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.

An Actress With “Street” Smarts

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.

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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.

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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!

1917 Was A Very Good Year

This week I was inspired by the blog “Once upon a screen . . .” to take a look at television pioneers who were born in 1917. (For some great articles on pop culture, movies, and television, check out her blog at aurorasginjoint.com.) Let’s get to know 17 of the stars who helped shape the direction of television during the golden age.

Herbert Anderson. Best known for his role as Henry Mitchell on Dennis the Menace, Anderson began his career making movies.  He transitioned to television in 1953, appearing on 61 shows over the years.  He appeared in episodes on such shows as Gunsmoke, Petticoat Junction, Batman, I Dream of Jeannie, Man from U.N.C.L.E., My Three Sons, Bewitched, and The Waltons.  One of my favorites is the first season of The Brady Bunch.  The kids are sick and both parents call a doctor.  The girls were used to a woman played by Marion Ross while the boys always had a man, Anderson.  After weighing factors to pick one of them, the family decides to keep both doctors. He died from a heart attack in 1994.

Carl Ballantine. Ballantine began his career as a magician and inspired many famous magicians since.  He began working in Las Vegas and on television as a magician.  Eventually he transferred to movie roles and after appearing in McHale’s Navy on the big screen, took on the same role of Lester Gruber on the television series. He went on to appear on 33 additional tv shows including That Girl, Laverne and Shirley, Trapper John MD, and Night Court. He passed away at his home in 2009.

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Earl Bellamy. Earl Bellamy directed episodes for 101 different television shows.  He is best known for The Lone Ranger and The Tales of Wells Fargo.  He directed 82 episodes for Bachelor Father, one of my all-time favorite sitcoms.  In the 1960s he specialized in sitcoms including That Girl, The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, and My Three Sons while the 1970s saw him transition to dramas including Marcus Welby MD, The FBI, Medical Center, and Eight is Enough. In 2003 he passed away from a heart attack.

Ernest Borgnine.  Best known of his Oscar-winning role of Marty in 1955, Ernest enlisted in the Navy in 1935 until 1941.  In 1942 he re-enlisted and served until 1945.  After doing some factory work, he decided to go to school to study acting and began his career on Broadway.  He was also in the movie McHale’s Navy and went on to tackle the role in the television series.  He loved working with Tim Conway and in later years they did the voices for Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy in SpongeBob SquarePants. He appeared in 47 different shows over the years, including the series Airwolf which he starred in. Borgnine appeared in the final episode of ER which he won an Emmy for. He was married five times, including a 32-day marriage to Ethel Merman.  His last marriage to Tova lasted 39 years. He died of kidney failure in 2012.

Raymond Burr. Best known as Perry Mason, Burr started his career on Broadway in the 1940s and then appeared in 50 films from 1946-1957. In 1956 he auditioned for the role of Hamilton Burger, the DA in Perry Mason.  He was told he could have the starring role if he lost about 60 pounds which he accomplished. He later starred in Ironside, another crime drama and appeared on a variety of other shows.  Burr had many interests including raising and cross-breeding orchids; collecting wine, art, stamps and sea shells; reading; and breeding dogs.  He was extremely generous, giving away much of his money over the years.  He passed away from cancer in 1993.

Phyllis Diller. Known for her wild hair and clothing, Diller was one of the pioneering stand-up female comedians.  She appeared in films in the 1940s, worked in radio in the 1950s, and began her stand-up career in 1955. Her first television appearance was in You Bet Your Life.  She appeared in 40 shows including Batman, CHIPs, Full House, and The Drew Carey Show.  She had her own show titled The Pruitts of Southampton, and in reruns The Phyllis Diller Show that ran from 1966-67.  She recorded comedy albums in the 1960s, wrote several books during her career, was an accomplished pianist, performing with symphony orchestras across the US and taught herself painting which she continued throughout the 1960s and 70s. Her husband Fang was not real, but she used him in her comedy routines.  She died of natural causes in 2012. My first memory of Diller was in the movie Boy Did I Dial a Wrong Number with Bob Hope which my parents took me to at the drive in.

Ross Elliott. A prolific actor on stage, film, and television, Elliott appeared in 184 different shows from sitcoms to westerns to medial dramas, all between 1951 and 1983. He passed away from cancer in 1999.

June Foray.  One of the greatest voice actors ever, Foray has been active in the industry since she had her own radio show.  She did off-air voices for many sitcoms including I Love Lucy, Father Knows Best, Jack Benny, Rawhide, Get Smart, Lost In Space, and Bewitched.  She also appeared in more than 76 animated series.  She is perhaps best known as Rocky in Rocky and Bullwinkle and as Cindy Lou Who in How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Karen and other voices in Frosty the Snowman. Foray is still alive today.

Zsa Zsa Gabor.  Unlike her sister Eva who became known as Lisa Douglas on Green Acres, Zsa Zsa seemed to make a career out of playing herself.  Of the 80 appearances she made in film and television, 20 of them were as herself. She was a true celebrity.  Crowned Miss Hungary in 1936, she came to the US in 1941 and began her career.  She was known for her extravagant lifestyle and many marriages: 9 with 7 divorces (including one to Conrad Hilton) and 1 annulment.

Sid Melton.  Known to most viewers today as handyman Alf Monroe on Green Acres, Melton began as a film star and went on to appear in 71 shows including Topper, Bachelor Father, Make Room for Daddy, That Girl, Petticoat Junction, I Dream of Jeannie, and Empty Nest. He died from pneumonia in 2011.

Alice Pearce. Although her career was cut short due to illness, I included Alice Pearce because her role as Gladys Kravitz in so memorable.  After spending her childhood in Europe, Pearce started on Broadway and after appearing in On the Town, she was brought to Hollywood to reprise her role in the movie version. She began specializing in comedy in the 1940s. In 1964 she turned down the role of Grandmama in The Addams Family and shortly after was offered the role of Gladys in Bewitched. She was already diagnosed with ovarian cancer when she began her role but didn’t tell anyone and was able to act for two seasons before she passed away from the disease. She received an Emmy for her work on Bewitched.

Gene Rayburn. One of the kings of game shows, Rayburn began his career as an actor, taking over for Dick Van Dyke in Bye Bye Birdie when Van Dyke began his television show. While he was on numerous game shows as a panelist or host over the years, Rayburn is best known for Match Game which first ran from 1962-69. It was revived again in 1973 and took several formats in the following years.  He died from heart failure in 1999.

Isabel Sanford. Best known as Louise Jefferson, she grew up in Harlem and performed in amateur nights at the Apollo Theatre. Her Broadway debut was in 1965.  After appearing as a maid in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, she was cast by Norman Lear in All in the Family which led to the series The Jeffersons.  When the show ended in 1985, she appeared in a variety of other shows until 2002.  She passed away from natural causes in 2004.

Sidney Sheldon.  A writer and producer, Sheldon created The Patty Duke Show, I Dream of Jeannie, and Hart to Hart, writing many of the scripts for all three series. After he turned 50, he began a career writing romantic suspense novels.  He died from pneumonia in 2007.

Robert Sterling. A clothing salesman before getting into acting, Sterling was best known for his role as George Kerby in Topper from 1953-55.  His wife, Anne Jeffreys played his wife in the show. From 1943-49 he was married to Ann Sothern. He appeared in 36 shows between 1951 and 1986. He passed away from natural causes in 2006.

Jesse White.  While White was a hard-working character actor, he is best known for his commercials as the Maytag repairman from 1967-88. After appearing in films for many years, he transitioned to television in the 1950s.  His daughter Carole Ita White also became an actress best known for Laverne and Shirley. White appeared in 113 shows, never receiving a regular series.

Jane Wyman. Wyman began working at Warner Brothers at age 16, claiming to be 19. Although she was a successful film star and began in television in 1955 with her own show, Jane Wyman Presents Fireside Theater, she is probably best known for her role on Falcon’s Crest from 1981-90 and her marriage to Ronald Reagan. She died in her sleep from natural causes in 2007.

These are just a handful of television mavericks that influenced television as we know it today.  I was amazed at the variety of different talents each of these stars displayed.  In comparing their television appearances, it’s surprising how many of them overlap and worked on the same shows.  What I found most surprising was that Ballantine, Diller, Melton, Sanford, Sterling, White and White’s daughter all appeared on Love American Style while Bellamy, Borgnine, Burr, Diller, Gabor, Rayburn, Sanford, White, and Wyman all guest starred on The Love Boat.  During my research, I ran across many shows that will become future blog topics.

Another fun fact about celebrating stars born in 1917 is that this week we are traveling to Pennsylvania to celebrate my grandmother’s 100th birthday who was also born in 1917.  Happy Birthday Mamie.