Friday, 11 January 2013

Perry Mason: The Case of the Disappearing Defence Attorney

 It is quite possible that Perry Mason is the most famous, fictional lawyer of all time. Created by Erle Stanley Gardner, the character first appeared in the 1933 novel The Case of the Velvet Claws. He proved popular enough to appear in over 80 novels. Hollywood was unsuccessful in bringing the crime solving lawyer to the big screen, with only six movies made from 1934 to 1937, but a radio show based on the novels, Perry Mason, ran from 1943 to 1955 on CBS Radio.

 Despite the success of the novels and the radio show, however, the most famous incarnation of Perry Mason may have been on the television show that ran on CBS from 1957 to 1966. On television Perry Mason proved to be a smash hit, ranking in the top thirty shows for six of its nine years. Reruns of the show proved very successful in syndication, and it is still rerun to this day. In 1985 the show was revived in a series of TV movies that continued until Raymond Burr died in 1993. To this day when many people think of the character of Perry Mason, they think of actor Raymond Burr.

Given how much Raymond Burr was identified with the role of Perry Mason and how much the character of Perry Mason is identified with Raymond Burr, it might surprise many to know that in the show's sixth season its producers did the unthinkable. They produced episodes of Perry Mason without Perry Mason. Quite simply, there are four episodes in the sixth season in which Raymond Burr appears as Perry Mason for only a few minutes. In Perry Mason's place the cases are tried by other lawyers, each played by a well known guest star: Bette Davis, Michael Rennie, Hugh O'Brian, and Walter Pidgeon.

The reason for Raymond Burr's absence was related to his health. In an Associated Press article from 2 November 1962, television-radio writer Cynthia Lowry reported that Raymond Burr was going to hospital in December for "minor corrective surgery." She also reported that big name guest stars (including Bette Davis) would take his place. An Associated Press article from 11 February 1963 by Bob Thomas sheds a bit more light on the situation. In the article it is reported that Raymond Burr was returning to Perry Mason after recuperating from surgery to remove intestinal polyps. While the article reported that the polyps were cancerous, the books Hiding in Plain Sight: The Secret Life of Raymond Burr by Michael Seth Starr and Raymond Burr: A Film, Radio and Television Biography by Ona L. Hill state that the polyps were benign.

As might be expected, the four episodes without Raymond Burr varied somewhat in quality. By far the best is "The Case of Constant Doyle." While the episode's plot could have been stronger, it is enlivened by the presence of Bette Davis (the "Constant Doyle" of the title), probably the biggest star to ever appear on the show. Constant Doyle is the sort of character that Miss Davis always played well, a wisecracking, whip smart, and somewhat cantankerous woman who still cares about her fellow human beings. The following episodes were not quite as good, even though the guest stars gave good performances. In "The Case of the Libelous Locket" Michael Rennie played Edward Lindley, a law school professor who finds himself defending one of his students. While Mr. Rennie did a great job as Professor Lindley, the case was not particularly interesting.  In "The Case of the Two-Faced Turn-a-bout" Hugh O'Brian gave a solid performance as playboy, entertainment lawyer Bruce Jason. The problem is that the episode could well be one of the most far fetched ever produced for Perry Mason. "The Case of the Surplus Suitor," featuring Walter Pidgeon as attorney Sherman Hatfield is perhaps the best of the four episodes besides "The Case of Constant Doyle." Mr. Pidgeon was very convincing as a defence attorney, and the episode had the best mystery of any of the four without Perry Mason.

Raymond Burr's surgery having taken place on 10 December 1962, he returned to work on Perry Mason in February 1963. Perry Mason was back at work on the episode "The Case of the Golden Oranges," which aired 7 March 1963. The four episodes produced while Raymond Burr recovered from his surgery would not be the last to be produced without him. "The Case of the Bullied Bowler" had Mike Connors (later of Mannix fame) filling in for Raymond Burr as attorney Joe Kelly.  According to Raymond Burr: A Film, Radio and Television Biography by Ona L. Hill, the reason that Mr. Burr did not appear in the episode was that he was out with infected teeth. Raymond Burr would also be absent in the episode "The Case of the Thermal Thief," where his place was taken by Barry Sullivan as lawyer Kenneth W. Kramer.  According to Raymond Burr: A Film, Radio and Television Biography by Ona L. Hill, Raymond Burr was absent from this episode due to illness.

Raymond Burr would miss no more episodes of Perry Mason, and the show ended its run with its ninth season. The final new episode aired on 22 May 1966. Curiously, when the series entered syndication in autumn 1966, the four episodes made while Raymond Burr was recovering from surgery during the sixth season were not made available for syndication. They would not be seen again until TBS bought the rights to air them in the mid-Eighties. They have been seen as part of the syndication run of Perry Mason ever since.

While it might seem odd for the producers of Perry Mason to make episodes that did not feature Raymond Burr as the famous attorney, there would be an attempt to make a series featuring Perry Mason, but without Raymond Burr in the role. The New Perry Mason starred Monte Markham as the crime solving lawyer, and debuted only seven years after the original series had left the air. It lasted only fifteen episodes, deubting on 16 September 1973 and last airing on 20 January 1974. There appear to have been several reasons for the failure of The New Perry Mason. The show was scheduled against two ratings powerhouses, The Wonderful World of Disney on NBC and The F.B.I. on ABC. The New Perry Mason also got poor reviews. In the end, however, one has to wonder if The New Perry Mason bombed simply because Raymond Burr wasn't there to play Perry Mason.

The original Perry Mason, starring Raymond Burr, would continue to air in syndication decades after The New Perry Mason was forgotten. Indeed, it is still in syndication. In 1985 Raymond Burr returned to his most famous role in a TV movie entitled Perry Mason Returns (although personally I think The Case of Perry Mason's Return would have been a better title). He would appear in 26 more television movies until his death in 1993. All 27 Perry Mason movies continue to air on TV stations and cable channels to this day. The character of Perry Mason may have been created by Erle Stanley Gardner, but it was a role that Raymond Burr made all his own. It then seems surprising that there were episodes of Perry Mason made in which Raymond Burr's presence was minimal at best.

3 comments:

Toby O'B said...

Do they show those last few TV movies in which other actors fill in for Burr? (Hal Holbrook and Paul Sorvino, not sure if there were others....) I'd like to see the Holbrook ones especially.

Terence Towles Canote said...

I haven't seen too many of the "Perry Mason Mystery" films (as I seem to recall they were billed) reran. A shame, as I remember that they were fairly good!

lohwoman said...

There are a lot of made-for-TV movies that have gone down the memory hole. I don't think I've seen any PM movies. They started about the time I quit watching television. We do watch PM on MeTV every night these days, tho.