by Erik Arneson
Sept. 21, 1957 to May 22, 1966
- Raymond Burr as Perry Mason
- Barbara Hale as Della Street
- William Hopper as Paul Drake
- William Tallman as DA Hamilton Burger
- Ray Collins as Lt. Arthur Tragg
- Lee Miller as Sgt. Brice
For a generation of American television audiences, Raymond Burr’s portrayal of Perry Mason defined the role of defense attorneys. Born in British Columbia, Canada, Burr made his film debut in 1946’s “San Quentin” after being wounded in World War II. He would go on to perform in about 100 movies– averaging almost 10 per year– before appearing as the lead in the first “Perry Mason” television episode, “The Case of the Restless Redhead.”
After nine years of courtroom acting, Burr filmed his last show for the original series. Beginning in 1985, however, he reprised the role that made him famous for a series of “Perry Mason” television movies. Two attempts have been made to use the Perry Mason name without casting Raymond Burr in the title role; neither was successful. Since Burr passed away in September 1993, it’s probably safe, although sad, to say that “Perry Mason” will live on only in reruns and our memories.
The character of Perry Mason was created by attorney Erle Stanley Gardner in the early 1930s. At least the first two Mason novels, “The Case of the Velvet Claws” and “The Case of the Sulky Girl,” were written in Gardner’s law office before he became a full-time writer. Gardner, whose work ethic is perhaps best described as relentless, completed 86 Perry Mason books and about 70 other novels before he died in 1970.
Gardner’s basic formula for the “Perry Mason” series was simple and effective, and it translated well to episodic television: Mason’s client is innocent; Mason uncovers evidence that proves someone else committed the crime; and Mason gets the guilty party to confess, often on the witness stand.
Since there was little mystery regarding the outcome of the cases, viewers didn’t tune in every week to see whether Mason would win or not. (He lost only one case– to Mason’s credit, it didn’t happen until the 185th episode– and he proved that particular verdict to be unjust before the hour was up.) Lacking the suspense of guilt versus innocence, the audience tuned in to see what new twist would save the day for Mason’s client.
Whether he had to invoke constitutional issues like double jeopardy or call a donkey to the stand, Mason worked diligently to free the innocent (which seemingly all of his clients were). Mason didn’t shy away from pushing the bounds of the law and resorting to legal trickery, but he often won his case by examining facts neglected by the prosecution. In the series finale, Gardner witnessed Burr’s interpretation of his character first-hand– he played a judge.
Mason’s clients came from all walks of life. He defended businessmen, athletes, circus clowns, models, troubled teens, concert pianists and at least two police officers. But Mason’s clients didn’t always appreciate their attorney’s work: one tried to frame him for the murder of her husband.
Over the course of 271 episodes, the credits of those playing Mason’s clients and other guest stars included some notable names, such as Robert Redford, Ellen Burstyn, Burt Reynolds, Daniel J. Travanti, Leonard Nimoy, George Takei and Adam West. During the sixth season, Burr was hospitalized and missed four episodes. Bette Davis was one of four actors and actresses who stepped in to play attorney for the defense.
In 1985, during the first of what would become 26 “Perry Mason” television movies, Mason defended his capable secretary Della Street on a charge of murder. Another eight years later, 36 years after they first teamed on screen, Mason and Street kissed on the lips for the first time. For fans who long wanted to see the duo become romantically involved, the wait must have been interminable.
On another occasion, he defended Paul Drake, a private detective Mason often hired to uncover the truth.
In addition to Street and Drake, the regular characters included the oft-defeated District Attorney Hamilton Burger and cagy police officer Lt. Arthur Tragg. With the exception of Burr, who went on to star for seven years in the title role for the series “Ironside,” none of the cast had remarkable entertainment careers outside “Perry Mason.” Burr’s big screen credits include Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” and the U.S. release of the original “Godzilla.”
Burr’s last appearance as Perry Mason, in “The Case of the Killer Kiss,” aired on Nov. 7, 1993, about two months after Burr lost his fight with cancer. In large part because of Burr’s talent and charisma, Perry Mason stands today as an American icon on par with Superman and the Lone Ranger.
Erik Arneson is a published writer of mystery short stories and serves as chief of staff to the Majority Whip in the Senate of Pennsylvania.