Beyond Kit Carson

Remembering the Charm and Talents of Bill Williams

Born in Brooklyn, New York on May 21, 1915* as Hermann Wilhelm Katt, Bill Williams started his career in Vaudeville, touring the US and Europe as an adagio dancer until he joined the army in WWII. Following an honorable medical discharge, he returned to show business, starting out as an extra in Hollywood and playing small, uncredited parts before he finally landed a deal with RKO in the mid 1940s. As a contract player, he was slowly cast as a budding co-star, opposite popular colleagues such as Spencer Tracy in Thirty Seconds over Tokyo, Robert Young in Those Endearing Young Charms, Robert Mitchum in Till the End of Time and Susan Hayward in Deadline at Dawn while in private life he quietly divorced his first, long estranged wife. In 1946, two years after shooting West of the Pecos, a small Western featuring RKO starlet Barbara Hale whom he had previously been introduced to by acting coach Lillian Albertson, he got married to his former co-star gone studio sweetheart and saw a bright future laid out before him. Considered for a series of pictures following A Likely Story co-starring his young wife, Bill’s stream of luck ended with the sudden death of RKO president Charles Kroener and the structural changes that followed at the studio.

After serving as good-will ambassador from Hollywood to the public in 1946 and 47 for several months, keeping his popularity afloat by touring he country, he was struck down by an old injury that would further interrupt his career while Mrs. Williams was expecting their first child. With A Likely Story under his belt, however, the press didn’t lose interest in him and focused on the private life of the growing Williams family instead, presenting them as happy, lovely and homey. After bowing out of The Window, his second would-be collaboration with wife Barbara, Bill regained his health and starred with her in The Clay Pigeon. Shortly thereafter, the couple faced a new challenge in their conjoined careers when Howard Hughes entered the scene to change the course of RKO by letting all the contract players go. While his wife managed to land a career-breaking part in Jolson Sings Again and a follow-up contract with Columbia Pictures, Bill Williams continued working as a freelance actor, starring in a number of small Westerns and memorable films like The Stratton Story until he got his big break on television in 1951. Landing the title role in The Adventures of Kit Carson, Bill breathed life into a character who soon turned into a kids’ favorite and guaranteed him long hours on set. Successful for four consecutive seasons, the show turned Bill into a household name and Western hero, a good fortune he tried to continue with Date with the Angels in 1957. Starring opposite TV darling Betty White, Bill was seen as a newlywed husband who showed splendid comedic timing. Although promising, entertaining and less strenuous to work on than his predecessor series, the show did not last longer than a season. Instead, his wife Barbara Hale started an unexpectedly long career on television when she agreed to star as Della Street on Perry Mason, a show that would last from 1957 to 66. After years of putting her family first, it was Bill now who spent more time at home with the three children. He did not return to the small screen until 1960 when he starred in Assignment: Underwater, an underwater adventure show modeled after Sea Hunt, a surprise hit Bill Williams himself had turned down in 1958. Following the show’s cancellation, Bill returned to being a working actor and guest starred on a variety of popular programs including his wife’s great success and her co-star Raymond Burr’s follow-up smash Ironside until he retired from acting for good in 1981.

Although originally a city boy with a defining Brooklyn accent, Bill was frequently cast as a handsomely talented cowboy throughout his career. With his boyish grin, tender eyes and natural athleticism, he was the perfect ‘good guy’ when he was young and a credible character actor when he got older. Always deeply committed to his craft, he worked hard at doing most of his own stunts, oozed honesty and earthy charm. Not unlike his darling wife, Bill Williams is now often remembered for his one career-defining role as Kit Carson, but it would be a pity to forget all the other characters he breathed life into, including the many different men he played opposite Mrs. Williams – from their first feature West of the Pecos in 1945 to their last in 1976, Disney’s Flight of the Grey Wolf.

Twenty years ago, on September 21, Bill Williams died in Burbank, California at the age of 77. He left his wife of 46 years, two grown daughters and his son, William Katt, a working actor who continued the tradition of keeping the business in the family by repeatedly working with his mother, Barbara Hale, on the same projects. By his fans, he is still remembered with great fondness, especially by those who grew up loving Westerns.

* Author’s note: Apparently, there’s some confusion about Bill Williams’ date of birth. (Thanks for the mention, Gina!) Wikipedia now lists May 15th as his birthday while imdb still mentions May 21st. As soon as I get confirmation on the validity of one of these dates, you’ll be the first ones to know.

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:

Perry Mason TV Movies

TV classics: Perry Mason TV movies

USA 1985-95, 30 episodes, 90 minutes each, NBC. Based on Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason novels and the Perry Mason TV series. Cast: Raymond Burr, Barbara Hale, William Katt, William R. Moses, Recurring Guest Stars: James McEachin, David Odgen Stiers, Guest Stars: Barbara Babcock, Scott Baio, Polly Bergen, Gene Barry, Angela Bassett, Shari Belafonte, Tom Bosley, Diahann Carroll, Dixie Carter, Morgan Fairchild, Genie Francis, Robert Guillaume, Hal Holbrook, Brian Keith, Diana Muldaur, Patrick O’Neil, Regis Philbin, Davis Rasche, Debbie Reynolds, John Rhys-Davies, Jerry Orbach, Anne Schedeen, Dwight Schultz, Jean Simmons, Paul Sorvino, John Spencer, Susan Sullivan, Holland Taylor, Alan Thicke, Vanessa Williams et al.

Plot summary: Perry Mason returns to Los Angeles to defend his former secretary Della Street and opens up shop with her again after he gets her acquitted.

Review: It was nineteen years after the last episode of the original Perry Mason series that the famous lawyer gone judge reunited with his loyal secretary in Perry Mason Returns: facing murder charges in L.A., Della Street calls her former boss who steps down from his duties in San Francisco to rush to her aid like he used to when a damsel was in distress back in the days. Fitting right back in with Della who easily switches into her secretarial mode during her own trial, Perry immerses himself in saving his friend and contacts Paul Drake Jr. to get on the case. Skeptical about Junior’s attitude at first, he hires young Paul upon his client’s request and asks him to investigate the murder victim and his family. Like in the classic show,  justice prevails in the end and Perry wins his case with his usual theatrics and courtroom charm.

Although Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale were the only members of the original Mason cast who were able to reprise their iconic parts in 1985, the fate of their characters’ friends remained open. Paul Drake Jr.’s existence was never explained in the nine episodes William Katt played the charismatic detective, but it was clear that he had grown up in the presence of Perry and Della. Profiting from his natural chemistry with his mother Barbara Hale, Billy Katt added a spark of energy to the rejuvenated investigation scenes, reminding fans of Bill Hopper’s original Paul Drake whenever he started flirting with the ladies. In 1989, he was replaced by William R. Moses as Ken Malansky, a young lawyer Perry defends and later takes in as his associate. Ray Burr and his longtime leading lady picked up where they had left off at the end of the Perry Mason series in 1966. As experienced performers in their golden sixties, they returned to their congenial dynamic and used their sparkle to remind the audience of the lingering attraction between Perry Mason and Della Street. Although never openly expressed on the original show but always sizzling in the air, the famous lawyer finally got to kiss his loyal secretary in 1993, confirming the romance Erle Stanley Gardner himself had established in his early Mason novels.

In general, the TV movies gave Della and Perry more time for having a private life, as well as a past. Although still underused as faithful Miss Street, Barbara Hale got more screen time in most of the ninety minute episodes which were produced on an irregular basis. Moving production to Denver to cut down the costs, Perry Mason eventually moved his practice to the Colorado capital, too, which didn’t stop him from traveling to New York or Paris, something he had rarely done on the original show.

Successful from the first reunion movie on, the re-imagined franchise lasted another ten years and welcomed a variety of top notch guest stars who were eager to be on the stand for Perry Mason. Some of these stars were former colleagues of Raymond Burr or Barbara Hale, others merely impressed by the TV lawyer and his suspenseful cases. There were two actors who stepped into Perry Mason’s shoes without impersonating him after Raymond Burr’s untimely death in 1993 – Paul Sorvino and Hal Holbrook. Both played lawyers who replaced Perry on a case while he was busy otherwise in the Perry Mason Mysteries. Perry Mason himself never died and was ultimately entangled in court in Europe where Della joined him when Barbara Hale bowed out of her contract for personal reasons in 1994. The series ended with her departure and the movies are still frequently shown on different channels. Perry Mason Returns was published on the 50th Anniversary of Perry Mason DVD in 2008 and with the original show still being released in its entirety, fan hopes are high that the complete movie collection will also be available eventually.

The Perry Mason TV movies:

  • Perry Mason Returns (1985)
  • The Case of the Notorious Nun (1986)
  • The Case of the Shooting Star (1986)
  • The Case of the Lost Love (1987)
  • The Case of the Sinister Spirit (1987)
  • The Case of the Murdered Madam (1987)
  • The Case of the Scandalous Scoundrel (1987)
  • The Case of the Avenging Ace (1988)
  • The Case of the Lady in the Lake (1988)
  • The Case of the Lethal Lesson (1989)
  • The Case of the Musical Murder (1989)
  • The Case of the All-Star Assassin (1989)
  • The Case of the Poisoned Pen (1990)
  • The Case of the Desperate Deception (1990)
  • The Case of the Silenced Singer (1990)
  • The Case of the Defiant Daughter (1990)
  • The Case of the Ruthless Reporter (1991)
  • The Case of the Maligned Mobster (1991)
  • The Case of the Glass Coffin (1991)
  • The Case of the Fatal Fashion (1991)
  • The Case of the Fatal Framing (1992)
  • The Case of the Reckless Romeo (1992)
  • The Case of the Heartbroken Bride (1992)
  • The Case of the Skin-Deep Scandal (1993)
  • The Case of the Telltale Talk Show Host (1993)
  • The Case of the Killer Kiss (1993)

The Perry Mason Mysteries:

  • The Case of the Wicked Wives (1993), starring Paul Sorvino as Anthony Caruso
  • The Case of the Lethal Lifestyle (1994), starring Hal Holbrook as “Wild Bill” McKenzie
  • The Case of the Grimacing Governor (1994), again starring Holbrook in the same role
  • The Case of the Jealous Jokester (1995), again starring Holbrook

Happy Birthday, Barbara Hale!

Today, the lovely Barbara Hale celebrates her 90th birthday and this post is my way of wishing her well. So please feel invited to walk down memory lane with me through her career on screen and her public life which started in the funny papers when she was modeling for a comic strip called Ramblin’ Bill and ended when she retired from acting in 1994 to fully commit herself to her beloved family.

Born on April 18th, 1922*, in DeKalb, Barbara Hale grew up as the second of two daughters of Ezra and Willa Hale in Rockford, Illinois. Interested in art early on, Barbara was encouraged by her mother to pursue her goal of becoming a commercial artist. Working after school to show her dedication to her craft, her father gave his consent for her to attend the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts after her high school graduation. Living at the YWCA where she shared a room with a friend, Barbara was soon asked to model for fellow students and finally landed a job posing for a comic strip called Ramblin’ Bill. She was a fashion model when a talent scout spotted her and offered her a chance for a trial contract with RKO in Hollywood. Young, ambitious and thrilled about acting, Barbara hopped on the train out West and landed her first job as the replacement of a sick extra in Gildersleeve’s Bad Day on her day of arrival in 1943.

Getting her education on the studio lot, Barbara immersed herself in her new profession, eagerly embracing singing, horseback riding, voice and dance lessons while continuing to work as a model for a variety of products. Prone to being sociable and charming, it didn’t take her long to meet fellow contract player Bill Williams with whom she fell in love on studio grounds. Working together on West of the Pecos in 1944, her first big part after debuting on Higher and Higher alongside Frank Sinatra, she soon knew she wanted to marry her “Ramblin’ Bill”. Although committed to founding a family while missing her own, Barbara kept working hard for her career and landed strong parts in First Yank into Tokyo and Lady Luck.

In 1946, Barbara and Bill got married and started working on A Likely Story. In 1947, a little more than a year after taking their vows, their first child was born, daughter Jody. Two more children followed in 1951 and 1953, son Billy and another daughter, Juanita. While being a dedicated mother and wife, Barbara kept working on movies such as The Boy with Green Hair, The Clay Pigeon and The Window until she left RKO when her contract ended with the studio. She started working for Columbia and secured herself a part in Jolson Sings Again, then also worked for other studios before tackling television. The Jackpot with Jimmy Stewart, Lorna Doone, A Lion is in the Streets with James Cagney and The Houston Story were some of her memorable films, as well as a number of Westerns such as The Oklahoman with Joel McCrea.

In 1956, Barbara was approached by Gail Patrick Jackson who urged her to join the cast of a new show called Perry Mason. Skeptical at first due to the young age of her three children, Barbara finally accepted the promising offer and became TV’s most famous secretary when the show went on the air in 1957. Rewarded with a congenial atmosphere on set, lasting friendships, two Emmy nominations and one win, Barbara soon had a reputation of being everyone’s favorite cast member. Adored by fans and press alike, coverage on the Perry Mason family and “Della Street” in her private life returned to an old-time high. Although strenuous at times, being on set six days a week (even when she didn’t have any lines) and leading a rich family life, Barbara embraced her part with full abandon and was grateful for the steady work.

In 1966, after nine years of television fame, Perry Mason was discontinued and Barbara took a well-deserved break from acting to unwind and enjoy more time with her family – her husband and their three children, then nineteen, fifteen and thirteen. In 1967, Barbara made her big screen comeback in a Western called Buckskin, continuing the family tradition of working with her husband on the same film. More common projects followed, including guest stints on Insight and Adam-12, as well as movies such as The Giant Spider Invasion and The Flight of the Grey Wolf.

After numerous guest stints on popular shows like Ironside, The Doris Day Show and Marcus Welby M.D. and supporting parts on movies such as Airport in 1970, Barbara also returned to making a living with commercials when she became the Amana spokesperson for Radar Range microwave ovens in the 70s. She also starred in two of her son Billy Katt’s projects, Big Wednesday and The Greatest American Hero before he joined her on the reprise of her career’s biggest success. In 1985, Barbara was asked to reunite with her longtime co-star and friend Raymond Burr for Perry Mason Returns, a TV movie that launched another ten years of steady work. After the death of her husband of forty-six years in 1992 and the passing of Raymond Burr only one year later, Barbara Hale continued her performance as Della Street in another four Perry Mason Mysteries before she retired from acting in 1994 for personal reasons. She has led a private life with her family in the Los Angeles area  since but given occasional interviews. Some of her latest interviews are available on the 50th Anniversary of Perry Mason DVD which was released in 2008.

After this sketchy introduction to a very rich life and a darling lady what else is left to say but this: Bless your heart, dear Barbara Hale, for being such an inspiration, and best of wishes on your special day.

* Author’s note: There’s some confusion about Barbara Hale’s actual birthday. While most sources list April 18, 1922 as her day of birth, others say she was already born in 1921. I decided to stick with the most commonly used date. Should that be wrong, I’ll gladly make the necessary changes here on Talking Classics.

The 80s

The 1980s

Looking back, the 80s seem to have been dominated by aerobics, a blindingly rich pink and shoulder pads. What the decade brought us was yuppies, legwarmers and a 1950s comeback. Blue jeans were stone washed, perforated and often tight, and career women wore sneakers on their way to work and then switched back into their heels before entering their business palaces. Bows were big on prom dresses and wedding gowns, men had mullet hair, women perms, and artificial fabrics and colors were the thing to wear. Madonna released her debut album in 1983, The Bangles were popular and so was REM. Lean cuisine entered the market and dieting was a public motto now along with a general fitness craze.

On TV, Murder, She Wrote with super sleuth Angela Lansbury as J.B. Fletcher was mighty popular, as well as Family Ties, The Cosby Show, Growing Pains, The Wonder Years and Who’s the Boss. Other famous shows were The Greatest American Hero, Remington Steele, Fall Guy or ALF. Like in the 70s, the list of household names is long and many of these shows are still well received on DVD or in re-runs today. Continuing a tradition that started back in the 1950s and 60s already, the 80s brought us a lot of shows with Hollywood legends, familiar faces and names. Falcon Crest, for example, featured Jane Wyman, Hotel first Bette Davis and then Ann Baxter and Barbara Stanwyck graced a season of Dynasty‘s spin-off The Colbys. In 1985, my favorite Perry Mason returned to TV after almost 20 years of absence and reunited Raymond Burr with Barbara Hale as Della Street for twenty-six star-studded TV movie episodes that lasted well into the early 90s. Women continued to redefine their image on stellar shows like Cagney & Lacey, The Golden Girls and Designing Women, standing their post-feminist ground as working mothers, single women and retirees.

At the movies, teen flicks like Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or The Breakfast Club turned into box office hits, as well as dance movies like Dirty Dancing, Fame or Footloose (which was just recently remade). All in all, 1980s cinema was dominated by comedies, action movies and romance, creating stars like Molly Ringwald, Michael J. Fox or Patrick Swayze. Some of my decade favorites are Out of Africa, The Big Chill, Beaches, Mask, Matewan, The Doctor or Steel Magnolias. As the last full decade that knew how to create old style Hollywood momentum, the 1980s brought on many more memorable TV shows and films with a lot of stars that are still around these days, Richard Gere, Neil Patrick Harris or Michelle Pfeiffer only to name a few. The 80s also rediscovered class – now guess who’s fond of that?!

The 70s

On the next couple of Fridays I will bring you information about and recommendations from beyond my favorite decades, starting today.

The 1970s

Fashion in the 70s was colorful with patterns that could make you dizzy. Skirts were super long or super short. You had knee-high boots and ethno-chic tunics. Trousers were flared and paired with platform shoes. Popular colors were hippie rich and often psychedelic. A deep rich brown combined with a bright orange and sunny yellow, or a combination of colors that weren’t necessarily easy on the eyes. 1970s fashion was about fun, second wave feminism and comfort. The music world presented ABBA from Sweden and Saturday Night Fever on dance floors worldwide. Glam rock and punk entered the scene, while microwave ovens became more popular in US homes.

On TV, Mary Tyler Moore had her successful debut, as well as The Muppets. Following affirmative action, Woodstock and the relaunch of an arduous gender debate in the 60s, 1970s television was the mirror of a society still heavily entangled in the Vietnam war. M*A*S*H was a direct answer to the pains and fears of an entire generation, inspired by its preceding feature film and novel. Other examples for successful shows from that era are Happy Days, my decade favorite Hart to HartThe Love Boat, or The Waltons with their rather classic entertainment qualities. New family realities and changing structures were picked up on The Brady Bunch, The Odd Couple, The Partridge Family or Three’s Company, the ongoing debate on gender equality on a variety of shows that circled around female leads. Not that TV hadn’t presented women as central heroes before, but the tone had changed and the atmosphere. Charlie’s Angels, Maude, Police Woman or Wonder Woman didn’t have much on Lucy Ricardo, Donna Stone, Samantha Stephens or Susie McNamara. It was a different fabric these “new women” were made of, independent and hard-boiled yet often sexed up. They were supposed to find their way in a man’s world, no matter what, and their wardrobe and wisecracking attitude helped them accomplish that goal.

On the silver screen, gritty, sexed-up, shocking or taboo-breaking was in vogue: The Godfather, The GraduateKramer vs. Kramer, Norma Rae, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Taxi Driver were big hits, as well as the emerging genre of disaster movies kicked off by the adaptation of Alex Haley’s Airport. Personally, I’ve never been a big fan of either one of these films although I have always greatly appreciated each film’s stellar cast. Cabaret or Love Story  are more my cup of tea, along with the surfer movie Big Wednesday for three simple reasons: California, William Katt and his mother Barbara Hale. I guess you can see my priorities.

Barbara Hale

Most people who are familiar with the name Barbara Hale will probably remember her as Perry Mason‘s ever loyal and faithful secretary Della Street. Only few people know that she had a movie career going before her most prominent role determined so many years of her life.

Career: Originally from Rockford, Illinois, Barbara Hale started out as an art scholar who began to model for fellow students while she was attending the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. Soon after, she started modeling for a comic strip called Ramblin’ Bill and found additional work as a fashion model before she was sent out to California to test for RKO where she received a six-month tryout contract with the studio which included singing and dancing lessons. After a couple of uncredited appearances in RKO movies, Barbara got a full contract and made her debut as a supporting actress opposite Frank Sinatra in 1943′s Higher and Higher.

In 1944, she landed her first big part in the Zane Grey Western West of Pecos, opposite Robert Mitchum, and secured herself bigger parts in six more movies, including First Yank into Tokyo and The Window, as well as in A Likely Story and The Clay Pigeon alongside her newly wed husband Bill Williams, before she left the uncertain RKO studio situation in 1948. She managed to win a new contract with Columbia and convinced the studio of her talents opposite Larry Parks in Jolson Sings Again. In 1949, she reunited with former RKO colleague and Lady Luck co-star Robert Young for And Baby Makes Three, before she starred alongside James Stewart in The Jackpott one year later. In 1950, Barbara reunited with Larry Parks for Emergency Wedding before she managed to get the lead in Lorna Doone. In 1953 then, Barbara returned to making Westerns and was cast for Last of the Comanches. A couple of other successful Westerns produced by Columbia and other studios followed, including Seminole and The Lone Hand in 1953, The Far Horizons in 1955, 7th Cavalry in 1956, The Oklahoman and Slim Carter in 1957.

After the birth of her children, Barbara slowly cut back on her film career and, starting in 1953, took on more and more TV work, also to support her husband’s flourishing career as TV’s Kit Carson. In 1957, after a number of guest appearances on popular shows, she was finally cast as Perry Mason‘s infamously steadfast secretary Della Street. Although reluctant about accepting a regular supporting role at the time because her children were still small, Barbara signed her contract without imagining that the show would last as long as nine years. The part of Della Street did not only earn her worldwide recognition and fame, but also two Emmy nominations, including one win for best supporting actress in 1959.

After Perry Mason was terminated in 1966, Barbara reclaimed her guest starring qualities and starred in several popular TV shows of the time. In 1971, she became the television spokesperson for Amana kitchen supplies while she continued working as a supporting actress on a couple of movies, including Airport in 1970 and Big Wednesday in 1978, before  Perry Mason successfully returned to the small screen in 1985 for another ten-year run. Since the completion of the Perry Mason TV movies in 1995, Barbara unfortunately has not appeared in any other TV or movie role. However, recent interviews with her are available on the 50th Anniversary of Perry Mason DVD.

Characters: Barbara’s most iconic character, without a doubt, is Della Street, the always devoted secretary to Raymond Burr’s equally iconic Perry Mason. It is also the most recognized one, both by the industry and by a worldwide TV audience who has cherished her talents, as well as her on-screen chemistry with her lifelong friend Raymond Burr. Della Street, although smart and independent, is also very different from the characters Barbara Hale used to play before committing herself to that part.

In the 1940s and 50s, Barbara’s film characters were strong, opinionated women. Stubborn at times. But rarely as quiet as Della Street used to be. Her parts differed from movie to movie, something she greatly appreciated. She was a tough army nurse in First Yank into Tokyo, who does her best to cope with the harsh realities of war captivity. In West of Pecos, she was a stubborn but lively upper class city girl who tries to adapt to the Wild West by posing as a boy. In A Likely Story, she portrayed an artist who not only took care of her baby brother, but also came to New York to have her big break before she falls in love with a stranger. In The Window she played a hard-boiled lower Est Side mother of a boy with a very vivid imagination. In Emergency Wedding she was a doctor whose profession means more to her than being married or settling down…

The list is endless, the variety of her characters’ backgrounds, stories and attitudes is as vast as the genres she starred in: film noir, Western, drama, comedy. She mastered them all with her congenial on-screen presence, her Midwestern charm and genuinely warm voice. She easily handled the stories about the all-American women she so often played: housewives, pioneer women, academics, working girls or divorcees. And despite these different characteristics, her parts all have one thing in common: Barbara Hale’s warmhearted depiction of them. No matter how tough, demure, funny or hysterical a character supposedly was, Barbara showed their emotional side without exaggeration. She made them believable, down-to-earth. Turned them into real people. Something that mattered most to her.

Although not every role allowed her to use her radiant smile, Barbara always managed to find a way to add diversity and empathy to her parts. Something that makes the audience feel for her characters, side, cry or laugh with them. In The Houston Story for instance, which is a rather unusual example for Barbara’s work, she starred as platinum blonde Zoe Crane, a nightclub singer who is basically trying to survive in a criminal world she cannot really control. Although sultry and manipulative, Zoe Crane wins over the sympathy of her audience. She is not going to be pigeonholed. And the same goes for Barbara’s many other characters who always showed an alluring mix of heartiness, skill and and energy. Not that Della Street didn’t, but as the 1950s secretary, her attitude had to be way more subtle, more dignified, and a lot less bubbly than most of Barbara’s other memorable characters. In the 1980s and 90s however, Barbara also got to add a little more spice to her longtime alter ego which tied in beautifully with her genuine sensibility, her great intuition for supporting Perry Mason.

Family business: In 1946, Barbara Hale got married to fellow RKO contract player Bill Williams whom she had met on studio grounds in 1944. They were happily married for 46 years and lived a rather “quiet” life in the San Fernando Valley area until Bill died in September 1992. Together they had three children, born in 1947, 1951 and 1953, and several grandchildren.

Barbara and her husband starred together in several movies and TV projects, including West of Pecos, A Likely Story, The Clay Pigeon, Young Couples Only, Slim Carter, Perry Mason, Buckskin, Insight, The Giant Spider Invasion and Flight of the Grey Wolf.

Barbara also starred alongside actor son William Katt in Big Wednesday and The Greatest American Hero, as well as in nine Perry Mason TV movies.

Filmography:

  • 1985-1995 Perry Mason Returns (TV movies) – Della Street, 30 episodes
  • 1982 The Greatest American Hero (TV series)  – Who’s Woo in America (1982)
  • 1978 Big Wednesday
  • 1978 The Young Runaways (TV movie)
  • 1976 Flight of the Grey Wolf (TV movie)
  • 1975 The Giant Spider Invasion
  • 1974 Marcus Welby, M.D. (TV series) – The Faith of Childish Things (1974)
  • 1973 Chester, Yesterday’s Horse (TV movie)
  • 1972 The Doris Day Show (TV series) – Doris’ House Guest (1972)
  • 1971 Adam-12 (TV series) – Pick-up (1971)
  • 1971 Ironside (TV series) – Murder Impromptu (1971)
  • 1970 The Most Deadly Game (TV series) – Model for Murder (1970)
  • 1970 The Red, White, and Black
  • 1970 Airport
  • 1969 Lassie (TV series) – Lassie and the Water Bottles (1969)
  • 1969 Insight (TV series) – A Thousand Red Flowers (1969)
  • 1968 Buckskin
  • 1967 Custer (TV series) – Death Hunt (1967)
  • 1957-1966 Perry Mason (TV series) – Della Street, 9 seasons, 271 episodes
  • 1955-1959 G.E. True Theater (TV series) – Night Club (1959), The Windmill (1955)
  • 1958 Desert Hell
  • 1957 Slim Carter
  • 1957 The Oklahoman
  • 1956-1957 Playhouse 90 (TV series) – The Blackwell Story (1957) (unconfirmed), The Country Husband (1956)
  • 1956 7th Cavalry
  • 1956 The Millionaire (TV series) – The Kathy Munson Story (1956)
  • 1956 Crossroads (TV series) – Lifeline (1956)
  • 1956 Star Stage (TV series) – The Guardian (1956)
  • 1952-1956 The Ford Television Theatre (TV series) – Behind the Mask (1956), Remember to Live (1954), The Divided Heart (1952)
  • 1956 The Houston Story
  • 1956 Damon Runyon Theater (TV series) – The Good Luck Kid (1956)
  • 1956 The Loretta Young Show (TV series) – The Challenge (1956)
  • 1955 Climax! (TV Series) – The Day They Gave Babies Away (1955)
  • 1955 Science Fiction Theatre (TV series) – The Hastings Secret (1955), Conversation with an Ape (1955)
  • 1955 Celebrity Playhouse (TV series) – He Knew All About Women (1955)
  • 1955 Screen Directors Playhouse (TV series) – Meet the Governor (1955)
  • 1955 Studio 57 (TV series) – Young Couples Only (1955)
  • 1955 The Far Horizons
  • 1953-1955 Schlitz Playhouse (TV series) – Tourists–Overnight (1955), Vacation for Ginny (1953)
  • 1955 Unchained
  • 1955 Young Couples Only (TV short)
  • 1953 A Lion Is in the Streets
  • 1953 Footlights Theater (TV series) – Change of Heart (1953)
  • 1953 The Lone Hand
  • 1953 Seminole
  • 1953 Last of the Comanches
  • 1952 The First Time
  • 1951 Lorna Doone
  • 1950 Emergency Wedding
  • 1950 The Jackpot
  • 1949 And Baby Makes Three
  • 1949 Jolson Sings Again
  • 1949 The Window
  • 1949 The Clay Pigeon
  • 1948 The Boy with Green Hair
  • 1947 A Likely Story
  • 1946 Lady Luck
  • 1945 First Yank Into Tokyo
  • 1945 West of the Pecos
  • 1944 The Falcon in Hollywood
  • 1944 Heavenly Days
  • 1944 Goin’ to Town
  • 1944 The Falcon Out West
  • 1944 Prunes and Politics (short)
  • 1943 Higher and Higher
  • 1943 Around the World
  • 1943 Government Girl
  • 1943 Gildersleeve on Broadway
  • 1943 The Iron Major
  • 1943 The Seventh Victim
  • 1943 Mexican Spitfire’s Blessed Event
  • 1943 Gildersleeve’s Bad Day

Availability:

  • DVD: Higher and Higher, The Falcon in Hollywood, The Falcon Out West, West of Pecos, The Boy with Green Hair, The Clay Pigeon, The Window, Jolson Sings Again, And Baby Makes Three, The Jackpot, Emergency Wedding, Lorna Doone, The First Time, Seminole, A Lion in the Streets, Young Couples Only, Unchained, Far Horizons, Crossroads, The Oklahoman, Perry Mason TV series, Airport, Ironside, Adam 12, The Giant Spider Invasion, Flight of the Grey Wolf, Big Wednesday, The Greatest American Hero, Perry Mason Returns
  • VHS: The Seventh Victim, A Likely Story, First Yank into Tokyo, The Jackpott, The Last of the Comanches, The Houston Story, 7th Cavalry, Perry Mason, Buckskin, The Red White and Black, The Giant Spider Invasion, Flight of the Grey Wolf, Big Wednesday, Perry Mason TV movies
  • Online: Adam 12 – “Pick-Up”, Custer – “Death Hunt”, The Doris Day Show – “Doris’ House Guest”,  Insight – “A Thousand Red Flowers”, Ironside – “Murder Impromptu”, Young Couples Only

Personal recommendations (in alphabetical order):

  • Adam 12 – “Pick-Up”, 1971
  • Buckskin, 1968
  • The Clay Pigeon, 1949
  • The Falcon in Hollywood, 1944
  • The First Time, 1952
  • Ford Television Theatre – “Remember to Live”, 1954
  • G.E. True Theater – “Night Club”, 1959
  • G.E. True Theater – “The Windmill”, 1955
  • The Houston Story, 1956
  • Insight – “A Thousand Red Flowers”, 1969
  • The Jackpot, 1950
  • Jolson Sings Again, 1949
  • A Likely Story, 1947
  • The Lone Hand, 1953
  • The Oklahoman, 1957
  • Perry Mason TV series, 1957-66
  • Perry Mason TV movies, 1985-95
  • The Window, 1949

Sources for more information on Barbara Hale: