by Herbie J Pilato
“I liked playing women with an independent streak.”
So once spoke the actress Barbara Hale, who died January 26, 2017 at age 94, in reference to her iconic performance as Della Street on TV’s long-running Perry Mason one-hour legal mystery series.
Raymond Burr played the lead in the show of the top attorney (who never lost a case!), and which originally aired on CBS from 1957 to 1966, and which remains popular in reruns today (on ME-TV).
However, Perry would have been nothing without Della Street, his secretary and right-hand gal, portrayed with grace and subtle allure by the elegant Hale.
Unlike the audience, Perry’s affection for Della was not so obvious. “Circumstantial evidence,” is how he may have defined and defended his alleged attraction; although many wondered how he could turn away from her numerous charms.
First and foremost, Hale’s Street was one of television’s first single professional working-women, and the story of how she came to play the part is just as monumental.
As Hale explains, she was close friends with two of the show’s producers, Corny and Gail Patrick Jackson. Hale had worked with Corny at an advertising agency in Chicago, and with Gail on a doll-making venture. The doll project never panned out, but Hale remained friends with Corny and Gail, the latter of whom later remembered Barbara for a part in the yet-to-air Mason series then-still in development.
“Oh, Gail,” Hale said, “…bless your heart for thinking of me. But I just can’t do a show right now,” mostly because she had three children to care for, the youngest of whom was only three-years-old. “I need to be home.”
“Well,” Patrick replied, “…this won’t take much time – and Barb, we’re only going to do 18 episodes.”
Hale was intrigued with the limited workload and, once hearing it the project was Perry Mason, based on the famous Early Stanley Gardner books – and starring Burr, she was thrilled.
As she remembered, Burr was one of the first people she had met at RKO, the initial studio to sign her to contract. “I had known him since the day I arrived in Hollywood. We were both under contract with RKO, and we got to know each other very well. He was a wonderful actor and a dear friend.”
Hale stayed with the Mason series for nine seasons, and 332 episodes, certainly more than the initial 18 segments promised to her by Patrick. After the show ended in 1966, she found herself working with Burr a few other times; first, on his second hit series, Ironside, in the 1970s and, in 1994 – for the TV-reunion movie Perry Mason Returns, which beget a series of sequels based on the original series.
These new Mason movies also starred William Katt, who played Paul Drake, Jr., the son of the character made famous by William Hopper on the original series. By the time Perry Mason returned in the ‘90s, Hopper had unfortunately succumbed to lung cancer, but the producers, namely Dean Hargrove, wanted to keep the Drake family presence in the new films.
Meanwhile, Hale was somewhat familiar with the actor who replaced Hopper in the subsequent reunions. That would be William Katt; her son in real life, who had previously starred on The Greatest American Hero; ABC, 1981-83, and who ultimately left the film series and was replaced by William R. Moses.
Burr died in 1993, and in-stepped David Ogden Stiers as the franchise’s leading lawyer until the airing of the final film, 1995’s A Perry Mason Mystery: The Case of the Jealous Jokester (which aired in 1995).
Although excited about the new Mason movies, Hale was concerned as to how the films would continue the momentum of the original series without most of the original actors, most of who were no longer living. Beyond herself and Burr, and besides Hopper, William Taylon (prosecutor Hamilton Burger) and Ray Collins (Lt. Arthur Tragg) were gone.
“They were my boys,” she recalled with whimsy. “I loved each of them dearly. They were like four of my brothers…my loves – and to this day, along with Raymond, of course, I miss them terribly.”
As to her Della Street portrayal, one of TV’s first single professional working-women, Hale remained both humble at the reception, and proud of her positive influence as a role model:
“I received so much fan mail from young ladies who were trying to decide what to do. This is when young women were more involved with finding a career that would suit them, rather than their husbands, so to speak. It’s when women were just starting to think about their occupation in the work-force. And I cannot tell you the number of letters I received saying how pleased they were with the show because they were looking for a profession to follow…to study. And they were smitten with anything that had to do with the legal profession because of the show. And they were all in love with Raymond, and wanted to study law and work for someone just like Perry Mason.”
As Perry’s right-hand executive secretary, Hale’s Della added the perfect blend of feminine mystique to the show, which of course, charmed viewers – at one point, even her own son – years before he became The Greatest American Hero. She explained:
“One day when Billy was about five or six-years-old, my husband and I were to visit his school for parent’s night…to meet the teachers and look at the various projects the children had displayed on their desks, and so forth. So Bill [Sr.] and I went to [little] Billy’s desk, to see his work. And each of the children had done a little book of their family – on that wide-lined stationary, along with pictures that that drew to match the stories they wrote about the people in their life. So, Billy drew a picture of sea caption with a sailor hat, which signified the fact that my husband was a sea captain because we had owned a boat. But when it came to his picture of me, he didn’t draw me as an actress…but as a secretary…because he thought I really was that person.”
Just as her son had to follow certain rules when he was a young student in school, Hale adhered to a strict train of thought that was instituted by Earl Stanley Gardner on the Mason set. For example, the definition of Della’s relationship with Perry had to remain a mystery, which of course was mind-boggling to the viewers, if fitting to the very premise and popularity of the series. Essentially, there could be no romance between the characters.
Hale remembered one time in particular when Gardner was not pleased when the director had strategically and somewhat awkwardly placed Della on Perry’s lap. “[Gardner] didn’t like that at all,” she said with a twinkle in her eye.
The actress remembered an additional on-screen moment that did not sit well with Gardner; when she and Burr filmed a restaurant scene during which they both ordered a daiquiri cocktail. The following day, Gardner had reviewed the footage and said, “No. We have to do that over.”
Both Barbara and Burr wondered why.
“It doesn’t fit,” Gardner said.
As Hale revealed in 2014, because the series was based partially on Gardner’s life and career, “Perry had to order what Earl drank and Earl never drank a daiquiri.”
Such attention to detail contributed to every aspect of the show’s production, including the design of Hale’s wardrobe as Della. Hale credited executive producer Patrick Jackson who, prior to her Mason gig had been known professionally as Gail Patrick with a fairly successful acting career in the 1930s and early ‘40s playing sophisticated (if sometimes heartless) best friends, sisters or romantic rivals of the female lead (in films like My Man Godfrey, Stage Door and My Favorite Wife).
In effect, Hale trusted Patrick’s instincts, while Patrick helped to design Hale’s persona as Della, even with regard to wardrobe for the character. Hale explained:
“Della was fashionable, but always just a step ahead of the times. If women were wearing their skirts long, Della would wear them a little longer. When they wearing them shorter, Della would wear them shorter, still…but not to the extent they it became unfashionable…only to a certain degree….which essential meant that my wardrobe never changed. And that was because we knew the show was going to run for a long time…and we wanted to give the show a timeless look. The early episodes don’t look extremely 50s and the later ones don’t look extremely ‘60s. In many ways, people could episodes of the show and not pinpoint exactly what year they were filmed.”
While Hale’s weekly wardrobe experience on Mason was infinitely more enjoyable (and less expensive!) than her previous single-guest-starring roles on other programs (such as The Loretta Young Show, in which she had to purchase her own clothes at double the amount she was paid), visual benchmarks for the series could be measured by Burr’s continuous weight gain – in relation to Hale’s always trim-appearance.
As she recalled, Burr’s expanding physical presence was a sensitive issue for the actor who Hale affectionately referred to then and now as “Big Daddy.” But she would make every attempt to temper his discomfort with humor, by telling him, “Honey – don’t you worry one bit about how big you get. You just get as big as you want…because the bigger you get – the smaller I look.”
While Hale and Burr shared a deep and respectful friendship off-screen, Della and Perry’s relationship on-screen would always remain professional, and definitely never would have ventured into romance. As Hale put it, “That’s audience participation…the girls or the guys [at home watching] that didn’t want them to be lovers…and could only accept them as very-appreciative loving partners at work.”
“In other words,” she went on to say, “…if women viewers liked Perry, they didn’t want to see him married. And if they liked her, they didn’t want to see her married – even some of the gals didn’t want to see Della married.”
However, Hale agreed that there was still a significant portion of the audience who would have embraced Della and Perry as lovers. The network would frequently receive letters from viewers who wanted the two to marry. According to Hale, some fans even thought that she and Burr were married in real life.
On-screen, however, Hale never sought a larger role on the series, at least not in the traditional sense. When Mason began production, she approached her superiors with an early suggestion: She didn’t want more lines or character interaction and action. “No,” she clarified. “I don’t want more to do. I just want Della to have reaction shots in response to Perry’s dialogue…so that she could be looked upon as the silent partner.”
“I think that’s what women do,” she explained. “I think that’s an extremely key quality and value of a woman.”
Once more referencing her term of endearment for Burr, she says, “It’s just like in marriage…the male is the ‘Big Daddy,’ so to speak. But the woman is the one that is dependable, standing by his side…around the corner [wherever]…ready to help him. If he needs a pill she gives him a pill…that kind of support….combining intelligence and sensitivity. And that’s [a unified quality] that women have in business that men, in general, tend to lack…not every man…but many…because it isn’t in their nature….as a rule…and certainly not in the areas of [being] a CEO.”
“In other words,” she added, “…behind every great man is an even greater woman…
And that’s the extreme value of a woman in business. Because anyone with any true sense of power doesn’t parade it…they know they have the power and all they have to do is give a look or support…because they don’t have anything to prove.
And that’s what helped the Della character and the empire with Perry Mason…that she had the chance to display how she felt with subtle reaction shots, instead of action shots. That’s the way she should have been portrayed…because I thought that her sense of quiet-knowing was her strength.”
This tribute to the late Barbara Hale is an edited excerpt from Glamour, Gidgets and the Girl Next Door: Television’s Iconic Women from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s by TVWriter™ Contributing Editor Herbie J Pilato, host of Then Again with Herbie J Pilato, a new classic TV talk show that will debut on the Decades network later this year.
Learn more about Herbie J HERE