TV Classics: Perry Mason
USA 1957 – 66, 9 seasons, 271 episodes, 50 minutes each, CBS, black & white. Executive Producer: Gail Patrick Jackson, Theme Song: Fred Steiner, Based on characters by Erle Stanley Gardner, author of over eighty Perry Mason novels
Cast: Raymond Burr, Barbara Hale, William Hopper, William Talman, Ray Collins
Plot summary: Perry Mason, attorney-at-law, Della Street, his confidential secretary, and Paul Drake, private detective, are working on a new case each week to defend their innocent clients. The charge is murder and the cases often come with a twist, helping Perry Mason to never lose a case.
Review: Perry Mason is a procedural show. Every episode is about a case. The characters move along with it, but there is not a lot of screen-time left for their private lives. Thus Perry Mason does not have time for a love interest other than an occasional flirt with a guest star or his confidential secretary Della Street who always finds a way to sneak in a question, comment or a smile. Perry Mason lives for his job. He is the unquestioned hero. Not a but the attorney-at-law. The man everybody wants to turn to in times of trouble. Mind you, he tampers with evidence every once in a while and could get away with murder. But he’s an honest character who bends the law to get an acquittal for his not always truthful but always innocent clients.
Perry Mason is loyal to his clients and he is surrounded by a loyal supporting cast. Della Street runs his office and always stands by her boss. Sometimes she even gets in trouble for him and her steadfastness. Paul Drake is the private eye who always investigates the cases Perry Mason takes on. Although he doesn’t get much more time to pursue a private life, he is the only character who has frequent dates.
But that lack of private character development is not a weakness. The beautiful thing about this show is its witty dialogue, the sense of humor and its cast. The chemistry they have on screen. The fun that comes across, although with thirty-nine episodes in season one and six working days a week, the production must have been much more exhausting to shoot than today’s standard weeklies. A striking factor is how the actors bounce off each other with their lines, their actions. Barbara Hale was often praised by her co-stars for being the epitome of a supporting actress. She was rewarded with a lot of brotherly on-set pranks, predominantly masterminded by Raymond Burr, and two Emmy nominations including one win in 1959.
Raymond Burr was nominated three consecutive years and won his first Emmy the same year his co-star and friend Barbara Hale walked home with an award in her hands. He won again in 1961 when Barbara Hale received her second nomination. William Hopper was nominated once in 1959, which was the most popular year of Perry Mason in respect to acting awards. The show itself also received a nomination in 1958.
Those three main characters aside, William Talman as Hamilton Burger and Ray Collins as Lt. Tragg did as convincingly a job as the shows protagonist(s). A mere adversary in the beginning of the show’s run, Hamilton Burger becomes a fleshed out district attorney who may despair of Perry Mason‘s methods, but also respects him.
Ray Collins is a pleasure to watch with his tendency to barge in a little too early on Perry Mason and his cases. And like the rest of the male cast, he likes to flatter Della Street a lot, but never too much.
All in all, Perry Mason is a fun show to watch for those who enjoy classic whodunits and old-school, plot-driven stories. The twists may be surprising at times, the murderers more obvious to some or impossible to guess, but the way Perry Mason goes about solving his cases, his attitude, his quest for truth and justice is addicting. Never mind that the show is in black and white, that only adds to its appeal. The music, Della Street‘s attire, the genuine 1950s style. And Los Angeles as a supporting character in a way. It’s the entire package. It works – did so for nine seasons till 1966 and does on DVD today.
Perry Mason featured a lot of recurring guest stars during its nine-year run, including Barbara Hale’s real-life husband Bill Williams (The Adventures of Kit Carson, Date with the Angels, Assignment: Underwater) who appeared on the show four times in different roles (from 1962 – 65).
Side note: The first Perry Mason novel, The Case of the Velvet Claw, was published in 1933. The last, The Case of the Postponed Murder, posthumously in 1973.
Perry Mason first graced the silver screen in the 1930s. Six movies were made between 1934 and 1937. Another film was loosely based on the characters and books. It was shot in 1940. In The Case of the Velvet Claws (1936), Della Street got married to Perry Mason, picking up on Perry Mason’s proposals to his secretary in the early novels, something that was never openly referred to in the original TV show although Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale added to their on-screen chemistry by including looks and gestures and thus left the audience wondering. Unlike their literary predecessors, Perry Mason and Della Street never kissed on screen. Not until 1993 in Perry Mason and the Case of the Telltale Talk Show Host.
In 1973, 20th Century Fox, executive producer Cornwell Jackson and consulting producer Gail Patrick Jackson tried to revive Perry Mason on the small screen and launched The New Adventures of Perry Mason aka The New Perry Mason with a new cast. It was short-lived.
In 1985, Perry Mason returned to TV with Della Street being accused of murder. The show lasted another decade, broadcast by NBC. Thirty movies were shot altogether. Twenty-six of which featured Raymond Burr. Barbara Hale appeared in all thirty episodes, including the last four that went on the air as Perry Mason Mysteries.
The original Perry Mason show is available on VHS and DVD (up to season 5 now). Perry Mason Returns is available on the 50th anniversary of Perry Mason DVD. Other TV movies are scarcely available on VHS.
Trivia: In the TV movies, Perry Mason was, again, portrayed by Raymond Burr who asked for Barbara Hale to return as Della Street to work by his side. William Katt, Barbara Hale’s real life son, was cast as Paul Drake Junior. Then later, William R. Moses joined the cast as Ken Malansky who replaced Paul Drake in 1989.
Guest stars included David Odgen Stiers, Jean Simmons, Tom Bosley, Brian Keith, Genie Francis, Barbara Babcock, Holland Taylor, Tippi Hedren and others.
Raymond Burr’s last appearance as Perry Mason was in 1993 in Perry Mason and the Case of the Killer Kiss. He died on September 12, 1993, losing his battle against liver cancer at the age of 76. He had postponed surgery in order to shoot the Perry Mason movies and invited friends to several farewell parties, knowing he would die. Following a tradition started on the original show when Raymond Burr had been indisposed, Perry Mason was replaced by guest stars (including Hal Holbrook in 1994 and Bette Davis in 1963) stepping in for him. Perry Mason was sent off to Europe to try a case. He was mentioned in all of the remaining four TV movies and Perry Mason and the Case of the Killer Kiss was dedicated to Mr. Burr.
Barbara Hale last appeared in A Perry Mason Mystery: The Case of the Jealous Jokester in 1995 (it was shot in 1994). She was reluctant about bowing out of the complete shoot for the film and did not tell the cast and crew about her real reasons. After losing her husband of 46 years in 1992 and her real life friend Raymond Burr one year later, she was fighting her own battle with cancer. Her character Della Street followed Perry Mason to Europe. Della Street was not recast after Barbara Hale’s iconic portrayal but replaced by her assistant called Janice. Barbara Hale has not appeared as an actress in a TV or film production since. Recent interviews with her about Perry Mason are displayed on the 50th anniversary of Perry Mason DVD.