by Herbie J Pilato
Perry Mason originally aired on CBS from 1957 to 1966, and starred the great Raymond Burr in the lead, with Barbara Hale as his trusted assistant, Della Street; William Hopper (son of Hollywood gossip legend Hedda Hopper) as detective Paul Drake, and William Talman as Hamilton Burger, the poor district attorney, who Mason always clobbered in court. Ray Collins, Wesley Lau, and Richard Anderson (Oscar Goldman from The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman) rounded out the additional legal-law enforcement cast in various roles over the years.
Perry Mason was more than just a precursor to countless lawyer shows to follow, including LA Law, Law & Order, and Boston Legal, among others.
Mason was based on a series of best-selling mystery novels created by attorney-novelist Erle Stanley Gardner, which were transformed into a CBS radio show – with soap-opera elements – that aired from 1943 to 1955. When the radio series became the now iconic Raymond Burr show, the soapy serial slant was shelved. But in 1956 (two years before the Burr series debuted), the original radio format was transplanted to the TV daytime serial, The Edge of Night (complete with the PM radio production staff and most of the cast, who were given new character names), where it remained until December 1984.
Meanwhile, in the Fall of 1973 – only a few years after Burr’s Mason TV series was cancelled by CBS in 1966, the show was revived with Monte Markham in the lead, Sharon Acker as Della, Albert Stratton as Drake, Dane Clark as Lt. Tragg, and Harry Guardino as Hamilton Burger. This edition was titled, The New Perry Mason and only lasted one season.
A little over ten years later, Burr and Barbara Hale reprised their famous roles in the 1985 hit TV-movie, Perry Mason Returns (this time for NBC), which also featured Hale’s real life son, Willam Katt (star of TV’s Greatest American Hero), as Paul Drake, Jr. (William Hopper had died in 1970). The Returns film was so successful it lead to an entire series of TV-movies that lasted even after Burr himself passed away.
In either “case,” the original Perry Mason TV series was a stand-out. So very well written, directed and performed with precision, the show remains gripping and entertaining to this day.
Perry never lost a case, except for once – later in the series, when that verdict was then reversed. The chemistry between the main four actors, Burr, Hale, Hopper and Talman was solid. Over time, and especially in the show’s later years, we came to observe and understand the respect between not only the characters on the show – but between the actors who played them.
Burr made certain to create a “family atmosphere” on the set, and that transferred to the screen when the cameras began to roll.
There was no gratuitous violence on the series. Instead, the show catered to the intellect. Burr’s Mason was intelligent, but compassionate – and always fair and honest. His objective for each case was justice and the truth – and not just based on technicalities. But on the heart – which is why it remains so popular today.
A “classic,” in every sense of the word – and an inspiration to many, professionally – and personally.
Many viewers were inspired to become attorneys, and many more watchers were inspired to treat each other with the highest regard of respect.
As such, the Perry Mason TV show became not only a prime example of just how positive an effect television may have on society in general, but serving as a prime-example of just how great a television series can be.
In addition to his work as an author, and TV producer, TVWriter™ Contributing Editor Herbie J Pilato is the Founder and Executive Director of The Classic TV Preservation Society, a formal 501(c)3 nonprofit organization dedicated to bridging the gap between popular culture and education. For more information, log on to www.ClassicTVPS.blogspot.com.