Much of the entertainment news media has been focused on the death of Mary Tyler Moore this past week, and rightly so. However, with the passing of two other television icons in Barbara Hale and Mike Connors, I decided to celebrate the life and career of Barbara Hale in this week’s blog.
Like William Christopher, whom we looked at a couple weeks ago, Barbara Hale seems to have had a successful and fulfilling career. She comes across the decades as a very nice person and a hard-working actress. She was married for more than 46 years to the same man and they had three children. A lot of her career was based on acting with her husband, her son, and her close friend Raymond Burr.
Born in April of 1922 in DeKalb, Illinois, she moved to nearby Rockford shortly after her birth. She and her sister had a nice life, growing up in a middle class family. Always interested in the arts, she attended The Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. She continued to have an interest in art the rest of her life, often sketching while waiting for taping to resume. She worked as a model during part of her school years for a comic strip Ramblin’ Bill. She was also featured as a Dr. Pepper girl in the Dr. Pepper calendars in the 1940s and 1950s.
Continuing her modeling career after graduation, it was through that avenue she was given a contract with RKO in 1943. While at RKO she met her husband-to-be Bill Williams and they married in 1946. Their wedding took place in the Old Stone Church in Rockton, Il and their reception was at the Wagon Wheel in Rockton, north of Rockford. During her RKO-tenure she also met Raymond Burr.
Her first movie was Gildersleeve’s Bad Day in 1943. Her contract with RKO continued until 1949 at which point she signed a seven-year contract with Columbia. During her career she appeared in 42 movies and 34 television movies, 31 of which were Perry Mason films. Some of her costars included Frank Sinatra, James Cagney, and Jimmy Stewart.
Between 1953 and 1956 she appeared in 14 drama/anthology series on television including Schlitz Playhouse, Studio 57, The Loretta Young Show, Damon Runyon Theater and Playhouse 90. She also appeared in many print ads during these years promoting products such as Lux Soap Flakes, Sunnybrook Margarine, and Chesterfield Cigarettes.
Debating whether or not she should retire and stay home to raise her three children (born in 1947, 1951, and 1953), she was offered the role of Della Street for the upcoming Perry Mason series. She declined it at first, but when she realized her old friend Raymond Burr was starring in the show, she opted to take the part. From 1957-1966, she appeared in 263 of the 271 shows. In the midst of the series’ run in 1960, she received a marker on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960. In 1959 she won the Emmy for best actress in a drama and was nominated again in 1961.
When the series ended, she appeared in only a handful of shows including Lassie, Adam-12, The Doris Day Show, Marcus Welby, and Walt Disney’s Wide World of Color. She was in her dear friend Raymond Burr’s show Ironside and acted with her son William Katt, the star of The Greatest American Hero, playing his mother on the show. She was also in the movie Big Wednesday in 1978 with her son, playing his mother. During this time, she also appeared in several commercials and was a spokesperson for Amana Radarange microwave ovens. In 1970 she was one of the celebrities appearing in the movie Airport.
In the mid-1980s, Raymond Burr was approached to make several Perry Mason television movies. He agreed only if Barbara Hale was cast as Della Street again. Hale’s son William Katt appeared in some of the movies as Paul Drake Jr. From 1986-1995 Hale and Burr made 31 Perry Mason movies. Sadly, her husband passed away from cancer in 1992 and Burr died in 1993. She was one of the friends to deliver a eulogy at Burr’s funeral. He cultivated orchids and named one for Barbara Hale.
In her later years, Hale battled colon, ovarian, and bladder cancer. With a remarkable attitude and her belief in God, she defeated the disease each time. She died from natural causes this month at 94.
One of the most charming stories I read about Hale was one she told a few years ago when she had returned to Rockford, which she did often, to attend a theater renovation celebration. She talked about after-football parties they had in high school. The kids would drive to the Spring Creek Road subdivision. Roads had been constructed for the housing development, but no homes had been built yet. The kids would park their cars in a circle, turn their headlights on, tune their radios to the same channel, and get out and dance. It was a heart-warming story about a more innocent time. After hearing so many sad stories about the issues actors often face in the industry, it was refreshing to hear about someone who was a nice person who appeared to have a normal and happy career with a great life balance of work and family.
A lot of her movies and the Perry Mason shows are available on Amazon. Take an upcoming week-end and watch a few seasons and keep track of how many cases Perry loses. Here is some dialogue to listen for while you watch.
Perry Mason: The Case of the Spurious Sister – 1959
Perry: Della, how would you like to get a divorce?
Della: I thought you were supposed to be married first.
Perry Mason: The Case of the Surplus Suitor – 1963
Hamilton Burger: Well, Miss Street, having you here just as a witness for the prosecution is a rare experience for both of us.
Della: I’ll try not to be hostile, Mr. Burger
Hamilton Burger: Well, that’ll be a rare experience too.
Perry Mason: The Case of the Angry Mourner – 1957
Bell Adrian: Mr. Mason, were you surprised when you found I didn’t do it?
Perry: Of course not, Mrs. Adrian. I knew all along. You just weren’t the type.
Paul Drake: And who is the type pray tell?
Della: Oh, that’s easy, Paul. Anyone who is not represented by Perry Mason.
Thank you Barbara Hale for providing us with so much drama over the years, but only on the television episodes!