comparison with some of the other shows of its time. Get out of thine attic, and ride, RIDE, Ironside!