Screen Couples

We all know them: the Stoneses, the Andersons or the Stephenses. For some, they may be a guilty pleasure, for others a mere necessity to get a story told. For me, they are the cherry on top of any tale: fictional couples and their personal stories. On the fringes of drama, comedy and mayhem, romantic innuendo has always been my favorite treat. From Date with the Angels and Family Ties to Murder She Wrote or Babylon 5, I have a weakness for double entendre paired with a healthy sense of humor, smarts and mutual respect.

Della and Perry1) Perry Mason and Della Street, for example, have been my favorite couple for more years than I care to admit. On paper, radio and screen, the lawyer and his secretary know how to put a smile on my face. Committed to their work as much as to each other, the true nature of their relationship has always remained a mystery. For some fans, they are the best of friends while others suspect some hanky-panky behind closed doors. For me, they have long been married, the epitomized working couple who combines independence with traditional values. And that’s the beauty of those characters and their story. They ignite your imagination and tease you to the point of sizzling frustration with a simple look, remark or smitten smile. It is a tradition Erle Stanley Gardner himself started in The Velvet Claws in 1933 and lasted until 1994 when the last Perry Mason TV movie aired on NBC. Perfected by its signature cast, Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale, Perry and Della have since lived on in the hearts of many fans, the flame of their romance burning more and more brightly towards the series’ end.

Jennifer&Jonathan2) The second couple I have loved for as long as I can remember are Jennifer and Jonathan Hart. Sophisticated, rich and charming, the Harts had everything including a mutually executed interest in solving mysteries. Following in the footsteps of TV’s Mr. and Mrs. North, they dug up trouble where it’s usually hard to find but their love for each other made their cases stand out from others. Together, they were invincible and (much like Della and Perry) have stood the test of time. A mere decade after Hart to Hart was canceled on ABC, the couple returned to television in 1993, matured, refined, and every bit as committed to each other as they had always been. Today, the Harts are still a dream couple for their fans, a twosome who showed their audience the ingredients of true love and how it beautiful life can be even if you are denied to have your desired offspring.

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The Edge of Night

TV classics

USA 1956-84,  7,420 episodes, approximately 30 minutes each, CBS and ABC, black & white and color. Sponsored by Procter & Gamble. Created by Irving Vendig. Announced by Bob Dixon, Herbert Duncan and Harry Kramer Cast: John Larkin, Teal Ames, Ann Flood, Laurence Hugo, Forrest Compton, Lois Kibbee and many others.

Plot summary: In Monticello, life is an endless cycle of personal drama, occasional laughter and crime.

Edge56Review: It is the dream of any author to create a character who resonates with a growing audience. As common as this dream may be, it rarely becomes reality. For Erle Stanley Gardner, that dream came true. The character he introduced in 1933 took America by storm: Perry Mason, the attorney who never loses a case. Accompanied by two faithful companions, Della Street and Paul Drake, Gardner’s hero soon tried his cases on paper and screen. First adapted for a movie audience in the 1930s, Perry Mason became truly successful on CBS Radio in 1943. Presented as a daily broadcast, the show was destined to also try its luck on television. Although originally endorsed by Erle Stanley Gardner, the program was ultimately created by Irving Vendig, the mastermind behind Mason’s radio success and renamed The Edge of Night. Following up on twelve years on radio, the television show was presented in daily cliffhanger installments which remained true to their roots of drama and crime. Only loosely based on Gardner’s original concept, The Edge of Night introduced Mike Karr as its central crime-fighting character who was supported by his love interest Sara Lane. Designed as a soap opera, the show was broadcast live on CBS from 1956 until its cancellation in 1975. It was then picked up on ABC for another nine years where it finally ended in 1984 without ever becoming untrue to its open end narrative.

As one of the first two half hour dailies of its genre it may be astonishing to hear that The Edge of Night first drew in a large male audience. At second glance, however, the afternoon time slot as well as the whodunit format are explanation enough. Although first perceived as TV’s daytime Perry Mason, the show soon grew into its own and attracted viewers from all backgrounds and age groups. Set in the fictional town of Monticello, the program did not focus on a single family or institution but rather on the entangled lives of a populace somewhere in the Midwest. John Larkin starred as one of the narrative connectors, an actor then still widely identified as the voice of CBS Radio’s Perry Mason. His Mike Karr was joined by Teal Ames as Sara Lane who met with a tragic and untimely death in 1961. Larkin himself was replaced by Laurence Hugo in 1962 who was then succeeded by Forrest Compton for the remainder of the show’s run. Not uncommon for its genre, The Edge of Night underwent many such character deaths and cast changes in its twenty-eight years on the air, none of which resulted in a fatal decline in ratings. What led to a drop in approval, however, was the unfortunate combination of network policy and Procter & Gambles’ influence on time slot changes.

Today, only a fourth of the original 7,400 episodes are available for syndication. Due to an unfortunate habit of erasing classic recordings, especially the early black and white episodes are a rare treat. For anyone who is familiar with the Perry Mason radio program from the 1940s and 50s, the quality of those few preserved episodes serves as a beautiful continuation of the suspense of once live recorded material. For soap opera fans, the show is also a true classic that deserves to be revisited where possible. Treat yourself to an early episode of The Edge of Night here, Tide commercials, announcer and original score included for the real experience.

Memorable Finales

For anyone who knows me and anyone who has been following this blog it may be quite apparent: I’m fond of television. I refrain from saying good TV because that certainly lies in the eye of the beholder. Let’s just agree that TV classics have a special place in my heart and probably yours. That they have a quality most modern shows are struggling to repeat. That their appeal grows in proportion to their age, out of nostalgia for our youth or the good old days, I do not know. That will have to be a topic of another post. What I want to talk about today is an integral part of any television series. Finales, those long awaited yet dreaded farewells to our favorite shows. Those final episodes we miss when TV series get canceled on short notice.

Personally, I love a great finale when the audience gets a chance to say goodbye to their favorite characters and the writers get to wrap up their storylines. Some of my favorite examples are M*A*S*H, The Golden Girls, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Babylon 5. All shows that stayed true to their formula and honored their protagonists by creating a melancholy but optimistic end. The West Wing as one of my favorite modern shows on the other hand aimed high but fell strangely flat. Set in a political environment, for me, the last episode was too quixotic to meet my expectations. Although it wasn’t as disappointing as The Wonder Years nor as sobering as The X-Files, it still lacked the critical essence of a program I had thoroughly enjoyed for seven years. It may be a matter of taste, but I like to imagine my favorite shows to continue ad infinitum. “Now it seems to me the place to start is at the beginning” will always be my favorite line to end a show. And who else could have said it but Raymond Burr on Perry Mason, a show that has out-classed many by paying tribute to its crew in the final episode. That’s my preferred way of saying goodbye. To leave the fans with a sense of gratitude, hope and infinity. The characters we’ve come to love over the years continue to exist even if we don’t get to visit them anymore on a weekly basis.

A great exception are finales that offer a conclusion to a finite storyline or explain events that seem to have pushed the boundaries of the original tale. Roseanne is such an example. Although not one of my favorite shows, the explanations the last episode offered to make sense of the exaggerated plot of the final season still resonate with me today. Equally memorable was Six Feet Under, a show I increasingly disliked over the years but always held in high esteem for its stellar cast. The outlook we got on the fate of the main characters met with a sense of closure that pushed the program on an almost ethereal level. The only other comparison that comes to mind is Malcolm in the Middle, a show completely different in style but similar in its ability to complete a given storyline.

With all these good examples, I almost shy away from mentioning the frustrating ones we all know exist. Those let down finales and anticlimactic farewells with the potential to ruin the fun of an entire show in retrospect. Battlestar Galactica is my favorite example. A show that lost its promise in the last season when it was interrupted by the Writer’s Guild strike in 2007. Chopped into two halves, the long awaited revelation failed to address one of the program’s most haunting signature sentences and ultimately revealed that the Cylons (like the writers) never had a plan. Although given the time to bring a complex story to a fruitful end, the final season was dragged out but rushed at the same time. Unlike Battlestar Galactica, ALF and last year’s Alcatraz did not even get a chance to conclude their stories which is probably the most dissatisfying way for a show to say goodbye. With a cliffhanger and many burning questions, fans were denied the satisfaction of a proper conclusion and thus nurtured the reluctance of fans to invest their time in new programs.

The most appealing alternative for anyone who has been left hanging in mid-air more than once may be the great array of mini series TV has spoiled us with over the years. These programs are, after all, thought through from beginning to end and offer a guaranteed conclusion (although not necessarily a happy end). Pride and Prejudice, Bleak House or Angels in America were all equipped with unforgettable finales that live up to the series’ initial promise of quality and entertainment. Each one of them a great treat for TV enthusiasts and a milestone in television history.

Happy Birthday, Barbara Hale!

Today, one of my favorite Golden Hollywood Girls is celebrating her 91st birthday. Or her 92nd, depending on the source you believe in. I stick with the younger option because the birth date April 18appearing at the "Hollywood Show", 1922 has such a nice ring to it. Besides, which woman doesn’t like to be younger rather than older?!

In general, 90-something is quite a milestone and (in my humble opinion) deserves a proper celebration – especially if the smile that comes with it is as bubbly and contagious as it always has been. So here’s your party hat, dear Barbara Hale, a big birthday hug and a smooch on your rosy cheeks. I hope you’re having a ball today, are blessed with good health (for many more years to come) and are surrounded by love and cheerful laughter.

Thanks so much for all the joy you have brought to my life as Della Street, on the silver screen and in interviews. Apart from my big love for Perry Mason, I’ve also always relished your on-screen collaborations with your charmingly handsome husband, Bill Williams. So for those of you who haven’t had the chance to see any of those “family projects”, here’s one of my favorite examples, The Clay Pigeon. A classic gem for a joyous day. Enjoy!

TV Intros

As requested by Ben Masters on Facebook, I am following up on my TV themes post and have a look at the visual aspect of TV intros. I don’t know about you, but if an intro is well done, I’m already getting into the mood for a show I want to watch. If the music and visuals match, the better the effect. So when I think about intros without primarily listening to the songs, the shows that have had a lasting effect on me with their introductions are definitely Charlie’s Angels, Bewitched and (you probably guessed it) Perry Mason. Like many other fans (so I’m sure), I’ve always wanted to know what was in that silly script that brought out Raymond Burr’s handsome dimple smile.

Charlie’s Angels, like Hart to Hart or Babylon 5 used narration to add to their pictorial introductions, explaining the background or premise of the show. While Lionel Stander introduced his screen bosses with scenes from the Hart to Hart pilot and only slight textual changes in the five years the show was on TV, Babylon 5 used a different introduction every season. Merging scenes from the show with the voices of lead characters, the season intros offered an outlook on the individual seasons, as well as a quick summary of what you needed to know to follow the plot of this complex show. And since I’m speaking of the 90s, who could forget ER, Home Improvement, Touched by an Angel, The X-Files or Chicago Hope – all equipped with visual intros that made clear what to expect from these specific program. Friends and Mad About You, two sitcom flagships of the era, also put us right into a quirky, urban mood, something Sex and the City would perfect in 1998 by making Manhattan a visual main character.

Looking at the evolution of these TV intros, in the 1980s, Cagney and Lacey and Scarecrow and Mrs. King already used their urban setting (New York City and Washington DC), as well as scenes from episodes to give the audience an idea of the content and nature of each show. The Golden Girls and Who’s the Boss did the same while The Cosby Show, Growing Pains, Roseanne or Valerie primarily introduced us to the type of family we were about to visit for half an hour every week. In the 70s, the intros of Happy Days, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show or Family set the tone for very different shows while the 60s had already distinguished themselves from the often sponsor-laden intros of the 1950s. As the first era to introduce color TV, the 60s loved to use colorful effects and a contemporary style of music that showed a development away from family-friendly entertainment to more adult-oriented shows. While Hazel still proved to be traditional and rather quiet in the early 60s, Ironside‘s intro made clear the show was going to be filled with action, not unlike Adam-12.

In the new millennium, The West Wing tackled the unthinkable and turned politics into popular TV, the show’s intro already setting the mood and quality of a show that had a good run of seven seasons. The original CSI uses a similar pattern, creating a symbiosis of music and images, teasing the audience without giving too much away while the intro to the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica did not only set the tone for a dark-edged series, but also treated its audience to a glimpse into each new episode. Whether you enjoy the classic style of merging video material with a catchy tune like Trapper John M.D. did in in the late 70s and early 80s, prefer graphics as used in Cheers or are fond of the genuine way The Closer interlaced its credits with an already commencing episode – TV show intros are a like a good business card. Selling your product without being obtrusive while making a lasting impression on your audience.

The Perry Mason Radio Show

In 1943, after having published some twenty odd successful whodunits, Erle Stanley Gardner signed a contract with Procter & Gamble to bring his fictional lawyer and his team to America’s living rooms. Although scarred by his experiences with Hollywood and Warner Bros’ six reluctantly successful screen adaptations, he agreed to broadcast Perry Mason as an afternoon program to entertain his target group and thus promote his books. Despite Gardner’s own deficiencies to turn his narratives into suspenseful scripts, Perry Mason premiered in the fall of 1943 and underwent several revisions until the author finally came to like the radio version of his famous character three years later. Improved by writer Irving Vendig in 1946, Perry Mason was brought to life by several actors, among them Donald Briggs, John Larkin, SanotsJohn Larkin & Joan Alexander Ortega and Bartlett Robinson. They presented a sophisticated, multifaceted lawyer who was in the habit of defending friends and enjoyed good food. He was supported by an ever-loyal and savvy Della Street, played by Joan Alexander, Jan Miner an Gertrude Warner. Their relationship, like in the books, remained a riddle: close-knit and intimate, yet respectful and professional, they shared a kiss more than once. Paul Drake, the smart-mouthed, brisk detective, was played by Matt Crowley and Charles Webster. Always kept on his toes by Perry’s cases and eager to banter with Della, he was an important ingredient to the slowly blooming success of a soapy yet suspenseful show. Broadcast five days a week in fifteen minute segments, Perry Mason solved his cases with the help of recurring guest characters such as Helen and Jake Jacobson, two news reporters who helped fool suspects or the prosecution more than once. Designed as a suspense program with melodramatic elements, the show lasted twelve consecutive seasons and was finally terminated in 1955. Followed by the still popular Perry Mason TV show (CBS 1957-66, NBC 1985-95) and The Edge of Night (CBS 1956-75, ABC 1975-84), selected episodes of the Perry Mason radio program are now available on The Internet Archive and Old Time Radio. Although incomplete and rather different in quality, the episodes are a wonderful treat for any Perry Mason fan, novice or seasoned, and a great addition to any radio detective collection.

The Case of the Stuttering Bishop

Talkie of the Week: The Case of the Stuttering Bishop

USA 1937, 70 minutes, black & white, Warner Bros. Director: William Clemens, Written by Kenneth Gamet and Don Ryan, Based on The Case of the Stuttering Bishop by Erle Stanley Gardner. Cast: Donald Woods, Ann Dvorak, Anne Nagel, Linda Perry, Craig Reynolds, Gordon Oliver, Joseph Crehan, Helen MacKellar, Edward McWade, Tom Kennedy, Mira McKinney, Frank Faylen, Douglas Wood, Veda Ann Borg, George Lloyd, Selmer Jackson and Charles Wilson.

Plot summary: Perry Mason gets involved in a case of identity theft and ends up defending the possible heir to a murder victim’s fortune.

TCOT Stuttering Bisop 1937Review: As the sixth and last adaptation of Erle Stanley Gardner’s popular whodunits, Warner Brothers released The Case of the Stuttering Bishop in 1937 with Donald Woods as famed lawyer Perry Mason and Ann Dvorak as his faithful girl Friday Della Street. Based on Gardner’s ninth book, the film tried to turn a difficult plot into seventy minutes of entertaining noir, unfortunately another failed attempt at the box office. For Mason fans, the film may now be a gem to complete their collection, for a general audience, however, the film did not manage to live up to Gardner’s original story.

Although blessed with Donald Woods as yet another Mason, the film, once again, lacked the enticing chemistry between Perry and and his savvy secretary, an element the radio and TV show would get down to a T in the 1940s through 60s. Ann Dvorak, despite her decent lines, brief (book-inspired) action scene and physical presence, did not manage to shine as Della Street and Joseph Crehan did not get enough screen time to actually flesh out another pivotal character from the original books, private detective Paul Drake. Charles Wilson, though, as district attorney Hamilton Burger, met the rather unlikeable persona from Gardner’s novels and Edward McWade was a charming stuttering bishop Mallory. Together, they made the film an enjoyable hour of entertainment without living up to the story’s full potential.

Despite my bias for Raymond Burr, Barbara Hale and their smash hit show from the 50s and 60s, I must admit, however, that Donald Woods did a fine job at breathing life into his very own Perry Mason. Of all the adaptations from the 1930s, The Case of the Stuttering Bishop may even qualify as my favorite, although each of the six films had its beauty and strengths. As a Mason fan, I’m grateful either way for Warner’s decision to release all of the first Mason films in one boxset on DVD – it sure made the best early Christmas gift I gave myself this year.

The Case of the Black Cat

Talkie of the Week: The Case of the Black Cat

USA 1936, 66 minutes, black & white, Warner Bros. Director: William C. McGann, Written by F. Hugh Herbert, Based on The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat by Erle Stanley Gardner. Cast: Ricardo Cortez, June Travis, Jane Bryan, Craig Reynolds, Carlyle Moore Jr., Gordon Elliot, Nedda Harrigan, Garry Owen, Harry Davenport, George Rosener, Gordon Hart, Clarence Wilson, Guy Usher, Lottie Williams and Harry Hayden.

Plot summary: When Peter Laxter calls Perry Mason to change his will in order to test the loyalty of his granddaughter’s fiancé, his actions result in a series of sudden deaths the prosecution investigates as murders.

Review: Following four silver screenTCOT Black Catadaptations with Warren William starring as Perry Mason, Warner Brothers took another shot at success in 1936 by releasing The Case of the Black Cat based on Erle Stanley Gardner’s seventh whodunit, The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat. Introducing Ricardo Cortez as the famous attorney-at-law and June Travis as his irreplaceable Della Street, that new production did not follow up on previously disappointing attempts of turning Mason into a Nick Charles but rather tried to soak up the essence of Gardner’s original novel. Featuring Garry Owen as private eye Paul Drake, an important asset to Mason’s law practice, and Guy Usher as district attorney Hamilton Burger, The Case of the Black Cat was suspenseful and noir right from the start. What the film lacked, however, was that kind of enticing chemistry between the story’s main characters, an ingredient Raymond Burr, Barbara Hale, Bill Hopper (as well as William Talman and Ray Collins) would so easily create on the small screen two decades later.

Although hard to compare to the smashing TV show of the 1950s and 60s, this adaptation from 1936 already took a step into the right direction. Regardless of his excellent performance skills and gentlemanly quality, Warren William did not get to leave a lasting mark as Perry Mason and unfortunately, nor did Ricardo Cortez with his one-time chance at proving himself. June Travis, as the fourth actress to breathe life into Mason’s skillful girl Friday, also didn’t make a big enough difference to win the hearts of Gardner’s fans. Just like her predecessors, she was pretty and useful but never as distinctive as the character in the original books.

In general, The Case of the Black Cat offered a calmer version of Gardner’s crafty lawyer, especially when compared to the screwball-induced The Case of the Lucky Legs and The Velvet Claws, the improved take on the novels still did not stand out enough, however, to attract a larger audience. Today, The Case of the Black Cat is a great little film for anyone who loves Perry Mason. Although for most, Raymond Burr will always be the perfect Perry and Barbara Hale his unrivaled Della, this film is a great example of how Hollywood has always tried to tell stories the audience has already embraced. It is also a treat for anyone who is enamored with the 1930s, the slang, movies and fashion of those troubled days.

Available on the Perry Mason Mysteries DVD boxset.

America in Primetime

In 2011, PBS presented America in Primetime, a documentary in four parts about the history of television. Focusing on the evolution of the Independent Woman, the Man of the House, the Misfit and Crusader, each episodes offered a look back at the beginning of mainstream television in the 1950s until today. Blessed with a great variety of popular interviewees, America in Primetime was an ambitious project with names such as Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, Ron Howard, David Lynch and Shonda Rhimes attached to it. Unfortunately however, the series did not live up to its potential and rarely offered controversy about contemporary perception. For years, it’s been in vogue to bash the 50s and idealize the 1960 and 70s, for example, but from the announcement of this PBS production I had expected otherwise.

It’s always easy to look at a bygone era with modern eyes without looking underneath the surface. But no matter how much I am personally tickled by Lucille Ball, the 1950s had more to offer than just I Love Lucy, The Donna Reed Show and Leave it to Beaver. I was surprised, to say the least, when I didn’t hear a mention of Betty White and her already flourishing career and bewildered, like so often, when Mary Richards was called the first single working girl on television. Whatever happened to Connie Brooks and Della Street? After all, not every female character (despite their feminine appeal) was “just” a housewife, a job many (post-)feminists still seem to wrestle with.

Male characters of that era weren’t appraised more adequately either. I mean, Ralph Kramden may have been a prototype for characters like Fred Flintstone or Homer Simpson, but he was already a caricature back in his time and not just a regular guy. Jim Anderson from Father Knows Best, as another popular example, was also more flawed than critics often depict him today. His wholesome attitude and simple answers may have fostered the image of the omnipotent father, but only on the surface – he was wrong too often with his fatherly assessments to call him a picture perfect patriarch.

But America in Primetime doesn’t like to dig deeper and rather creates an odd summary of female liberation (and correlated emasculation of male role models) on TV. Murphy Brown, Sex and the City and Grey’s Anatomy serve as notable examples along with The Good Wife‘s Kalinda Sharma. Positive role models such as The Cosby Show‘s Clair Huxtable, Maggie Seaver from Growing Pains, Designing Women or The Golden Girls don’t even get a mention and I wonder if it’s their grace and domesticity or their love for men that interferes with the desired image of women who favor their careers over everything else.

All in all, America in Primetime – like other documentaries before – celebrates the evolution of television from the simple, archaic days of the 1950s to a supposed golden age of the 2000s (predominantly on pay TV). By celebrating the creation of broken and disturbed characters whose complexity supports the audience’s alleged desire for drama and realism, the program may appeal to anyone who enjoys shows like Nurse Jackie, The Sopranos, Mad Men or Breaking Bad. For anyone who prefers dignity, subtlety and moderation in storytelling, the documentary may draw the wrong conclusions about a bygone era and leave a taste of bias in your mouth. Personally, I was dissatisfied with the fragmented glimpse into TV history and the overwhelming number of present-day TV makers as a primary interview source. But with my fondness for vintage that may not come as a surprise.

Raymond Burr

Everyone who grew up with a TV set knows his brooding face, his kind blue eyes and dimple smile. Raymond Burr, star of two consecutive hit shows, Perry Mason and Ironside, is still a household name due to his haunting qualities as an actor who started as a villain and would become America’s favorite lawyer.

Career: Born on May 21, 1917 in New Westminster, British Columbia, Raymond Burr came of age in the Great Depression and worked a variety of jobs before he finally broke into acting. Starting out on the stage at the Pasadena Playhouse in 1937, he starred on Broadway in Crazy with the Heat and landed his first movie contract with RKO in the 1940s. Soon typecast as a villain in film noir and other genres due to his broad frame and impressive figure, Raymond Burr appeared in over sixty movies before he finally found fame on television as Erle Stanley Gardner’s courtroom hero Perry Mason.

Originally auditioning for the part of district attorney Hamilton Burger, Raymond was the author’s own first choice for the famous lawyer who had already appeared in books, on the silver screen and radio since the 1930s. With its hour-long format, the TV show was a new attempt of using Gardner’s original characters in a suspenseful and entertaining way. Joined by Barbara Hale as Mason‘s girl Friday Della Street and Hedda Hopper’s son as private eye Paul Drake, Raymond Burr started a journey of unprecedented nature when he shot the pilot in 1956. Although starving for success after his bumpy relationship with big screen Hollywood, the actor was soon exhausted from the six day weeks and long hours on set, the whole production relying on a main character he breathed life into by reciting endless monologues. While enjoying and enforcing the cordial atmosphere on the Perry Mason set, Raymond Burr’s lack of breaks soon resulted in him living in a studio apartment in order to get some rest. As a pastime, Raymond loved playing pranks on his dearly beloved cast members, Bill Talman and Barbara Hale especially – her high-pitched screams, predictable schedule (as an actress, wife and mother of three) and eagerness to respond to his endless list of jokes making her his favorite target. It was the heavy schedule however, his lack of time and variety in acting that ultimately brought Raymond to enjoy Perry Mason less and less. After nine years of rewarding team play on “the happiest set in town” yet grueling working conditions for its star, the show was finally axed in 1966 by CBS. Sad to part from his cast and crew but eager to explore new territory, Raymond Burr soon found himself another show to star on, a show that would allow him more downtime and more right to a say in the matter of storytelling.

As Robert T. Ironside, he re-entered American living rooms in 1967 and managed to repeat his previous success. As an ex-police chief tied to a wheel chair, his new character was different from Perry Mason. A hero by his own means, Ironside and his team conquered the hearts of their audience for a good eight years before its cancellation, releasing its star into a decade of fading fame.

In 1985, Raymond Burr accepted an offer to return as Perry Mason but insisted on Barbara Hale reprising her role as Della Street as well. As the only surviving cast members of the original show, they were joined by Barbara’s son Billy Katt who starred as Paul Drake Jr. in the first nine out of twenty-six common TV movies. In 1993, Raymond Burr also returned as Ironside for one TV movie and then made his last appearance in Perry Mason and The Case of the Killer Kiss. Already tied to a wheel chair on set, Raymond said a long goodbye to his friends before he lost his battle against cancer in the privacy of his home in California, only weeks after wrapping his last project.

Characters: Although he started out as a villain in films like Raw Deal, Borderline or M, it was Raymond Burr’s portrayal of idiosyncratic heroes like Perry Mason and Robert T. Ironside that brought him lasting fame beyond the days of his original success.

Convincing as ruthless characters, as well as disturbed, aggressive or lion-hearted ones, it was his sense of vulnerability, his brooding expression, his kind yet piercing eyes that added depth and realism to his performances. Versatile, tall, broad-shouldered, handsome and blessed with an expressive voice, Raymond Burr’s characters may have been disreputable at the beginning of his career, his screen presence however made it impossible for them to be ignored. After all, who could forget his haunting appearance in Hitchcock’s Rear Window – his eyes intense and full of threat? Or his portrayal of Barney, the cursed murderer in Bride of the Gorilla, an excellent B movie that lives from his no-nonsense performance. Godzilla‘s Steve Martin is another example or Please Murder Me – two films that show the complexity of an actor who defined his characters by making them unique.

Perry Mason then brought on the change he had been hoping for in film. As a righteous guy it was finally him who was chasing the villains and his credibility was so acute, his audience soon started mistaking the actor for the character whenever they met or wrote to him. Adding to his authenticity was the chemistry he had with his co-stars, first and foremost Barbara Hale, Perry Mason‘s highly valued Della Street. Building up a system of non-verbal communication with his partner-in-crime, he soaked up what his co-star offered and allowed her to shine even without any lines.

As Ironside, he managed to create a character who was not limited to his disability but who coped with the restrictions of a wheelchair without allowing his situation to define his abilities. When he returned to his most defining parts in the 1980s and 90s, Raymond Burr added further depth to his portrayal of his two alter egos, especially to Perry Mason whose twenty-six new adventures finally allowed him to suggest a romance between him and Della Street.

Charity and Hobbies: Once described as an oversize personality inside and out, Raymond Burr was a strong believer in giving rather than taking, a humanist at heart, warm and wicked. He excelled as a cook who loved to invite friends to elaborate dinners at his Malibu home, was a distinguished gardener who grew numerous new orchids he named after his friends, including his Perry Mason co-star Barbara Hale, and was interested in art and antiques. A co-owner of a gallery in Beverly Hills and a Hans Erni enthusiast, Raymond Burr was also a man of vast reading and an actor who went at great lengths for his characters and colleagues.

Recognized for his engaging portrayal as Perry Mason, Raymond often attended lawyers gatherings and received an honorary doctorate from two different universities. At the height of his fame, he fostered several children around the world and donated most of his money to institutions and educational programs in the US and Fiji where he also owned an island. He toured Korea and Vietnam to support the troops by sitting down with soldiers in remote areas of the war zones, cultivated wine and refused to have his property named after himself. The Raymond Burr Vineyards didn’t get their name until after his passing, when his business partner decided to honor him posthumously and still continues his work today.

Private Life: Reserved and cautious about sharing his private life, Raymond Burr had a difficult relationship with the press throughout his career. Though repeatedly praised by critics for his work, he was often misquoted in papers and thus grew weary of the coverage that came with his many years of television success. Always outspoken and silver-tongued, he circumnavigated questions about his bachelordom and refrained from commenting gossip about seeing Barbara Stanwyck or Natalie Wood. Never reluctant to discuss the long hours on set as Perry Mason however, he focused on answering questions about his work without presenting himself as the center of attention. Eager to highlight the qualities of his fellow cast members and crew, Raymond Burr made sure to find a balance between describing his workload and the bond he shared with his set family.

As a habit, he never commented on wrongful insinuations about his cordial friendship with his Della Street or his changing weight, nor did he respond to rumors about his supposed homosexuality. Staying true to his convictions of living the kind of life he wished others would live, he made no secret of how much he disliked the press for trying to expose what shouldn’t concern them in the first place. Unfortunately, he did not get around to writing his planned autobiography before he died on September 12, 1993. It would have been a pleasure to read about his career from his own point of view. I’m sure he would have surprised a lot of people with a book filled with a myriad of stories but only little information about himself.  

Filmography:

  • 1994 Perry Mason: The Case of the Killer Kiss (TV movie)
  • 1993 Perry Mason: The Case of the Telltale Talk Show Host (TV movie)
  • 1993 The Return of Ironside (TV movie)
  • 1993 Perry Mason: The Case of the Skin-Deep Scandal (TV movie)
  • 1992 Perry Mason: The Case of the Heartbroken Bride (TV movie)
  • 1992 Perry Mason: The Case of the Reckless Romeo (TV movie)
  • 1992 Perry Mason: The Case of the Fatal Framing (TV movie)
  • 1992 Grass Roots (TV movie)
  • 1991 Perry Mason: The Case of the Fatal Fashion (TV movie)
  • 1991 Delirious
  • 1991 Perry Mason: The Case of the Glass Coffin (TV movie)
  • 1991 Showdown at Williams Creek
  • 1991 Perry Mason: The Case of the Maligned Mobster (TV movie)
  • 1991 Perry Mason: The Case of the Ruthless Reporter (TV movie)
  • 1990 Perry Mason: The Case of the Defiant Daughter (TV movie)
  • 1990 Perry Mason: The Case of the Silenced Singer (TV movie)
  • 1990 Perry Mason: The Case of the Desperate Deception (TV movie)
  • 1990 Perry Mason: The Case of the Poisoned Pen (TV movie)
  • 1989 Perry Mason: The Case of the All-Star Assassin (TV movie)
  • 1989 Perry Mason: The Case of the Musical Murder (TV movie)
  • 1989 Perry Mason: The Case of the Lethal Lesson (TV movie)
  • 1988 Perry Mason: The Case of the Lady in the Lake (TV movie)
  • 1988 Perry Mason: The Case of the Avenging Ace (TV movie)
  • 1987 Perry Mason: The Case of the Scandalous Scoundrel (TV movie)
  • 1987 Perry Mason: The Case of the Murdered Madam (TV movie)
  • 1987 Perry Mason: The Case of the Sinister Spirit (TV movie)
  • 1987 Perry Mason: The Case of the Lost Love (TV movie)
  • 1986 Perry Mason: The Case of the Shooting Star (TV movie)
  • 1986 Perry Mason: The Case of the Notorious Nun (TV movie)
  • 1985 Perry Mason Returns (TV movie)
  • 1984 Godzilla 1985: The Legend Is Reborn
  • 1982 Airplane II: The Sequel
  • 1981 Peter and Paul (TV movie)
  • 1980 The Night the City Screamed (TV movie)
  • 1980 Out of the Blue
  • 1980 The Curse of King Tut’s Tomb (TV movie)
  • 1980 The Return
  • 1979 The Thirteenth Day: The Story of Esther (TV movie)
  • 1979 Disaster on the Coastliner (TV movie)
  • 1979 The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo (TV series) – The Mob Comes to Orly (1979)
  • 1979 Eischied (TV series) – Only the Pretty Girls Die: Parts 1+2 (1979)
  • 1979 Love’s Savage Fury (TV movie)
  • 1979 Centennial (TV mini-series), 12 episodes
  • 1979 The Love Boat (TV series) – Alas, Poor Dwyer/After the War/Itsy Bitsy/Ticket to Ride/Disco Baby: Parts 1+2 (1979)
  • 1978 The Jordan Chance (TV movie)
  • 1978 The Bastard (TV movie)
  • 1978 Tomorrow Never Comes
  • 1977 Harold Robbins’ 79 Park Avenue (TV mini-series)
  • 1976-1977 Kingston: Confidential (TV series), 14 episodes
  • 1977 Godzilla
  • 1976 Mallory: Circumstantial Evidence (TV movie)
  • 1967-1975 Ironside (TV series), 196 episodes
  • 1973 Portrait: A Man Whose Name Was John (TV movie)
  • 1972 The Bold Ones: The New Doctors (TV series) – Five Days in the Death of Sgt. Brown: Part II (1972)
  • 1963-1970 The Red Skelton Hour (TV series) – Freddie’s Desperate Hour (1970), The Magic Act (1970), Appleby’s Soul (1965), Disorder in the Court (1964), Episode #13.10 (1963)
  • 1968 P.J.
  • 1968 It Takes a Thief (TV series) – A Thief Is a Thief (1968)
  • 1957-1966 Perry Mason (TV series), 271 episodes
  • 1961 The Jack Benny Program (TV series) – Jack on Trial for Murder (1961)
  • 1960 Joyful Hour (TV movie)
  • 1960 Desire in the Dust
  • 1960 The Christophers (TV series) – Joyful Hour (1960)
  • 1957 Playhouse 90 (TV series) – Lone Woman (1957), The Greer Case (1957)
  • 1957 Affair in Havana
  • 1957 The Web (TV series) – No Escape (1957)
  • 1957 Undercurrent (TV series) – No Escape (1957)
  • 1957 Crime of Passion
  • 1956 Ride the High Iron (TV movie)
  • 1956 The Brass Legend
  • 1956 Climax! (TV series) – Savage Portrait (1956), The Shadow of Evil (1956), The Sound of Silence (1956)
  • 1954-1956 Lux Video Theatre (TV series) – Flamingo Road (1956), The Web (1955), Shall Not Perish (1954), A Place in the Sun (1954)
  • 1956 A Cry in the Night
  • 1956 Secret of Treasure Mountain
  • 1956 Great Day in the Morning
  • 1956 Godzilla, King of the Monsters!
  • 1956 Celebrity Playhouse (TV series) – No Escape (1956)
  • 1956 Please Murder Me
  • 1956 The Star and the Story (TV series) – The Force of Circumstance (1956)
  • 1954-1956 The Ford Television Theatre (TV series) – Man Without a Fear (1956), The Fugitives (1954)
  • 1956 Chevron Hall of Stars (TV series) – The Lone Hand (1956)
  • 1955 The 20th Century-Fox Hour (TV series) – The Ox-Bow Incident (1955)
  • 1955 Count Three and Pray
  • 1955 A Man Alone
  • 1955 You’re Never Too Young
  • 1955 Schlitz Playhouse (TV series) – The Ordeal of Dr. Sutton (1955)
  • 1954 They Were So Young
  • 1954 Passion
  • 1954 Thunder Pass
  • 1954 Khyber Patrol
  • 1954 Rear Window
  • 1954 Gorilla at Large
  • 1954 Mr. & Mrs. North (TV series) – Murder for Sale (1954)
  • 1954 Casanova’s Big Night
  • 1953 Four Star Playhouse (TV series) – The Room (1953)
  • 1953 Fort Algiers
  • 1953 Tarzan and the She-Devil
  • 1953 Serpent of the Nile
  • 1953 The Blue Gardenia
  • 1953 The Bandits of Corsica
  • 1953 Your Favorite Story (TV series) – How Much Land Does a Man Need? (1953)
  • 1953 Tales of Tomorrow (TV series) – The Mask of Medusa (1953)
  • 1951-1952 Family Theatre (TV series) – A Star Shall Rise (1952), That I May See (1951), Triumphant Hour
  • 1952 Horizons West
  • 1952 Gruen Guild Theater (TV series) – Face Value (1952), The Leather Coat (1952), The Tiger (1952)
  • 1952 The Unexpected (TV series) – The Magnificent Lie (1952)
  • 1952 Mara Maru
  • 1952 Rebound (TV series) – The Wreck (1952), Joker’s Wild (1952)
  • 1951 Meet Danny Wilson
  • 1951 Chesterfield Sound Off Time (TV series) – Dragnet: The Human Bomb (1951)
  • 1951 Dragnet (TV series) – The Human Bomb (1951)
  • 1951 FBI Girl
  • 1951 Bride of the Gorilla
  • 1951 The Magic Carpet
  • 1951 The Whip Hand
  • 1951 His Kind of Woman
  • 1951 A Place in the Sun
  • 1951 New Mexico
  • 1951 Stars Over Hollywood (TV series) – Pearls from Paris (1951), Prison Doctor (1951)
  • 1951 M
  • 1951 The Amazing Mr. Malone (TV series) – Premiere (1951)
  • 1951 The Bigelow Theatre (TV series) – Big Hello (1951)
  • 1950 Borderline
  • 1950 Key to the City
  • 1950 Unmasked
  • 1949 Love Happy
  • 1949 Abandoned
  • 1949 Red Light
  • 1949 Black Magic
  • 1949 Criss Cross
  • 1949 Bride of Vengeance
  • 1948 Adventures of Don Juan
  • 1948 Walk a Crooked Mile
  • 1948 Station West
  • 1948 Pitfall
  • 1948 Raw Deal
  • 1948 Fighting Father Dunne
  • 1948 Ruthless
  • 1948 Sleep, My Love
  • 1948 I Love Trouble
  • 1947 Desperate
  • 1947 Code of the West
  • 1946 San Quentin
  • 1946 Without Reservations
  • 1940 Earl of Puddlestone

Availability:

  • DVD: Airplane II, Borderline, The Brass Legend, Bride of the Gorilla, Centennial, Crime of Passion, Fort Algiers, Godzilla, Ironside, Ironside TV movie, M, Passion, Perry Mason TV series, Perry Mason Returns, Pitfall, A Place in the Sun, Please Murder Me, Rear Window
  • VHS: Jack Benny Program, Perry Mason TV series, Perry Mason TV movies
  • Internet: The Curse of King Tut’s Tomb, I Love Trouble, Please Murder Me

Personal recommendations (in alphabetical order):

  • Bride of the Gorilla, 1951
  • The Curse of King Tut’s Tomb, 1980
  • Dragnet (TV series) – The Human Bomb (1951)
  • The Ford Television Theatre (TV series) – Man Without a Fear (1956), The Fugitives (1954)
  • Ironside (TV series), 1967-75
  • Perry Mason (TV series), 1957-66
  • Perry Mason (TV movies), 1985-94
  • Please Murder Me, 1956
  • Rear Window, 1954

Sources for more on Raymond Burr: