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Senior World Magazine: Paul Burke

by James MacArthur

Who knows what torta ampascualina is? Well, I daresay not many people do, but it is what Paul Burke’s lovely wife Lynn served for lunch a few weeks ago at their home in Palm Springs. Lynn is from Argentina and well versed in their cuisine. Photographer Steve Kiefer and I certainly enjoyed it as we sat on their terrace looking up at the high mountains soon to be covered with winter snow. Paul has not changed so much except for the snow in his hair! A malady I also suffer from!

Soon we were remembering Paul’s wonderful TV series 12 O’Clock High. I was a guest star in one of their episodes in the mid sixties and Paul was the flight officer who sent the young fliers off to do combat with the Luftwaffe. Well, he sent me off and I got shot down and killed! A moment I remembered very clearly some dozen years later when I booked him for murder one on Hawaii Five-O! Revenge is sweet!!

Speaking of Hawaii Five-O, Paul’s classmate at The Pasadena Playhouse was Leonard Freeman, who created Five-O and was responsible for me spending almost half my life in that lovely state.

But back to Paul... I asked him when he knew he wanted to be an actor. He said, “You know, I grew up in New Orleans and at the time the war broke out I was a ballyhooer at the Sanger Theatre.” I asked what the hell a ballyhooer was? He said, “Well, you stood outside the theatre with a megaphone and you told the folks what was playing and if there were seats available and made sure that people lined up in orderly fashion and stuff like that. Anyway, on December 7, 1941, I was ballyhooing and the manager came rushing out and told me to ballyhoo the news to anybody in uniform that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. Now, at that time New Orleans was a big naval base so there were many sailors around and as I gave them the news they all started running for their ships. That was when the world of drama took hold of me! Of course, I never had as riveting a line as that ever again in my career!”

But he has had a wonderful, exciting career with five series to his credit: Noah’s Ark for NBC, Harbor Masters for CBS, Naked City and 12 O’Clock High for ABC, and Hot Shots for CBS. Add to these the golden years of live TV with shows such as Playhouse 90, Studio One, Hallmark Theater, and a hundred others as guest star over the years. He also did many movies, from Call Me Mister and Golden Girl to Francis Goes to West Point and later The Valley of the Dolls and The Thomas Crown Affair.

How Paul stays trim and fit is beyond me because his wife showed me their huge walk-in refrigerator and their three freezers to along with their 10 burner Wolf Range. I said, “You could feed an army,” and she said, “We do!” Paul’s three children and their children and Paul’s brother and his children and their kids are all nearby. Well, dear readers, I think you understand an extended Irish family!

We spent a lot of our visit looking back, but farther than you would think. Back to an era that Paul and I both know well, but from different vantage points. His dad Matt Burke was an incredible boxer. My father was fighting with General “Black Jack” Pershing chasing Pancho Villa in Mexico. But that’s another story. Anyway, Paul Burke’s father became the amateur heavyweight champion of the United States and a great professional boxer as well. Would you believe he fought Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney in the same week? Well, he did, and the good news is that Paul is readying himself to put his dad’s life and his too in book form. Memories of the 1920s in New York, and the 1930s when the Burkes owned the largest saloon on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. This book can’t come out soon enough.

I asked Paul if he missed not being in front of the camera any more. He said, “Acting was something I did with great passion and determination. I always tried and tried to do it as well as I could, sometimes being criticized for being a perfectionist. But a time came when I realized I was losing the passion. Palm Springs, where I have had this house since 1959, looked really enticing. My dad never fought in a preliminary fight in his life and I wasn’t going to go out doing preliminaries, so one day I decided to retire. When I was making Naked City in New York in 1960, a kid got his first part on our show and we had fun acting together. His name was Peter Falk. In 1990 I was doing a Columbo with Peter and near the end of the show he asked me what was next. I said, ‘Retirement.’ Peter said in astonishment, ‘Actors don’t retire.’ I said, ‘This one is,’ and I did, and have never regretted it.”

The highest honor The Pasadena Playhouse bestows on its Alumnae, The Lifetime Achievement Award, hangs proudly on his wall.

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