The Case of the Perfect Defense
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
Also check out Mystery Net's Perry Mason Profile
in the Mystery Time Line.
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