CROOKED MOUTHPIECES date back to the era of 1930s porto-noir gangster movies (reaching their apogee with Louis Calhern’s turn in The Asphalt Jungle), but crusading defense attorneys who trod the line between cleverness and corruption proved to be scarce onscreen.
And then came Perry Mason.
His creator, Erle Stanley Gardner, was a self-taught trial attorney who began submitting mystery stories to the pulps in 1923. Over the next decade, under a number of pseudonyms, he turned out an average for 3,200 words per day (1.2 million words per year) describing the adventures of protagonists such as Lester Leith, Speed Dash, and Ken Cornin. “By the time I’d learned my craft—and that took about ten years—I was ready to use my law background for my stories,” Gardner recalled in a 1965 interview.
At the time of his death in 1970, the prolific Gardner had become the bestselling author of the 20th century. The reason was Perry Mason. The crime-solving attorney was different from the private eyes that dominated pulp fiction and, later, film noir. Mason resembled his creator: a whip-smart lawyer who could bend the law without breaking it. By his own admission, Gardner was no great prose stylist. His forte was designing complex mysteries in which his attorney-hero always came out on top.
Prolific paperback writer Erle Stanley Gardner,
creator of the indomitable Perry Mason
Gardner’s first two Mason tales, The Case of the Velvet Claws and The Case of the Sulky Girl, were published in March 1933; he promptly quit law and began writing full time. The public loved the intricate plots and the perceived realism of justice served. Hollywood came calling, with Jack L. Warner buying the rights to the Mason cases, leading to six pictures over a three-year period: The Case of the Howling Dog (1934), The Case of the Curious Bride (1935), The Case of the Lucky Legs (1935), The Case of the Velvet Claws (1936), The Case of the Black Cat (1936), and The Case of the Stuttering Bishop (1937).
Although these pictures retain a certain charm—particularly Curious Bride— the Mason films exemplified how a studio could screw up a popular literary property. Pre-code cad Warren William was cast as Mason in the first four movies, before being replaced by Ricardo Cortez and Donald Woods in the final two. Three different actresses were cast as his loyal secretary Della Street, with private detective Paul Drake becoming a comic relief essayed byAllen Jenkins and other stock players. Assigning five different directors and a variety of screenwriters to the films also proved counterproductive. Executive producer Hal Wallis wanted the Mason character to resemble Dashiell Hammett’s Nick Charles from The Thin Man (1934). Instead, Mason was alternately portrayed as a boulevardier (who prepared lobsters at his favorite Fisherman’s Wharf restaurant) or a legal confidence man pursued by a diamond-swathed Della, who begs him to marry her and forego his law career.
Gardner's short-term affair with the big screen morphed
into a long-term affair with the small screen when
Perry Mason became a TV legend
Gardner recalled a “great genius” at Warner Bros. who’d asked him to write Perry Mason in the Painted Desert to cash in on the success of The Petrified Forest (1936). When Jack Warner asked Gardner to reduce the price escalator in his contract after the third picture, the author fumed to his literary agent: “I made a living before I ever saw Hollywood and can do so again.” After Warner Bros. turned The Case of the Dangerous Dowager into a comedy Western titled Granny Get Your Gun (1940), Gardner was done with the movies.
REPRINT EDITIONS of Perry Mason stories helped spearhead the boom in paperback sales during the 1940s. Now more financially secure, Gardner met and signed with literary agent Cornwell “Corny” Jackson, who was to establish a Mason radio show. Instead, Gardner orchestrated a deal with CBS on his own. When Jackson expressed bewilderment, Gardner cabled: “Cash those checks and shut your trap.” He listened religiously to the 15-minute program, which was more of an action-laden soap opera than a legal mystery. Although treated respectfully by the show’s sponsors and CBS chairman William Paley, Gardner still had no authority over content. The checks kept clearing, however, as the show endured for 12 years. Gardner disassociated himself with the radio program in 1955. It was renamed The Edge of Night and aired on television for another 30 years.
As ad agencies and networks queued up for the Mason television rights, Gardner circled the wagons. He formed Paisano Productions—named after his Temecula, California, ranch—with Corny Jackson and the agent’s wife, Gail Patrick, as partners. As his biographer, Dorothy B. Hughes, pointed out, Erle Stanley Gardner was “a ‘we’ rather than an ‘I’ man.” His production company assumed the characteristics of a family, its rough-hewn patriarch maintaining control through trustful delegation.
After turning down several different TV deals (including a million-dollar bid from an ad agency and a proposal from Charles Laughton and producer Paul Gregory), an agreement was reached with CBS, where Bill Paley had been a pioneer in transitioning CBS’s radio talent, including Jack Benny and Red Skelton, to television. Gail Patrick, who completed two years of law studies at the University of Alabama after graduating from Howard University, composed the contract. The former 1930s beauty queen and bad-girl actress was a dynamo who would serve as executive producer during the show’s entire run. In what was then a revolutionary deal, Paisano Productions split the profits with CBS after receiving a $500,000 payment. Patrick and Gardner had the final say on scripts (unless the CBS Broadcast Standards and Practices intervened). In 1956, television was transitioning from live dramas such as Playhouse 90 and Climax to filmed programs, and there were few one-hour filmed dramas. Gardner insisted that PerryMason episodes be 60 minutes—a mini-movie—to properly capture all the suspense and plot points of his stories.
The casting of the principals gave the show its film noir connection. Raymond Burr had already created an indelible cinematic niche as Hollywood’s most ominous heavy. He had a sepulchral and menacing expression, an echo-chamber voice, and a sinister bulk to rival Sydney Greenstreet’s. After getting his onscreen kicks by flinging flambéed cherries jubilee in a dame’s face in Raw Deal (1948), stalking Liz Scott in Pitfall (1948), bludgeoning Frank Sinatra in Meet Danny Wilson (1951), and dismembering his wife in Rear Window (1954), Burr was weary of his typecasting. The challenge in playing these villainous roles, according to the actor, was “trying to make them all different.” He viewed Perry Mason as a career life preserver.
Raymond Burr brought heft and heart to his iconic
television portrayal of Perry Mason
Veteran noir villain William Talman finally ended up on the
right side of the law as DA Hamilton Burger, Perry Mason’s courtroom opponent
Brought in to read for the part of District Attorney Hamilton Burger, Burr asked Gail Patrick to also let him test for the lead, for which sone hundred-odd actors had already auditioned. She remembered Burr from his acclaimed performance as the DA in A Place in the Sun (1951) and insisted he test as Burger—then go on a diet and come back to audition for Mason. According to legend, after viewing the slimmed-down Burr’s test, Gardner leapt to his feet and declared, “That’s Perry Mason!” Patrick said afterwards she always believed Burr was perfect, provided he dropped enough weight. A 1956 Gardner memo to Patrick, raving about the show’s pilot, bolsters her version of events: “You saw possibilities in Raymond Burr which no one else saw.”
The actor hired as Mason’s courtroom adversary also possessed a formidable noir résumé. William Talman abandoned potential careers as an evangelist, lawyer, and tennis pro before choosing acting. After signing an RKO contract, he played reptilian heavies in The Woman on Pier 13 (1949) and Armored Car Robbery (1950). Although he burnished his rep as a purveyor of screen menace with City that Never Sleeps (1953), Crashout (1955), and Big House, U.S.A. (1955), it was his landmark turn as a sadistic serial killer in Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker (1953) that established him as an actor of consequence. “I'd seen a brilliant little movie, The Hitch-Hiker, and had to have Bill Talman,” Gail Patrick said in a 1979 interview. “He never disappointed us.”
Talman, who also tested for the Mason role, was well liked even if he occasionally was a prima donna when Burr was off-set. Producer/director Arthur Marks recalled having to good-naturedly remind Talman that he was not the star of the show. In a 1960 TV Guide interview, Talman boasted that he knew more about Hamilton Burger “than Erle Stanley Gardner” and he later complained about the quality of the scripts. Gardner valued Talman’s work, but remarked that “When it comes to the field of public relations, that guy needs a guardian.”
Gail Patrick cast her friend Barbara Hale as Della Street, a composite of Gardner’s trio of secretaries. Hale had worked her way up at RKO (appearing in 1949’s noir films The Clay Pigeon and The Window) before landing starring roles in The Jackpot (1950) and A Lion is in the Streets (1953).
William Hopper about to launch a “Hello,Beautiful!” in
Barbara Hale's direction during an episode of Perry Mason
In addition to her acting career and raising three children with actor-husband Bill Williams, Hale was a skilled doll maker who had met Patrick when she visited the The Enchanted Cottage, a Beverly Hills toy store Patrick owned. Hale didn’t want to commit to the grind of a series, but Patrick talked her into it saying the commitment was for only 18 weeks. “After 300 episodes and nine years, I was still there,” laughed Hale in 2008. Her wryly humorous reactions to Mason and Paul Drake became the backbone of the series.
Despite initially being considered too old for the part of Lt.Tragg,67 year-old
Ray Collins became an indispensable member of the Perry Mason ensemble
Erle Stanley Gardner and his assistant—and future wife—Jean Bethell
were meticulous in their review of each Perry Mason script
William Hopper, son of infamous gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, had kicked around Hollywood doing bits at Warner Bros. and other studios. He gained confidence in William Wellman’s The High and the Mighty (1954) and followed it with a string of features, most notably The Bad Seed (1956). Hopper tested for Mason, but later admitted he was ill-suited for the part because it was too much work. As Paul Drake, his breezy entrances into Mason’s office with a tossed off “Hello, Beautiful” to Della, reflected the actor’s own laid back personality. According to Arthur Marks, “Bill was like a big kid… He became a good friend and I loved him.” During Mason’s final season, Hopper wanted shooting to wrap early so he could get home in time to watch Batman on television. Barbara Hale told me that Hopper was a quick study on dialogue who worked fast so that “the cocktail hour could begin as soon as possible.”
Ray Collins was the most seasoned performer of the Perry Mason ensemble. Following his long association with Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater, as well as dozens of films and over 900 plays, the 67-year old actor was initially perceived as too old to play Lt. Tragg, Mason’s police adversary, but his sardonic byplay with Mason ended up being one of the show’s strongest attributes.
ERLE STANLEY GARDNER reviewed every script, from initial draft onward, to ensure adherence to legal dogma, provide plot recommendations, and monitor the integrity of his characters. “Erle was a great asset,” Arthur Marks said. “He knew the whodunit and he knew his character better than anybody. It would have been stupid of us not to listen to him.”
Gail Patrick, producer Ben Brady (a former entertainment lawyer), and story editors Gene Wang and Samuel Newman all leveraged their respective law backgrounds to ferret out inconsistencies. In addition, Raymond Burr was a law buff whose Malibu home included 99 volumes of Corpus Juris Secundum (CJS), the definitive encyclopedia of United States law. Three volumes of this weighty collection comprised the backdrop of the show’s closing credits. One wonders if they were Burr’s personal copie
Left to right, America's favorite legal team: William Talman,
RayCollins, Barbara Hale, Raymond Burr, and William Hopper
Perry Mason acquired a justifiable reputation as being difficult to write for. In addition to the extensive oversight, there were formulaic boundaries. As Arthur Marks, who rose from AD to director and producer of the show, told authors Bill Sullivan and Ed Robertson for their essential Perry Mason guide, The Case of the Alliterative Attorney:
You had to write it so that Burger believed he would win, as if he came into the courtroom with a four-furlong lead and Perry had to catch up. A lot of writers came in wanting to write the Galloping Ghost, with the hero riding off into the West … With some we’d have to convince them that was the format or eliminate them.
Marks believed the whodunit aspect made the program “a game show.” “You had five suspects, each of whom had their own scene [opposite Mason] during the show—and each of whom got a chance to ‘one-up’ Mason in that scene,” he recalled. “So, when it got to court in the second half of the show, the imprint of the characters was so strong that the game persisted.”
Thirty-six of the first 39 episodes were adapted from Gardner’s novels, before the producers turned to original stories. Several of the show’s writers made their bones during the classic noir era, including: Malvin Wald (The Dark Past, The Naked City, The Undercover Man, Outrage), Francis M. Cockrell (DarkWaters, Inferno), Robert Presnell Sr. (High Tide, The Guilty, For You I Die), Robert E. Kent (The Reckless Moment, Where the Sidewalk Ends), Sam Neuman (The Hoodlum), and pulp writer Robert Leslie Bellem who created the Hollywood private eye character of Dan Turner. Other Mason writers began their careers in television with a couple of them—Stirling Silliphant and Philip Saltzman—hitting the big time.
Perhaps the most notable of the show’s writers was Jonathan Latimer, who penned 32 episodes from 1958 to 1965. Back in the 1930s, Latimer had written a series of crime novels featuring debauched private dick Bill Crane. Similar to Gardner’s experience with Warner Bros., his books were adapted into quickly forgotten Universal programmers starring Preston Foster as Crane.
William Hopper, William Talman, and Raymond Burr take a
fresh air break outside the studio that became their second home during
Perry Mason’s enduring TV run
Basking in small-screen glory are, left to right, Perry Mason executive
producer Gail Patrick, creator Erle Stanley Gardner, Gardner's executive
secretary and future wife Jean Bethell, Saturday Evening Post editor
Erd Brandt, and star Raymond Burr
Rather than sticking with hard-boiled detective yarns1, Latimer became a prominent Hollywood screenwriter specializing in original and adapted thrillers: The Glass Key (1942), Nocturne (1946), They Won’t Believe Me (1947), The Big Clock (1948), Night has a Thousand Eyes (1948), and Alias Nick Beal (1949). He shared a friendship with Raymond Chandler (also Gardner’s pal) and later settled near the legendary writer of detective fiction in La Jolla, California. Latimer’s episodes displaying his flair for suspense, characterization, and sly humor are among the best in the series. In “The Case of Bogus Books” (1962), Latimer has a bookstore owner answer a customer inquiry with,“No ma’am, Tropic of Cancer is not a medical book.”
Familiar names that occupied the director’s chair included: Lewis Allen (Desert Fury, So Evil My Love, Chicago Deadline, Appointment with Danger, Suddenly), Lásló Benedek (Port of New York, The Wild One), Jerry Hopper (The Atomic City, Naked Alibi, The Square Jungle), former Howard Hawks editor Christian Nyby (The Thing from Another World), and Gerd Oswald (A Kiss Before Dying, Crime of Passion).
Although Arthur Marks, Jesse Hibbs, and William D. Russell helmed over half of the 271 Perry Mason episodes, the show was also a proving ground for young directors. A pair of Mason-directorial alumni, Richard Donner and Arthur Hiller, later enjoyed hugely successful film careers. Although Burr and the other regulars didn’t need any guidance on how to play their characters, many of the directors imbued some of their own style into the series’ format.
Despite the show’s formulaic template, there was artistic variance. The black-and-white photography, along with the stories’ tempo established a definitive noir-stained mood. The L.A. locations didn’t hurt either. Violence was always implied; the actual murder was almost never shown. Fred Steiner’s portentous “Park Avenue Beat” theme captured Mason’s dark milieu while the balance of the music score relied primarily on jazzy stock compositions by Bernard Herrmann and others from the CBS library.
Raymond Burr, in a typically jocular moment, as he balances his
newly-awarded 1961 Emmy atop the head of delighted co-star William Talman
The supporting performers who appeared on Perry Mason comprise a veritable “Who’s Who” of mid-20th-century Hollywood, many familiar film noir faces among them. Gail Patrick favored casting colleagues from her acting heyday, including Fay Wray, Don Beddoe, Paul Fix, and Addison Richards among others. Marks and Burr leveraged their backgrounds in radio with Parley Baer, Lurene Tuttle, Olan Soule, Les Tremayne, to name but a few.
Many performers returned over the years as victims, red herrings, or murderers. H.M. Wynant led the way with ten different appearances. Richard Erdman played a victim once and the murderer three times. Erdman recalled the show as a well-oiled machine, but the plots could be difficult to surmise: “I told Ray Burr that the script didn’t make any sense and I couldn’t understand it.” To which Burr replied, “Neither can I. Let’s just say the lines so we can get paid and go home.”
IT WAS RAYMOND BURR who turned the program into a ratings blockbuster. His characterization of Perry Mason became a national touchstone. According to Marks, “As far as [Ray] was concerned, Mason was the character he wanted to be.” The cast, crew, and everyone associated with the show admired Burr’s acting acumen, but his career reinvention from ominous heavy to heroic lawyer came at a steep price
The star’s workload was so heavy he rarely left the Fox lot. He lived the week in Shirley Temple’s old dressing cottage, which was transformed into an apartment, retreating to his Malibu home only on weekends. His mornings began at 3:30 am. Actor John Frankham worked with Burr for two weeks:
“I had to report to the studio every day at 3am, wake him, and immediately start reciting the day’s dialogue and [that of] other characters—while he rose, showered, had breakfast, and went to wardrobe. He never looked at a script. He learned everything by listening. I just followed him around with the script for five hours before he reported on-set at 8 a.m. Then, I spent the filming day close at hand, in case he needed a refresher line.”
After four years and 123 episodes, Burr finally burned out. With each episode scheduled for six days of production, he was on screen 90% of the time. At least two days per week were spent in the court-room set where he had to master, with minimal retakes, upwards of 30 pages of script laden with legal jargon. He began using TelePrompTers strategically placed at three different locations on the courtroom set. His performances remained letter-perfect, never stale. “I was concerned about eye movement, but he was unbelievable,” remembered Arthur Marks. “He could do that better [use the TelePrompTer] than any actor that I had ever worked with. He convinced me and he convinced everybody.” Burr would rely on the device for the rest of his career.
In addition to coping with an arduous work schedule and a life-long weight problem, Burr labored under the stress of projecting a straight existence to cloak his actual life as a gay man. He had previously invented a fake marriage and a purported infant son (who suffered a tragic death) along with other fictional details of his life to protect himself during his movie career.
After becoming a major TV star, he felt compelled to continue the deception. Although Hollywood people in the know surmised the truth, no one went public—it would have ruined his career and driven the show off the air. Once Perry Mason became an award-winning hit, with Burr and Barbara Hale winning Emmy awards, the need to safeguard his privacy only intensified.
Burr vented the pressure with practical jokes. Barbara Hale was his favorite victim. “All of them, the two Bills, Ray Collins, and especially Raymond just loved to hear me scream,” Hale told me. The stories about the gags Burr played on Hale are legion: presenting her a box of flowers containing live mice; filling her dressing room from ceiling to floor with plants; hiding a baby alligator in a courtroom drawer Hale would open during a take; nailing her shoes to the courtroom floor during a break, etc. Burr also appreciated the jokes played on him. His affable nature and uncompromising support of his co-workers extended the family atmosphere originally established by Paisano Productions to the entire cast and crew.
A pensive William Hopper, a steely Barbara Hale, and a convivial
Raymond Burr share cocktail chatter in a Perry Mason episode.
The conversation was undoubtedly interesting
In failing health, Ray Collins left the show in 1963. Burr loyally maintained his dressing room, his personalized cup at the studio coffee kiosk, and his name in the credits. After Bill Talman was arrested in January 1960 in Los Angeles (one local headline screamed: PERRY MASON DA ARRESTED IN NUDE DOPE RAID), he was kicked off the program—even though the charges were later dismissed. Burr used his star power (along with Gail, Jackson, and Gardner) to force CBS to bring Talman back. Virtually unemployable elsewhere, Talman returned as Hamilton Burger in December 1960.
As Perry Mason moved into the mid-1960s, ancillary characters were added along with newer guest actors including James Coburn, Burt Reynolds, and Robert Redford, but the format remained unchanged. The show’s noir sensibility became diluted as pop culture shifted to a younger generation that preferred rock & roll and blue jeans to jazz and fedoras.
Meanwhile, Burr acquired more creative control. He’d become disgruntled over script quality and a production schedule he termed “impossible” in a 1963 interview. He and Gail Patrick had little use for CBS’s increasing interference, which included changing the show’s traditional Saturday time slot—accelerating a decline in ratings.
As he began to suffer health problems in 1964, Burr decided to leave the program, although he stayed on for two more seasons because he worried his departure would terminate the employment of his beloved cast and crew. The decision to stick around was not entirely altruistic—Burr’s contract for the final year of Perry Mason was estimated at $2 million.
The 271st episode, “The Case of the Final Fade-Out,” aired May 22, 1966. Barbara Hale dubbed the finale as “the yearbook” of the Perry Mason series because everyone who worked on the program appeared on camera. Corny Jackson played a bartender, Gail Patrick a woman at the bar, and the trial judge was portrayed by none other than Erle Stanley Gardner. Along with Arthur Marks and Art Seid, every grip, sound mixer, secretary, editor, make-up person, legal assistant, and hairdresser got a cameo. With the exception of an exhausted Burr, everyone believed the show could have continued. Erle Stanley Gardner told the L.A. Times: “I feel a terrific sense of loss and an astronomical sense of relief. However, the public is too dedicated not to feel the loss. Thirty million people are going to ask what happened to Perry Mason? And all we can tell them is the network doesn’t know what it is doing.”
Although it seemed that Perry Mason on the small screen was done, a franchise is never allowed to die if there is an opportunity to squeeze out more profit. An attempted revival sans Burr, The New Perry Mason, was canceled after 15 episodes in 1974. Burr resuscitated the brand nearly two decades after his series ended with Perry Mason Returns (1985) a made-for-TV movie on NBC. The resurgent success spawned a new series of 25 two-hour Mason films starring Burr and Barbara Hale that aired over the next eight years.
Perry Mason may be immortal, but the actor who embodied the fictional lawyer was not. Burr finished his final performance in “The Case of the Killer Kiss” (1993) from a wheelchair. Several weeks later, on September 12, 1993 he died of cancer at the age of 76. “He worked until the very end,” Barbara Hale told Ed Robertson. “He said, ‘Barb, I just have to make this show. When the show stops, all of these fellows who have been working on the show will be let go. I just want to keep going as long as I can.”
The original Mason program continues to thrive in re-run perpetuity. Its continued success is a tribute to Erle Stanley Gardner, Raymond Burr, a wonderful cast, superb writers, and a crack production team. The sleuthing attorney who captured the public’s imagination for three generations and counting bears the dark, immutable stamp of film noir.
Thanks to Barbara Hale, Richard Erdman, and Ed Robertson
1. Before leaving the hardboiled field, Latimer penned the classic 1941 novel Solomon’s Vineyard, considered by many the most brutal and kinky work in the genre. First published in England, it was hot enough to be banned in the U.S. until 1988.