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Who Is Perry Mason?

IN THE August 13 ISSUE

FROM THE 2011 Articles,
andBooks & Tales,
andMovies,
andMysteryrat's Maze,
andSandra Murphy,
andTV
SECTIONS

by Sandra Murphy

Who is Perry Mason? A character from the prolific and creative mind of Earle Stanley Gardner, he’s a defense attorney who never lost a case, much to the chagrin of Hamilton Berger, prosecutor. He is, in the minds of any who ever saw the television series or made-for-TV movies, Raymond Burr.

Mason didn’t just get his clients acquitted; he found the real murderer, forced a confession from the witness stand with his relentless, rapid-fire “did you not?” questions. Murderers forgot they were in front of the judge and jury as they spoke to Mason and explained, “You understand, I had no choice. I had to kill him. I’d do it again.”

With detective help from Paul Drake, Della Street’s never ending support, and Mason’s own convoluted mind, each case came to one conclusion—crime doesn’t pay.

The original television series ran from 1957-1966, a full 271 cases won. Mason often walked a fine line between acting in his client’s best interests and tampering with evidence, hiding witnesses and confusing the case. Hamilton Berger regularly threatened to have Mason disbarred and thrown in jail for his interference. In the end, Mason’s courtroom demonstrations and quick thinking kept him not only practicing law, but made him a successful, sought after attorney, especially for those whose trial appeared to be only a formality prior to sentencing.

Raymond Burr as Mason talking to a client

Monte Markham was cast as Mason in 1973 attempt as rebooting the show, but the show only ran fifteen episodes, a sure sign Mason and Burr were, in the viewing public’s mind, one and the same.

The series, whether book or television, is more of a detective story than a courtroom drama. Mason often sent a head-shaking Paul Drake on a wild goose chase when the case looked its bleakest. Drake’s dramatic last minute entrance with new-found facts, saved Mason’s client, who would surely have been convicted of a crime she didn’t commit—and most of the accused were women. Although Mason told his clients to remain silent, few did. And in spite of being told, “Tell me the truth about what happened that night,” most lied. Mason had to find his way through the lies, deceptions, red herrings and end up with the killer’s confession—all within the pages or time allotted.

In 1985, Burr returned to the Mason role in a series of made for television movies that ran for almost ten years. Even after Burr’s death, the movies went on, per the Gardner estate’s request, with Mason off camera, asking a colleague to help with a case he couldn’t take. Barbara Hale remained as Della Street. William Hopper died in 1970—his Paul Drake role was reinvented by Hale’s real-life son, William Katt who played Paul Drake Jr. until 1989, when he was replaced by William Moses.

The formula is simple—the guest cast is introduced. The most unlikeable character will be the one to get murdered and while several people have motives, the most likeable and vulnerable of them will be arrested in what appears to be an airtight case. Only Mason’s ability to see beyond the facts as they are presented will save the day. The regular cast investigates with and without the help or knowledge of the police to find the real culprit. The cases were almost all murders, but tidy murders—no CSI blood splatter analysis here but a single gunshot wound or blunt force trauma to the head.

The supporting cast was nearly as important to the series as Mason. Fans read between the lines to see the affection between Della and Perry. Paul Drake suffered through greasy hamburgers while on stakeout, knowing Della and Perry were enjoying a sit down dinner of cocktails, medium-rare steaks and twice-baked potatoes with sour cream. Lt. Tragg often ran the lawyer off the premises after finding Mason had reached the crime scene before the police, but he had a grudging respect for the lawyer’s results – if not the methods used to get them. District attorney Hamilton Berger, famous for his courtroom rants and press conferences, never forgave Mason for his rabbit-out-of-the-hat wins.

Raymond Burr as Mason & Barbara Hale as Della Street

Although the television series and movies set the stage for the Law and Orders to come, half investigation, half courtroom scenes, the radio series was geared to a female listener and was definitely more soap opera than drama. The show was sponsored by Tide, a Proctor and Gamble product, hence the origin of “soap opera.” Gardner didn’t write the radio shows, although he did receive royalties for use of the characters. Writers and actors changed over the years.

In the June 13th, 1950 twelve minute episode titled “Raid on a Den of Marijuana,” Perry, Paul and Della accompany police down a dark alley to the drug dealer’s hideaway. Della is not the daring woman we see in the television series—and she remarks about the dirtiness of the alley and how it should be cleaned, an obvious tie-in to the sponsor’s product. In 1956, the radio show split from the Mason cast, went to television and changed its name to Edge of Night, to become the first thirty minute soap opera. Perry Mason debuted a year later under Gardner’s careful watch, with increased action and courtroom drama.

Raymond Burr was invited to audition for the role not of Mason, but Hamilton Berger. William Holden, Fred McMurray and Ephrem Zimbalist Jr. were all being courted to become Perry Mason. To ensure his audition for Berger, the producer let Burr also read Mason’s lines. During the reading, Erle Stanly Gardner is supposed to have taken one look at Burr’s broad shoulders and hooded eyes and said, “That’s Perry Mason!”

And aren’t we glad he did?

Perry Mason radio shows 1943-1955, five days a week, fifteen minutes in length can be found at: http://www.megaloradio.com/perrymasonradioshow.html

Seasons of the original TV show are available on DVD.

The Eighty-Six Perry Mason books by Erle Stanley Gardner
The Case of the Velvet Claws 1933
The Case of the Sulky Girl 1934
The Case of the Lucky Legs 1934
The Case of the Howling Dog 1934
The Case of the Curious Bride 1934
The Case of the Counterfeit Eye 1935
The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat 1935
The Case of the Sleepwalker’s Niece 1936
The Case of the Stuttering Bishop 1936
The Case of the Dangerous Dowager 1937
The Case of the Lame Canary 1937
The Case of the Subsitute Face 1938
The Case of the Shoplifter’s Shoe 1938
The Case of the Perjured Parrot 1939
The Case of the Rolling Bones 1939
The Case of the Baited Hook 1940
The Case of the Silent Partner 1940
The Case of the Haunted Husband 1941
The Case of the Empty Tin 1941
The Case of the Drowning Duck 1942
The Case of the Careless Kitten 1942
The Case of the Buried Clock 1943
The Case of the Drowsy Mosquito 1943
The Case of the Crooked Candle 1944
The Case of the Black-Eyed Blonde 1944
The Case of the Golddigger’s Purse 1944
The Case of the Half-Wakened Wife 1945
The Case of the Borrowed Brunette 1946
The Case of the Fandancer’s Horse 1947
The Case of the Lazy Lover 1947
The Case of the Lonely Heiress 1948
The Case of the Vagabond Virgin 1948
The Case of the Dubious Bridegroom 1949
The Case of the Cautious Coquette 1949
The Case of the Negligent Nymph 1950
The Case of the One-Eye Witness 1950
The Case of the Fiery Fingers 1951
The Case of the Angry Mourner 1951
The Case of the Moth-Eaten Mink 1952
The Case of the Grinning Gorilla 1952
The Case of the Hesitant Hostess 1953
The Case of the Green-Eyed Sister 1953
The Case of the Fugitive Nurse 1954
The Case of the Runaway Corpse 1954
The Case of the Restless Redhead 1954
The Case of the Glamorous Ghost 1955
The Case of the Sun Bather’s Diary 1955
The Case of the Nervous Accomplice 1955
The Case of the Terrified Typist 1956
The Case of the Demure Defendant 1956
The Case of the Gilded Lily 1956
The Case of the Lucky Loser 1957
The Case of the Screaming Woman 1957
The Case of the Daring Decoy 1957
The Case of the Long Legged Models 1958
The Case of the Foot-Loose Doll 1958
The Case of the Calendar Girl 1958
The Case of the Deadly Toy 1959
The Case of the Mythical Monkeys 1959
The Case of the Singing Skirt 1959
The Case of the Waylaid Wolf 1960
The Case of the Duplicate Daughter 1960
The Case of the Shapely Shadow 1960
The Case of the Spurious Spinster 1961
The Case of the Bigamous Spouse 1961
The Case of the Reluctant Model 1962
The Case of the Blonde Bonanza 1962
The Case of the Ice-Cold Hands 1962
The Case of the Mischievous Doll 1963
The Case of the Stepdaughter’s Secret 1963
The Case of the Amorous Aunt 1963
The Case of the Daring Divorcee 1964
The Case of the Phantom Fortune 1964
The Case of the Horrifed Heirs 1964
The Case of the Troubled Trustee 1965
The Case of the Beautiful Begger 1965
The Case of the Worried Waitress 1966
The Case of the Queenly Contestant 1967
The Case of the Careless Cupid 1968
The Case of the Fabulous Fake 1969
The Case of the Murderous Bride 1969
The Case of the Crimson Kiss 1971
The Case of the Crying Swallow 1971
The Case of the Irate Witness 1972
The Case of the Fenced-In Woman 1972
The Case of the Postponed Murder 1973

Made for television movies
1985 Perry Mason Returns
1986 Perry Mason: The Case of the Notorious Nun
1986 Perry Mason: The Case of the Shooting Star
1987 Perry Mason: The Case of the Lost Love
1987 Perry Mason: The Case of the Murdered Madam
1987 Perry Mason: The Case of the Scandalous Scoundrel
1987 Perry Mason: The Case of the Sinister Spirit
1988 Perry Mason: The Case of the Avenging Ace
1988 Perry Mason: The Case of the Lady in the Lake
1989 Perry Mason: The Case of the All-Star Assassin
1989 Perry Mason: The Case of the Lethal Lesson
1989 Perry Mason: The Case of the Musical Murder
1990 Perry Mason: The Case of the Desperate Deception
1990 Perry Mason: The Case of the Poisoned Pen
1990 Perry Mason: The Case of the Silenced Singer
1990 Perry Mason: The Case of the Defiant Daughter
1991 Perry Mason: The Case of the Maligned Mobster
1991 Perry Mason: the Case of the Ruthless Reporter
1991 Perry Mason: The Case of the Glass Coffin
1991 Perry Mason: The Case of the Fatal Fashion
1992 Perry Mason: The Case of the Fatal Framing
1992 Perry Mason: The Case of the Reckless Romeo
1992 Perry Mason: The Case of the Heartbroken Bride
1993 Perry Mason: The Case of the Telltale Talk Show Host
1993 Perry Mason: The Case of the Skin-Deep Scandal
1993 Perry Mason: The Case of the Killer Kiss

Sandra Murphy lives in the shadow of the arch, in the land of blues, booze and shoes—St Louis, Missouri. While writing magazine articles to support her mystery book habit, she secretly polishes two mystery books of her own, hoping, someday, they will see the light of Barnes and Noble.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Barry ErgangNo Gravatar August 13, 2011 at 11:15am

There are some episodes of the TV show available for viewing at http://retrovision.tv/freevideo/perry-mason-on-cbs-1957

Reply

2 Barb ReynerNo Gravatar August 16, 2011 at 5:29am

Wonderful article! It brought back a lot of memories of watching Perry Mason shows with my mother when I was young.

Reply

3 D DawNo Gravatar August 16, 2011 at 7:01am

I LOVE Perry Mason! It was standard fare at our house, with the whole family gathering around the television to watch. In later life, it was my Saturday afternoon treat as reruns were televised. Quality writing and acting, complexities in the story lines, always a surprise at the end.

This article brought back great memories of one of my favorite shows . . .

Reply

4 Whit HowlandNo Gravatar August 16, 2011 at 12:41pm

Great Article! Very well written and well researched. I found it very helpful since I never saw the series.

Reply

5 Bill CriderNo Gravatar
Twitter: @macavityabc
August 17, 2011 at 6:51pm

The TV series was a staple at our house when I was growing up. My parents never missed it, which didn’t leave the rest of us much choice. In those days, there was only one TV set in the house. I always felt sorry for Lt. Tragg, who never arrested the right guy.

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6 JJNo Gravatar August 20, 2011 at 3:03pm

I really enjoyed this article as it brought back a lot of childhood memories of watching Perry Mason as a family. Great job at finding out all the little tidbits and listing shows.

Reply

7 sandra gardnerNo Gravatar May 29, 2013 at 1:17pm

Hi,
This excellent post and retrospective of Perry Mason made me remember the interview I did of Raymond Burr. It was for one of the made-for-TV movies in the mid-80s. I interviewed him for a feature article for the NY Post, at his hotel in NYC. He was delightful– a gentleman, funny, interesting and very articulate. A thoroughly enjoyable experience.
Sandra Gardner
sgardner2@hvc.rr.com

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