Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Perry Mason On Defense

In 1985 I dated a lovely young lady who loved old time radio and PERRY MASON.  Being a book person, I never took her flowers or candy but rather old Perry Mason novels. In a relatively short time I cleaned out all the used bookstores in the Cincinnati area of both hardback and paperback editions. The relationship didn’t really go far but its lasting legacy was that I finally “discovered” Perry Mason. It helped that, by coincidence, 1985 was also the year that TV’s Mason. Raymond Burr, revived the character in the first of what would prove to be a long and successful series of TV movies.

Oh, I had seen PERRY MASON before. The original series had run from 1957 to 1966 and THE NEW PERRY MASON came along in 1973 starring Monte Markham, a TV favorite of mine since THE SECOND HUNDRED YEARS. I don’t recall my parents watching it when I was a kid but the reruns were on up in the afternoons for ages and I’d catch one from time to time, not really enough to even know the supporting characters, though.

So in the mid-eighties, I finally became a PERRY MASON fan. I was already a Raymond Burr fan from IRONSIDE, his late sixties-early seventies follow-up series which had lasted just as long as Perry had!

Burr had proven himself quite the versatile actor on old time radio and in character parts in films, perhaps most memorably as the killer in Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW. He had an odd, easily imitated way of breathing during his delivery of lines that made him a favorite of impressionists. Once he played Perry, though, he settled into a knowing, authoritative style that served him well going from Mason to Ironside to his third series, KINGSTON: CONFIDENTIAL and then back to Mason. He really didn’t need range anymore. He was Raymond Burr and that’s what the people wanted.

Although ostensibly a defense lawyer, author Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason, whether in the original novels, a series of movies, on radio or on television, was, in fact, a detective. He was never really as concerned about proving his clients’ innocence as he was in finding the real killer and getting them to confess. Although there were a lot of assistants and sidekicks over the years, his main support came from investigator Paul Drake and his secretary, Della Street, one of THE great secretary characters in fiction.

There was no romance between Perry and Della in the TV series but many, women in particular, seemed to find it by reading between the lines. Their relationship seemed even closer in the later films. Della was played wonderfully by actress Barbara Hale. Romance or no romance, she and Burr made a great team.

Paul Drake was played by William Hopper, a tall, stalwart but wooden actor who was the son of Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. In some of the later TV films, actor William Katt, son of Barbara Hale, played Paul Drake, Jr, replacing the deceased Hopper.

Lt. Tragg of the police force was sometimes a friend, sometimes a thorn in Perry’s side. He was wonderfully played by the great Ray Collins, a veteran of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater troupe.

Burr’s Perry Mason only ever lost one case to his perpetual rival, prosecutor Hamilton Burger (played by William Talman) and that was clearly done as a novelty.

The writing on PERRY MASON was some of the best on episodic television in its day with very few episodes wasting a moment on anything other than plot and letting the characters develop from that. Although they could be as convoluted as the next show’s, the plots on this one were at least semi-realistic by comparison, too. Taken in bulk, the episodes become formulaic with the great defense attorney consistently getting the real killer to break down and confess. One by one, though, they can be positively riveting in their courtroom drama.

In the long run, PERRY MASON probably got lawyers more good press than anything before or since and no doubt inspired many young fans to enter the profession.

Burr gained much weight in later years but never lost respect, even when dogged by the persistent rumor that he was gay. He was, in fact, but never wanted it to come out. He was of the old school where that simple fact could kill a career in Hollywood. He needn’t have worried. Raymond Burr had long ago passed into the pantheon of television legends. He didn’t need to defend himself from anything…and hey, if he did, he was Perry Mason.

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