Perry Mason


The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation Presents

02:26

Tabs

About

Perry Mason is the longest running lawyer show in American television history. Its original run lasted nine years and its success in both syndication and made-for-television movies confirm its impressive stamina. Mason's fans include lawyers and judges who were influenced by this series to enter their profession. The Mason character was created by mystery writer Erle Stanley Gardner and delivered his first brief in the novel The Case of the Velvet Claws (1933). From 1934 to 1937 Warners produced six films featuring Mason. A radio series also based on Mason ran every weekday afternoon on CBS radio from 1944 to 1955 as a detective/soap opera. When the CBS television series was developed as an evening drama, the radio series was changed from Perry Mason to The Edge of Night and the cast renamed so as not to compete against the television series.

The title character is a lawyer working out of Los Angeles. Mason, played by Raymond Burr, is teamed with two talented and ever faithful assistants: trusty and beautiful secretary Della Street, played by Barbara Hale, and the suave but boyish private detective Paul Drake, played by William Hopper. In each episode this trio worked to clear their innocent client of the charge of murder against the formidable district attorney Hamilton Burger, played by William Talman. Most episodes follow this simple formula: the guest characters are introduced and their situation shows that at least one of them is capable of murder. When the murder happens, an innocent person (most often a woman) is accused, and Mason takes the case. As evidence mounts against his client, Mason pulls out a legal maneuver involving some courtroom "pyrotechnics." This not only proves his client innocent, but identifies the real culprit. These scenes are easily the best and most memorable. It is not because they are realistic. On the contrary, they are hardly that. What is so engaging about them is the combination of Mason's efforts to free his client, perhaps a surprise witness brought in by Drake in the closing courtroom scene, and a dramatic courtroom confession. The murderer being in the courtroom during the trial and not hiding out in the Bahamas provides the single most important image of each episode. The murderer forgoes the fifth amendment and admits his/her guilt in an often tearful outburst of "I did it! And I'm glad I did!" This happens under the shocked, amazed eyes of district attorney Burger and the stoic, sure face of defense attorney Mason.

Although it is often identified with other lawyer dramas such as L. A. Law and The Defenders, Perry Mason is more of a detective series. Each episode is a carefully structured detective puzzle that both established and perpetuated a number of conventions associated with most television detective series. Perry Mason uses the legal profession and the trial situation as a forum for detective work. Although strictly formulaic, each episode is guided by the elements of the variations that distinguish one episode from another. For example, since nearly every episode began with the guest characters rather than with the series regulars, these guest characters set the tone for the rest of the episode. If it is going to be youth oriented, these characters are young. If it is going to be a contested will, the heirs are introduced.

The credit for the series' success is split equally between Burr, the Perry Mason production style and the series' creator Gardner. Burr provided the characterization of a cool, calculating attorney, while the production style builds tension in plots at once solidly formulaic and cleverly surprising, and Gardner, as an uncredited executive story editor, made sure each episode carefully blended legal drama with clever detective work. In all, the series won three Emmys, two for Burr and one for Hale.

The series made a brief return in 1973 with the same production team as the original series, but with a new cast. Monte Markham replaced Burr. That this version did not survive 15 episodes reveals that one of the key draws of the original series is the casting. It is interesting to note, however, that Markham's Mason was closer to the one featured in the original novels. Both were brash, elegant and coolly businesslike in their dealings with clients, something Burr never was. But it is Burr's coolness and control that became so identified with the character that, for the television audience, there was no other Mason than Burr.

Burr returned to his role in 1985 for the beginning of an almost ten year run of made-for-television movies beginning with Perry Mason Returns. This is followed by The Case of the Notorious Nun (1986). Burr is back as Mason, albeit a bit older, grayer and bearded, with Barbara Hale as his executive secretary. Since William Hopper died in 1970, William Katt (who is the real life son of Barbara Hale) is featured in the first nine episodes as Paul Drake, Jr. In The Case of the Lethal Lesson (1989), Katt is replaced by a graduating law student Ken Malansky, played by William R. Moses. Each plot is developed over two hours instead of one and the extra time is made up of extended chases and blind alleys. Yet the basic formula stays the same.

This newest version of Perry Mason takes an interesting twist in the spring of 1994. After Burr's death in the fall of 1993, executive producers Fred Silverman and Dean Hargrove followed the wishes of the estate of Erle Stanley Gardner and kept the character alive but off-screen. First to replace him as visiting attorney was Paul Sorvino as Anthony Caruso in The Case of the Wicked Wives (1993) and then Hal Holbrook as "Wild Bill" McKenzie in The Case of the Lethal Lifestyle (1994). In each movie, Mason is conveniently absent. Street and Malansky are still available as assistants for the "visiting" attorney and the series is still called A Perry Mason Mystery, so that, production after production, the character lives on.

-J. Dennis Bounds

 

 

CAST(1957-1966)

Perry Mason ............................................Raymond Burr  

Della Street............................................... Barbara Hale  

Paul Drake ............................................William Hopper

Hamilton Burger .....................................William Talman  

Lt. Arthur Tragg (1957-1965)......................... Ray Collins  

David Gideon (1961-1962)................................ Karl Held  

Lt. Anderson (1961-1965)............................. Wesley Lau  

Lt. Steve Drumm (1965-1966).............. Richard Anderson  

Sgt. Brice (1959-1966).................................... Lee Miller  

Terrence Clay (1965-1966).............................. Dan Tobin

CAST (1973-1974)

Perry Mason .........................................Monte Markham  

Della Street.............................................. Sharon Acker

Paul Drake............................................. Albert Stratton

Lt. Arthur Tragg............................................ Dane Clark

Hamilton Burger..................................... Harry Guardino

Gertrude Lade ...........................................Brett Somers

PRODUCERS Gail Patrick Jackson, Arthur Marks, Art Seid, Sam White, Ben Brady

PROGRAMMING HISTORY 245 Episodes

CBS
September 1957-September 1962       Saturday 7:30-8:30

September 1962-September 1963       Thursday 8:00-9:00

September 1963-September 1964     Thursday 9:00-10:00

September 1964-September 1965       Thursday 8:00-9:00

September 1965-September 1966        Sunday 9:00-10:00

September 1973-January 1974              Sunday 7:30-8:30

 

FURTHER READING

Fugate, Francis L., and Roberta B. Fugate. Secrets of the World's Best Selling Writer: The Storytelling Techniques of Erle Stanley Gardner. New York: Morrow, 1980.

Hughes, Dorothy B. Erle Stanley Gardner: The Case of the Real Perry Mason. New York: Morrow, 1978.

Kelleher, Brian, and Diana Merrill. The Perry Mason Show Book. New York: St. Martin's, 1987.

Martindale, David. The Perry Mason Casebook. New York: Pioneer, 1991.

Meyers, Richard. TV Detectives. San Diego, California: Barnes, 1988.

Highlights
Fred Steiner on composing the theme for Perry Mason
07:33
Hugh O'Brian on playing two characters on an episode of Perry Mason
01:31
James Hong on Raymond Burr's technique of reading cue cards
01:26
Jeanne Cooper on working on detective series, Perry Mason
03:33
Who talked about this show

John Conte

View Interview
John Conte on guest-starring on Perry Mason, starring Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale
02:37

Jeanne Cooper

View Interview
Jeanne Cooper on working on detective series, Perry Mason
03:33

Dixon Dern

View Interview
Dixon Dern on his involvement with Perry Mason , and music composers
03:15

Richard Donner

View Interview
Richard Donner on various episodic television shows he directed in the '70s
11:18

George Faber

View Interview
George Faber on his first international publicity job on Perry Mason
04:01
Publicist George Faber on promoting Perry Mason; working with Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale
06:29

Arthur Hiller

View Interview
Arthur Hiller on directing Perry Mason and working with Raymond Burr
07:01

James Hong

View Interview
James Hong on Raymond Burr's technique of reading cue cards
01:26

Gavin MacLeod

View Interview
Actor Gavin MacLeod on playing different characters on series - Perry Mason and Peter Gunn
02:27

Bob Markell

View Interview
Bob Markell on the differences between The Defenders and Perry Mason
01:34

Hugh O'Brian

View Interview
Hugh O'Brian on playing two characters on an episode of Perry Mason
01:31

Bernie Oseransky

View Interview
Bernie Oseransky on how he came to work on Perry Mason as studio manager
01:38
Bernie Oseransky on his role as studio manager on Perry Mason and what that job entailed; on Raymond Burr; 
04:07
Bernie Oseransky on the final episode of Perry Mason
01:25

Doris Singleton

View Interview
Doris Singleton on working on Perry Mason
01:53

Ben Starr

View Interview
Ben Starr on writing the pilot for Perry Mason
05:14

Fred Steiner

View Interview
Fred Steiner on composing the theme for Perry Mason
07:33

Ethel Winant

View Interview
Ethel Winant on casting Perry Mason: Raymond Burr
03:03

All Shows

A
B
C
D
E
F
G
H
J
L
M
P
R
S
T
W