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).

William Talman
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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.

Gail Patrick Jackson
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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.

Bette Davis fills in
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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.