PERRY MASON

U.S. Legal Drama/Mystery

Perry Mason is the longest running lawyer show in American television history. Its original run lasted nine years and its success in both syndication and made-for-television movies confirm its impressive stamina. Mason's fans include lawyers and judges who were influenced by this series to enter their profession. The Mason character was created by mystery writer Erle Stanley Gardner and delivered his first brief in the novel The Case of the Velvet Claws (1933). From 1934 to 1937 Warners produced six films featuring Mason. A radio series also based on Mason ran every weekday afternoon on CBS radio from 1944 to 1955 as a detective/soap opera. When the CBS television series was developed as an evening drama, the radio series was changed from Perry Mason to The Edge of Night and the cast renamed so as not to compete against the television series.

The title character is a lawyer working out of Los Angeles. Mason, played by Raymond Burr, is teamed with two talented and ever faithful assistants: trusty and beautiful secretary Della Street, played by Barbara Hale, and the suave but boyish private detective Paul Drake, played by William Hopper. In each episode this trio worked to clear their innocent client of the charge of murder against the formidable district attorney Hamilton Burger, played by William Talman. Most episodes follow this simple formula: the guest characters are introduced and their situation shows that at least one of them is capable of murder. When the murder happens, an innocent person (most often a woman) is accused, and Mason takes the case. As evidence mounts against his client, Mason pulls out a legal maneuver involving some courtroom "pyrotechnics." This not only proves his client innocent, but identifies the real culprit. These scenes are easily the best and most memorable. It is not because they are realistic. On the contrary, they are hardly that. What is so engaging about them is the combination of Mason's efforts to free his client, perhaps a surprise witness brought in by Drake in the closing courtroom scene, and a dramatic courtroom confession. The murderer being in the courtroom during the trial and not hiding out in the Bahamas provides the single most important image of each episode. The murderer forgoes the fifth amendment and admits his/her guilt in an often tearful outburst of "I did it! And I'm glad I did!" This happens under the shocked, amazed eyes of district attorney Burger and the stoic, sure face of defense attorney Mason.

Although it is often identified with other lawyer dramas such as L. A. Law and The Defenders, Perry Mason is more of a detective series. Each episode is a carefully structured detective puzzle that both established and perpetuated a number of conventions associated with most television detective series. Perry Mason uses the legal profession and the trial situation as a forum for detective work. Although strictly formulaic, each episode is guided by the elements of the variations that distinguish one episode from another. For example, since nearly every episode began with the guest characters rather than with the series regulars, these guest characters set the tone for the rest of the episode. If it is going to be youth oriented, these characters are young. If it is going to be a contested will, the heirs are introduced.

The credit for the series' success is split equally between Burr, the Perry Mason production style and the series' creator Gardner. Burr provided the characterization of a cool, calculating attorney, while the production style builds tension in plots at once solidly formulaic and cleverly surprising, and Gardner, as an uncredited executive story editor, made sure each episode carefully blended legal drama with clever detective work. In all, the series won three Emmys, two for Burr and one for Hale.

The series made a brief return in 1973 with the same production team as the original series, but with a new cast. Monte Markham replaced Burr. That this version did not survive 15 episodes reveals that one of the key draws of the original series is the casting. It is interesting to note, however, that Markham's Mason was closer to the one featured in the original novels. Both were brash, elegant and coolly businesslike in their dealings with clients, something Burr never was. But it is Burr's coolness and control that became so identified with the character that, for the television audience, there was no other Mason than Burr.

Burr returned to his role in 1985 for the beginning of an almost ten year run of made-for-television movies beginning with Perry Mason Returns. This is followed by The Case of the Notorious Nun (1986). Burr is back as Mason, albeit a bit older, grayer and bearded, with Barbara Hale as his executive secretary. Since William Hopper died in 1970, William Katt (who is the real life son of Barbara Hale) is featured in the first nine episodes as Paul Drake, Jr. In The Case of the Lethal Lesson (1989), Katt is replaced by a graduating law student Ken Malansky, played by William R. Moses. Each plot is developed over two hours instead of one and the extra time is made up of extended chases and blind alleys. Yet the basic formula stays the same.

This newest version of Perry Mason takes an interesting twist in the spring of 1994. After Burr's death in the fall of 1993, executive producers Fred Silverman and Dean Hargrove followed the wishes of the estate of Erle Stanley Gardner and kept the character alive but off-screen. First to replace him as visiting attorney was Paul Sorvino as Anthony Caruso in The Case of the Wicked Wives (1993) and then Hal Holbrook as "Wild Bill" McKenzie in The Case of the Lethal Lifestyle (1994). In each movie, Mason is conveniently absent. Street and Malansky are still available as assistants for the "visiting" attorney and the series is still called A Perry Mason Mystery, so that, production after production, the character lives on.

-J. Dennis Bounds


Perry Mason

CAST(1957-1966)

Perry Mason ............................................Raymond Burr Della Street............................................... Barbara Hale Paul Drake ............................................William Hopper Hamilton Burger .....................................William Talman Lt. Arthur Tragg (1957-1965)......................... Ray Collins David Gideon (1961-1962)................................ Karl Held Lt. Anderson (1961-1965)............................. Wesley Lau Lt. Steve Drumm (1965-1966).............. Richard Anderson Sgt. Brice (1959-1966).................................... Lee Miller Terrence Clay (1965-1966).............................. Dan Tobin

CAST (1973-1974)

Perry Mason .........................................Monte Markham Della Street.............................................. Sharon Acker Paul Drake............................................. Albert Stratton Lt. Arthur Tragg............................................ Dane Clark Hamilton Burger..................................... Harry Guardino Gertrude Lade ...........................................Brett Somers

PRODUCERS Gail Patrick Jackson, Arthur Marks, Art Seid, Sam White, Ben Brady

PROGRAMMING HISTORY 245 Episodes

CBS
September 1957-September 1962       Saturday 7:30-8:30 September 1962-September 1963       Thursday 8:00-9:00 September 1963-September 1964     Thursday 9:00-10:00 September 1964-September 1965       Thursday 8:00-9:00 September 1965-September 1966        Sunday 9:00-10:00 September 1973-January 1974              Sunday 7:30-8:30

FURTHER READING

Fugate, Francis L., and Roberta B. Fugate. Secrets of the World's Best Selling Writer: The Storytelling Techniques of Erle Stanley Gardner. New York: Morrow, 1980.

Hughes, Dorothy B. Erle Stanley Gardner: The Case of the Real Perry Mason. New York: Morrow, 1978.

Kelleher, Brian, and Diana Merrill. The Perry Mason Show Book. New York: St. Martin's, 1987.

Martindale, David. The Perry Mason Casebook. New York: Pioneer, 1991.

Meyers, Richard. TV Detectives. San Diego, California: Barnes, 1988.

 

See also Burr, Raymond; Detective Programs