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:

2 thoughts on “Barbara Hale

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s