The Case of the Long-Running Law Show—“Incompetent, Irrelevant, and Immaterial” Did Not Apply to Perry Mason

A blog series on Murder, Mystery and Mayhem just wouldn’t be complete without the inclusion of Perry Mason. The show was based on the books by Erle Stanley Gardner in the 1930s and aired nine seasons from 1957 to 1966, producing 271 episodes, along with numerous movies. Perry Mason was the first weekly one-hour series. Fun fact, Gardner was a big fan of Youth’s Companion magazine which was quite popular for a hundred years until it merged with another periodical in 1929; it happened to be published by a Boston company, Perry Mason & Co.

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Perry Mason (Raymond Burr) is a criminal defense attorney. His right-hand is secretary Della Street (Barbara Hale) and they are both aided by

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investigator Paul Drake (William Hopper).

The cast is rounded out by DA Hamilton Burger (William Talman) and Lt. Arthur Tragg (Ray Collins).

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Due to an illness, Collins was only able to appear in a handful of episodes after 1960; however, his name was kept in the credits which allowed him to continue receiving medical benefits from the actors’ union. He passed away in 1965.

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While the main cast members were in a minimum of 225 episodes, little-known actor Don Anderson appeared in 128 episodes during the nine years. He is seen in minor roles and played a variety of characters including a courtroom spectator, a wedding guest, a rescue boat skipper, a bartender, a downhill snow skier, a bank employee, and a German border guard.

Mason’s practice in Los Angeles attracts clients who have been falsely accused. The first half of the show typically set up the situation, the investigation was conducted, and usually the DA decides to prosecute Mason’s innocent client. The second half of the show was conducted in the courthouse. Usually the action occurs in a preliminary appearance because casting realized quickly that appearing before a judge would save having to find twelve jury members for each show. Burger would often object with his declaration of “Incompetent, irrelevant, and immaterial!” Della often pursues leads while Perry is in court. Mason pays attention to every detail and is often able to trick the guilty person into admitting their crime.

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Gardner’s literary agent was Thomas Cornwell Jackson. In 1947 he married Gail Patrick, who had studied law before becoming an actress. She and her husband had discussed bringing Gardner’s Mason character to television. Gardner had also been an attorney before becoming a writer, so he wanted some creative control.  He had no desire to see Perry’s personal life or a love interest. He wanted the show to feature the law as its primary character. Gardner, Jackson, and Patrick formed a production company, Paisano, to film a pilot. CBS picked up the show for 1957.

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Patrick began auditions for the role of Mason. Richard Carlson, Mike Connors, Richard Egan, William Holden, and Efrem Zimbalist Jr. were all frontrunners. CBS wanted Fred MacMurray and were in negotiations with him. Raymond Burr had been in to audition for the role of Hamilton Burger. When the production company realized they could not afford a big-name actor, Burr was offered the role of Mason. In another role switch, William Hopper, Hedda Hopper’s son, auditioned for Perry Mason but was offered the role of Paul Drake. Barbara Hale was asked to take the role of Della Street. Her children were little and she was not really interested in a series, but when she found out Burr would play the title character, she opted in since they had known each other since they both worked for RKO.

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The production staff also included people who were well versed in law. Ben Brady, producer, practiced law before entering show business and story editor Gene Wang went to law school in Florida. Luckily, they had 69 Gardner novels featuring Perry Mason at their disposal; all but three episodes in the first year were adapted from Gardner novels.

Each episode had a budget of $100,000. The Superior Oil Company building in Los Angeles was used for the exterior of Mason’s Brent Building location, a modern structure built in 1956. In 2003, it received a historical landmark designation and is now The Standard Downtown LA Hotel. Filming was primarily done in and around Culver City. The early seasons were shot at William Fox Studios. When it closed in the early 1960s, production moved to General Service studios and finally to the Chaplin Studios until the end of the series.

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Auto sponsorship for the first season see-sawed between GM and Ford who alternated episodes. In an odd set of circumstances, Mason would drive a Ford Skyliner one week, and the next week he would find himself behind the wheel of a Cadillac convertible. Drake and Tragg’s cars also staggered from week to week. In one episode, Mason can be seen using a car telephone. Back then it was considered a radio, and you had to phone the operator to make a call, but it was still a cool technology feature.

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Even people who never watched the show are familiar with the theme song composed by Fred Steiner. Steiner says he wanted to write a theme that portrayed sophistication and toughness. He called the song, “Park Avenue Beat,” a symphonic R&B piece.

The show featured an interesting substitution during the middle of its run. Burr was unable to film several episodes in 1963 while he was recuperating from dental surgery. Mason was temporarily replaced by attorneys played by Bette Davis, Walter Pidgeon, Hugh O’Brian, Michael Rennie, and Mike Connors.

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When Burr was making made-for-tv movies about Perry Mason, he was suffering from cancer. Hale, who was friends with Burr for the rest of his life, said “He was my hero. He was in such pain, such terrible pain. But that man had such strength and such willpower.” After his death, she described him as “a very, very strong, beautiful human. I shall miss him all my life.”

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Perry Mason got the slot of Saturday nights at 7:30 pm for its first five seasons where it was easily getting the most ratings, even against Bonanza. In 1961, Bonanza was moved to Sunday nights and Perry Mason to Thursdays at 8 pm where it also continued to win the ratings for the night. In 1963 it moved to Thursdays at 9 pm before being switched back to 8 pm for 1964. Before the 1965 season, Paley decided to move the lawyer to Sunday nights back against Bonanza, and when Bonanza received a higher rating that season, Perry Mason was cancelled, even though the show was receiving more mail than ever and the network had discussed a tenth season shot in color to be able to compete with the western.

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The show was loved by both viewers and critics and did well at annual Emmy awards shows. In 1958 it was nominated for the best dramatic series; in 1961 it was nominated for film editing; and in 1962 it won for audio engineering. Raymond Burr received a best actor nomination in 1960 and won best actor in both 1959 and 1961. Barbara Hale was nominated for best supporting actress in 1961 and won the best supporting Emmy in 1959. William Hopper was nominated for best supporting actor in 1959 as well.

While the show was winning awards, Mason was winning cases. However, there were three clients who were found guilty. In season six, “The Case of the Witless Witness,” the client lost. In both season one and seven, the client was found guilty but they were both proved innocent later and avoided jail time.

In the final episode, “The Case of the Final Fade-Out,” Erle Stanley Gardner can be spied as judge.

Erle Stanley Gardner
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Although all but one episode was filmed in black and white, the show has been in syndication almost continually since its cancellation.

In her book, My Beloved World, Sonia Sotomayor commented on the series. She said she was influenced greatly by the show which ignited a passion to be a prosecutor. She wrote she enjoyed watching Mason, “but my sympathies were not entirely monopolized by Perry Mason. I was fond of Burger, the prosecutor, too. I liked that he was a good loser, that he was more committed to finding the truth than to winning his case. If the defendant was truly innocent, he once explained, and the case was dismissed, then he had done his job because justice had been served.”

I feel like this is becoming a cliché for almost every blog I write, but like so many shows from the past, a new Perry Mason series is in the works for HBO. Originally, Robert Downey Jr. was to portray the attorney, but his schedule precludes him from starring. However, his production company has cast Matthew Rhys as Perry. Tim Van Patten has signed on as director and Tatiana Maslany will fill the Della Street spot. John Lithgow joined the series in May, as an attorney who will mentor Mason.

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I find it impressive when any show, made more than fifty years ago continues to win viewers and create new generations of fans. However, I find it especially remarkable that a show first filmed almost 63 years ago in black and white continues to hold its own alongside so many current law-themed shows in production. Perry Mason can currently be seen on FETV, METV, and the Hallmark Channel.

When She Tugged on Her Ear, She Tugged At Our Hearts

Today’s topic had me thinking about how much better things are in a group.  Roses are beautiful on their own but pair them with some complementary-colored blooms and everything comes alive.  Juicy watermelon is perfect on a hot, summer day, but combine it with berries, kiwi, and peaches, and all the tastes meld together. One book is a treasure on its own, but put ten together, and you have a library. There’s never a bad choice when deciding between vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry ice cream, but someone invented Neapolitan so you could get all three.

This works for our show this week as well.  Look at the work of Carol Burnett, Harvey Korman, Tim Conway, Vicki Lawrence, and Lyle Waggoner and you will find gems, but put them together and you have a sparkling jewelry box full of wonderful things.

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These performers came together between 1967 and 1978 working on The Carol Burnett Show. Let’s see how that came to be.

Carol Burnett – Carol is a truly versatile performer; she acts, sings, does comedy, dances, has been on the stage, and has appeared on the big screen as well as the small screen. America has always had a love affair with her.

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She was born in Texas and moved to Hollywood with her grandmother. One of her first jobs was working as an usherette.  She received an anonymous gift of money that covered a year at UCLA where she majored in journalism. At one point she decided to switch her major to theater arts and English and planned to be a playwright. She gained some experience performing in several college productions. Her good luck continued when she received another gift – a $100 interest-free loan to move to New York City to try her hand at musical comedy.  She worked as a hat girl and began her acting career.  She married Don Saroyan in 1955. In 1959 she got her first big break, appearing in the Broadway show, Once Upon a Mattress for which she received a Tony nomination. Around this time, she became friends with Jim Nabors; he would be a life-long friend and her daughter’s godfather. When the Carol Burnett Show started, he became the first guest every season and was her good luck charm.

Soon after she began appearing on television and won her first Emmy in 1962 for her work on The Paul Winchell Show. This was also the year she and Don divorced. In 1963, she married Joe Hamilton, and they had three children. Lucille Ball had become a mentor to her, and they also remained friends for life.  Lucy sent her flowers every birthday.  On her birthday in 1989, Carol awoke to the news that Lucy had died.  She received her flowers later that day.

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She did several specials with Julie Andrews, Dolly Parton, and Beverly Sills. Carol had a clause that she could decide to do a permanent variety show which would expire in 1967. Carol decided to take advantage of the clause and do the variety show.  The network tried to talk her out of it because they said variety shows tended to be men’s territory.  They offered her a sitcom of her own, but luckily for us, she stuck to her guns.

In 1974, she went back to the stage to star with Rock Hudson in I Do I Do. In 1984 she and Joe divorced.  She would win her second Emmy for her work on Mad About You.

In 1995, she returned to Broadway to appear in Moon Over Buffalo which gained her a second Tony nomination.

Carol was the Grand Marshal for the 109th Rose Bowl Parade. She has written five books. She has remained close friends with many of her costars including her show cast, Jim Nabors, Betty White, Beverly Sills, Julie Andrews.

Not only did she help a young Vicki Lawrence, but other stars looked to her for help as well. Jim Carrey sent her his resume at age 10.

In 2001, Carol married again. Her current husband Brian Miller is a drummer for the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. Most recently she guest starred on several episodes of Hawaii Five-0.

Harvey Korman – Born in Chicago, Korman served in the US Navy during World War II. After the war, he studied at the Goodman School of Drama.  He attended classes at DePaul University and the Chicago Art Institute. During 1950, 1957, and 1958 he was part of the Peninsula Players in Fish Creek, Door County, Wisconsin.

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His first television role was on the Donna Reed Show in 1960. He also married that year and they had two children. He continued to act on television on such shows as Dr. Kildare, Perry Mason, Route 66, Jack Benny, Hazel, Here’s Lucy, and Gidget – 30 shows in all; he also appeared in many movies. You might recognize his voice if you watch The Flintstones; he played the role of the Great Gazoo. His first big break was on The Danny Kaye Show in 1963. With his expressive voice, he played a wide assortment of characters. In was due to his work on Danny Kaye, that Carol recruited him for her show in 1967.

In 1977, he made the tough decision to leave The Carol Burnett Show and star in his own vehicle, The Harvey Korman Show.  The show was about an out-of-work actor Harvey Kavanaugh who lived with his daughter. The critics thought Korman was wonderful in the show, but the show got very low ratings and was cancelled after six episodes. Then he was an out-of-work actor in real life. Dick Van Dyke had taken his place on the Carol Burnett Show so he could not return.

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After his show fizzled out, he went back to movies. In 1977 he divorced his first wife. In 1982 he remarried and had two more children.  Korman continued to make tv appearances on a variety of shows such as the Love Boat, Ellen, and ER. He also made movies. He is probably best known for two of his movies: Blazing Saddles and High Anxiety.  In 1983-84, he appeared in Mama’s Family with Carol Burnett and Vicki Lawrence. In 2008, he passed away from a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm that was diagnosed four months prior.

Tim Conway – Conway was born in Ohio and joined the Army, serving at a radio station. After the war, he studied at Bowling Green State University, majoring in tv and radio. He married in 1961 and they had 6 children.

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He was discovered by Rose Marie and became a regular on The Steve Allen Show. He earned even more fame when he joined the cast of McHale’s Navy in 1962. McHale’s Navy had two different formats.  I was surprised to learn that Joseph Heller (author of Catch-22) wrote one episode but removed himself from the credits when he had an argument with the producer. Conway became very close to Ernest Borgnine and considered him his mentor. Later the two of them would work together in SpongeBob Square Pants as old superheroes.

After McHale’s Navy, he was cast in Rango. A comedy/western, Conway played Rango. He was an inept Ranger, but his father was the head of the Texas Rangers, so he was moved to a very quiet post.  Unfortunately, a crime wave broke out after his arrival. The show lasted for 17 episodes.

Conway got his own show in 1970, but it never really worked and was cancelled after 12 episodes. He played an airline pilot who was not very good at flying. He and his partner owned a decrepit airplane and they were always fighting creditors, barely making a living.

He was on Carol Burnett throughout the years of her show, and in 1975 he became a regular. When the show ended, he kept busy with television shows, appearing in more than 50 shows including Newhart, Larry Sanders, Drew Carey, Ellen, Yes Dear, Hot in Cleveland, Laverne and Shirley, The Love Boat, Roseanne, and Ally McBeal. He also performed around the country with Harvey Korman and began making his Dorf videos. In 1984 he married his current wife.

 

Vicki Lawrence –  Vicki grew up in California. When Vicki Lawrence was 17, she wrote Carol a fan letter.  She was entered in a Miss Fireball contest, and someone told her she resembled Carol. She asked for some advice about her performance. Carol not only gave her advice – she drove all the way to watch the contest.  She told her they would talk about her career. A short time later, while Vicki was singing with the Young Americans, Carol offered the inexperienced girl a regular role on her show.

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Vicki was mentored by both Harvey Korman and Carol Burnett, and her talent blossomed during her years on the variety show. In 1974, she recorded the hit song “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia.”

In 1983, she was offered her own show based on one of the Carol Burnett skits, Mama’s Family.

She hosted Win, Lose, or Draw and has appeared in stage performances. She spends most of her time now giving speeches for women’s groups and charities.

Lyle Waggoner – Born in Kansas City, Kansas, Waggoner was the heart throb of the show. He sold encyclopedias door to door. To jump start his career, he appeared in summer stock. He received roles in a lot of bad sci fi and beach party films. His career might have been different because he was in consideration for Batman, but the part went to Adam West. He was hired as the emcee of Carol’s show but progressed to being a part of the ensemble playing in a variety of skits. He left The Carol Burnett Show in 1973. He was offered a role in Wonder Woman in 1975. His career never picked up after that. He now runs a rental trailer company which is the largest one in Hollywood. He has been married more than fifty years, and he and his wife have two sons.

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The Carol Burnett Show

The show was the best and the last variety show to be on television. Carol wanted to develop her own cast. She handpicked her costars. She hired The Ernie Flatt Dancers to do all the choreography. The head male dancer for the run was Don Crichton.

Artie Malvin was the musical writer. Carol used a live 28-piece orchestra conducted by Harry Zimmerman for the first three years and Peter Matz for the final eight years. She had a guest star on every week, often a singer.  Some of the performers included Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Mel Torme, Perry Como, Lena Horne, The Carpenters, Sammy Davis Jr., and Ray Charles.  Steve Lawrence was on 25 times and Eydie Gorme performed 13. Unfortunately, when the show went into syndication, it became a half-hour show, and the musical numbers were cut.

Sonny and Cher taped next door and Carol often popped in on their taping and Sonny and Cher visited her show.

Some of Carol’s favorite guests included Bernadette Peters, Alan Alda, Roddy McDowell, Paul Lynde, Bob Newhart, Rita Hayworth, James Stewart, Gloria Swanson, Vincent Price, the Smothers Brothers, Donald O’Connor, Lucille Ball, Rock Hudson, Mickey Rooney, Betty White, and Nanette Fabray. The only guest star Carol was not able to book was Bette Davis.  She demanded too much money.

The Carol Burnett Show received 22 Emmy Awards during the 11 seasons it was on the air. Harvey Korman was nominated for six of those and won four. Lawrence also received five Emmy nominations and one win.

Bob Mackie was her favorite designer, and he designed all the costumes for The Carol Burnett Show. Typically, he had to design 60-70 outfits per week, adding up to 18,000 over the course of the show.

For the first 3-4 minutes of each show, Carol appeared in a Bob Mackie creation and took questions from the audience. Some of these are the funniest parts of the show.

The cast would rehearse every day, and they did two tapings on Friday.  If the first taping went fine and they got what they needed, they would let Tim Conway improvise on the second taping and many of his unrehearsed moments made it into the show.

The show aired on Monday nights up against Big Valley and I Spy. In Season 5, they were moved to Wednesday nights up against Adam-12 on one network and Bewitched and The Courtship of Eddie’s Father on the other. In 1972, they made their final move to Saturday nights. The final year they faced some stiff competition against The Love Boat.

Some of her favorite regular skits were Stella Toddler where Burnett played an older character who always seemed to get tripped, whacked by something, or knocked down; Mrs. Wiggins who was an inappropriately dressed and incompetent secretary to Mr. Tudball; a woman who watched commercials on tv —  a cast member showed an item each week that drove the woman crazy; Marion from Canoga Falls in “As the Stomach Turns”; Chiquita, Burnett’s imitation of Charo; Nora Desmond, a has-been silent film star and her butler Max; The Old Folks where Burnett and Korman talked on the porch reminiscing; and Shirley Dimple, based on Shirley Temple.

Carol loved the parodies they did of old movies.  Some of the original stars loved them, and some were quite unhappy with the comedies. Her favorite was “Went with the Wind” with Starlett O’Hara, Rat Butler, and Mr. Brashley. The curtain rod in the dress was conceived by Bob Mackie. Coming down the stairs, Starlett replies to Rat’s compliment on the dress, “Thank you.  I saw it in the window and couldn’t resist.” The dress is now at the Smithsonian Museum. She also liked “Pillow Squawk”, a Doris Day parody.

She was always complimentary about her entire cast. One of her quotes was “When you play tennis, it’s important to play with a better player because it makes your game better.  Well, Harvey made my game better. I miss him dreadfully. And Tim Conway, God bless him, is just genius when it comes to improvising, coming up with stuff that we never rehearsed.”

These compliments were returned by her costars. Harvey Korman was quoted as saying, “We were an ensemble, and Carol had the most incredible attitude. I’ve never worked with a star of that magnitude who was willing to give so much away.”

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Of course, everyone watches to see how Tim Conway makes Harvey Korman laugh during their skits.  Apparently, Tim had a knack for improving the scripts and throwing in lines and action that Korman didn’t anticipate. Here’s Tim Conway on Harvey Korman: “He was one of the brightest people I’ve ever met, but the man could not tie his own shoes . . .  I would put him on constantly . . . We were on an airplane and we refueled in Arizona. Taxing on the next runway, I said, ‘Harvey, I don’t know if the guy put the gas cap back on. It was on the wing and now it’s not.’ Harvey got worried. So, he got up and went to the pilot and said, ‘Your gas cap’s not on.’ The pilot just looked at him.  There is no gas cap.”

One of the memorable parts of the show is the opening and closing theme song.  She always ended the show with “I’m so glad we had this time together, just to have a laugh or sing a song. Seems we just get started, and before you know it, comes the time we have to say so long.” Then she tugged her ear. She would tug on her left ear which was a message to her grandmother that things were going well, and she missed her.

No matter how many years go by, the show remains a timeless comedy.  It has a balance of silliness and savvy. It’s hard to believe that the generations growing up in the 1980s and 1990s have never seen a variety show.  I love to catch reruns of this show.  I laugh out loud through the show.  Thank you, Carol for spending time with us. The show currently can be shown on Me TV at 10:00 pm with Mama’s Family airing at 8:00 pm.