He was born in New Westminster, British Columbia, Canada to William Johnston Burr (a descendant of Irish immigrants) and Minerva Smith (who was of Scottish and English descent). A dual citizen of Canada and the United States, Burr served in the U.S. Navy in World War II and was wounded at the Battle of Okinawa. Burr broke into films in 1946 and made 90 in the next decade. He co-starred in the classics A Place in the Sun and Rear Window. Burr usually played menacing villains on the screen, although in 1956 he played the heroic reporter Steve Martin in Godzilla, King of the Monsters, the American re-edited version of the Japanese film Gojira. He reprised this role nearly three decades later in Godzilla 1985.