If you’re a baby boomer, it’s likely you remember watching the original Perry Mason on TV in the 60s. It was a series of 1 hr episodes in black and white with a cast of characters that couldn’t be beat. Produced by the author of the Perry Mason books, Erle Stanley Gardner, and his company, Paisano Productions, it aired from 1957 to 1966. Raymond Burr, who starred in the series, had originally auditioned for the part of Mason’s rival, DA Hamilton Burger, but it is generally known that Gardner himself chose Burr to play the lead role, with Mason’s detective (Paul Drake) played by William Hopper, his secretary (Della Street) played by Barbara Hale, Burger played by William Talman, and Lt. Tragg played by a great character actor named Ray Collins. (Collins’ health was declining in the early 60s and he last appeared in the show in January of 1964. He died in July the following year. Various actors filled the gap for the remaining two and a half years.)
In its time, it was the most popular lawyer show on TV and Raymond Burr was so identified with Perry Mason that when The New Perry Mason starring Monte Markham was aired in 1973, it only lasted one season. Gardner’s lead character was known for what opposing DAs and sometimes judges referred to as “courtroom antics” but were actually inventive ways for Mason to establish the innocence of his client. The last half of the show was almost always in the courtroom setting and usually solved when PI Paul Drake arrived to hand Perry the last piece of evidence to expose the killer and clear his client. Della Street was a loyal and efficient personal secretary who occasionally had to take the stand to testify because she had followed her boss’s instructions and come very close to crossing the line of obstruction of justice.
Many now well-know actors and actresses appeared on the show including Robert Redford (The Sting; Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; All the President’s Men), Barbara Bain (Mission Impossible), Burt Reynolds (Smokey and the Bandit; The Longest Yard), Dick Clark (American Bandstand), Cloris Leachman (Mary Tyler Moore Show), June Lockhart (Lassie; Lost in Space), and Keye Luke (Charlie Chan movies). Perhaps the most memorable guest star was Bette Davis (Season 6, Episode 16 — Constant Doyle) who played a defence attorney in an episode when Raymond Burr was absent from the show due to ill health.
Twenty-six made-for-TV movies were aired between 1985 and 1993 reuniting Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale. With William Hopper, William Talman and Ray Collins gone, Paul Drake Jr. came to the show for a while played by Barbara Hale’s real-life son, William Katt. After Katt moved on to a TV series, various young lawyer/investigators came onto the scene and many of the movies were set in Denver, Colorado. One of the best movies ever concerned the trial of a man accused of war crimes during WWII. Many famous actors and actresses guest starred in these movies as well, including Valerie Harper (Mary Tyler Moore Show), Julie Sommars (Matlock), David Hasselhoff (Knight Rider; Baywatch), Gene Barry (Bat Masterson; Name of the Game), Jean Simmons (Great Expectations; The Thorn Birds), Diana Muldaur (Star Trek: The Next Generation), and Robert Guillaume (Soap; Benson). After Burr’s death from kidney cancer in 1993, there were only four more movies made starring one with Hal Holbrook and three with Paul Sorvino as lawyer friends of Perry’s; Barbara Hale was in those movies, too, in her role as Della Street.
All of the earlier Raymond Burr series’ episodes are available on DVD and twelve of the later movies are available in twin packs for those of us who still enjoy watching the famous lawyer in action. More are on the way soon and can be pre-ordered on Amazon.