Thursday, September 21, 2017

The TV Show Perry Mason Turns 60

"Who can we get on this case?
We need Perry Mason
Someone to put you in place
Calling Perry Mason again."
(Ozzy Osbourne,  John R W Purdell, Zakk Wylde, "Perry Mason")

It was sixty years ago today, on September 21 1957, that the TV show Perry Mason debuted on CBS. Perry Mason was historic not only for bringing the character to the small screen, but also as the first hour long crime drama to air on American television. Starring Raymond Burr as the defence attorney of the title, it would prove to be an enormous success. The show lasted for nine seasons and ranked in the top twenty shows each year for much of its run. When it ended its run in 1966, Perry Mason went onto highly successful run in syndication that lasts to this day.

Perry Mason starred Raymond Burr as the title character, a criminal defence lawyer who defends those who are wrongly accused of crime. He was assisted by his highly capable secretary Della Street (played by Barbara Hale) and detective Paul Drake (played by William Hopper). He usually found himself at odds with homicide detective Lt. Arthur Tragg (played by Ray Collins), who was always arresting the wrong person for murder. In court he usually faced district attorney Hamilton Burger (played by William Talman).  The show definitely had a formula that it used in most of its episodes. A murder would occur, after which both the police and Perry Mason would investigate. The final part of the episode would be set in the courtroom, where Perry Mason would eventually reveal the actual culprit.

Of course, the character of Perry Mason was hardly new when the TV series debuted in 1957. Perry Mason first appeared in the novel The Case of the Velvet Claws by Erle Stanley Gardner in 1933.  He would go onto appear in 81 more novels. The final one, The Case of the Postponed Murder, was published not long after Erle Stanely Gardner's death. Perry Mason also appeared in four short stories by Erle Stanley Gardner. The series of "Perry Mason" novels proved very successful. To this day it is the third highest selling book series of all time, third only to the "Harry Potter" and "Goosebumps" series.

The success of the "Perry Mason" novels would guarantee that the series would be adapted to other media. Six "Perry Mason" movies were released by Warner Bros. in the Thirties. The first few starred Warren William as Perry and various actresses as his faithful secretary Della Street. The penultimate "Perry Mason" movie starred Ricardo Cortez as the attorney and the last one starred Donald Woods in the role. The movies departed a good deal from the novels and are not highly regarded by "Perry Mason" fans today.

Fortunately, the fact that the movies were largely unfaithful to the "Perry Mason" novels did not hurt the character's success in other media. In 1943 the highly successful radio show Perry Mason debuted on CBS radio. Various actors portrayed Perry Mason, his secretary Della Street, his friend and the detective he often employed Paul Drake, and his usual antagonist on the police force Lt. Tragg over the years. The radio show was 15 minutes long and ran every weekday. The radio show Perry Mason had a semi-serial format and often emphasised action over courtroom theatrics. Unlike the novels and the later TV show, it was not unusual for Perry to engage in gunfights with criminals. Regardless, it proved very successful, running until 1955. Over the years there have also been "Perry Mason" comic books and even a short-lived newspaper comic strip that ran from 1950 to 1952.

While the radio show had been fairly successful, a TV show based on the "Perry Mason" novels would be some time in coming. Erle Stanley Gardner had been disappointed in Warner Bros.' movies from the Thirties and was loathe to license the character without some guarantee of creative control. CBS Television had wanted to bring the "Perry Mason" radio show to television. in the early to mid-Fifties. Like the radio show, this version of Perry Mason would have aired weekdays and would have had a serialised format. Unfortunately, CBS insisted that Perry Mason have a love interest, something which Erle Stanely Gardner baulked at. Negotiations between CBS and Erle Stanley Gardner then broke down. This did not mean that all of the work done on the proposed TV show would go to waste. Irving Vendig, who had been a writer on the radio show, retooled the idea and turned it into The Edge of Night. Essentially a daily mystery serial (as opposed to a soap opera), The Edge of Night debuted in 1956 and ran until 1984.

As to how Perry Mason would eventually come to television, that was due to Gail Patrick Jackson. If the name "Gail Patrick" sounds familiar, it is because she had once been an actress who had appeared in such films as Death Takes a Holiday (1934),  My Man Godfrey (1936), Stage Door (1937), and My Favourite Wife (1940).  Gail Patrick Jackson's husband, Cornwell Jackson, was an advertising executive and for many years had been Earl Stanley Gardner's literary agent. Gail Patrick Jackson would sometimes talk to Erle Stanley Gardner about what he would want a Perry Mason TV show to look like and how much creative control he would want. Eventually Earle Stanley Gardner, Gail Patrick Jackson, and Cornwell Jackson decided to go forward with a Perry Mason TV series and formed a production company, Paisano Productions, for that purpose. Gail Patrick Jackson was president of Paisano Productions and would serve as executive producer on Perry Mason for much of its run.

Initially CBS had wanted Perry Mason to be a live hour long drama, something that Gail Patrick Jackson knew to be impossible. Fortunately CBS reconsidered this idea, as they had learned the value of reruns through the success of I Love Lucy. Regardless, Paisano Productions had to finance the pilot. Ultimately CBS announced the new series Perry Mason in February 1956 and that it would debut that fall. As it turned out, casting Perry Mason proved to be difficult so that the show ultimately would not debut until 1957. For the series CBS purchased the rights to 272 stories by Erle Stanley Gardner, many of which featured Perry Mason.

Several actors were considered for the all-important role of Perry Mason, including Richard Carlson, Mike Connors, Richard Egan, William Holden, and Efrem Zimbalist Jr. In April 1956 it was reported that CBS was in negotiations with Fred MacMurray to play the role. Among the actors to try out for Perry Mason was Hedda Hopper's son William Hopper. While he did not get the part of Perry Mason, he was cast as detective Paul Drake. Of course, Raymond Burr was also among the actors to try out for the role of Perry Mason. Gail Patrick Jackson had admired his role as an attorney in the movie A Place in the Sun (1951), but thought he was too heavy for the role. Mr. Burr went on a crash diet and was ultimately cast as Perry Mason.

The other roles on the show were somewhat easier to cast than Perry Mason. Barbara Hale was already an established film star with a high successful career. That having been said, by 1956 she was a mother with young children and wanted to avoid being away from them on long movie shoots. She asked about the role of Della Street and was cast in the role. Gail Patrick Jackson had seen William Talman in Ida Lupino's film The Hitch-Hiker and was impressed with his performance. He was cast as district attorney Hamilton Burger. Ray Collins, a character actor with a long career that included work with Orson Welles's Mercury Theatre, was cast as Lt. Arthur Tragg.

For a long running show Perry Mason would see very few changes in its cast over the years, although amazingly enough Raymond Burr would be largely absent for some episodes. During the 1962-1963 season Mr. Burr went into the hospital for "minor corrective surgery". His place in four episodes during that season was then taken by big name guest stars playing other attorneys, including Bette Davis (in "The Case of Constant Doyle"), Michael Rennie ("The Case of the Libellous Locket"), Hugh O'Brian ("The Case of the Two-Faced Turn-a-bout"), and Walter Pidgeon ("The Case of the Surplus Suitor"). Raymond would miss two more episodes during the show's run:  "The Case of the Bullied Bowler" (where his place was taken by Mike Connors) and  "The Case of the Thermal Thief" (where his place was taken by Barry Sullivan) during the 1964-1965 season. The four episodes Raymond Burr missed during the sixth season would not be included in the show's syndication package 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.

William Talman as Hamilton Burger would also miss several episodes, including most of the first half of the show's fourth season. On  March 13 1960 sheriff's deputies raided a private home at which William Talman was present on suspicion of marijuana possession. Everyone was arrested for possessing pot (charges which were later dropped) and were also charged with lewd vagrancy. The municipal judge would also drop the charges of lewd vagrancy for lack of proof. While William Talman had essentially been cleared of any crime, CBS still fired him, although they never gave a reason. A massive letter writing campaign by Perry Mason fans gave Gail Patrick Jackson just what she needed to convince CBS to rehire Mr. Talman.

Another change in the cast would result because of Ray Collins's declining health. Once able to memorise entire scripts with ease, by 1960 Mr. Collins found he had difficulty remembering his lines. Eventually his health declined to the point that he could no longer continue with the series. He last appeared as Lt. Tragg in the January 16 1964 episode, "The Case of the Capering Camera." He died on  July 11 1965 from emphysema. Although he was no longer on the show, as executive producer Gail Patrick Jackson insisted that his name continue to be listed on the show's credits until his death. Wesley Lau as Lieutenant Andy Anderson took Ray Collins's place during the 1963-1964 season. When Wesley Lau left the show at the end of its eighth season, he was replaced by Richard Anderson as Lt. Steve Drumm.

Perry Mason spent its first several seasons on Saturday night, where it consistently ranked in the top twenty shows for the year except for its first season. The show reached its peak in the ratings in its fifth season, when it ranked no. 5 for the season. Strangely enough given its high ratings, CBS moved Perry Mason to Thursday night in its sixth season. It remained there until its ninth and final season, when it was moved to Sunday night.

Like the vast majority of shows from the Fifties, Perry Mason was shot in black and white. It would continue to be shot in black and white for the entirety of its run with the exception of one episode. In its final season   "The Case of the Twice-Told Twist" was shot in colour primarily because the head of CBS, William Paley, wanted to see what the show would look like in colour. The final episode, "The Case of the Final Fade-Out", featured many members of the Perry Mason crew in cameos, as well as Perry Mason's creator Erle Stanley Gardner as a judge.

Perry Mason ended its run in 1966, only to begin one of the most successful runs in syndication of all time. It aired on many local stations for literally years. KPTV in Portland, Orgeon picked up reruns of Perry Mason in 1966 (the first year they were available) and continued to air the show until 2012, a full 42 years. The show has since aired on such cable channels as TBS, TV Land,  and  Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, among others. It has aired on the classic television broadcast network ME-TV for literally years.

The continued success of Perry Mason in syndication led CBS to attempt a reboot of the show during the 1973-1974 season. 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. While The New Perry Mason failed, Raymond Burr would once more see success in the role. The continued success of Perry Mason in syndication led to the 1985 reunion movie Perry Mason Returns (although personally I think The Case of Perry Mason's Return would have been a better title), starring Raymond Burr as Perry Mason and Barbara Hale as Della Street. He would appear in 26 more television movies until his death in 1993. Following Raymond Burr's death there would be four more movies, each without the character of Perry Mason, that aired under the heading A Perry Mason Mystery. Barbara Hale appeared in each of these films as Della Street.

In addition to a highly successful syndication run, the entire run of Perry Mason is available on DVD. It has also been available on various streaming services, including Netflix. It is currently available on CBS's own streaming service, CBS All Access and the first two seasons are available on the network's website.

Perry Mason would have an impact on popular culture even while it was first airing. In the 1961 Jack Benny Program episode "Jack On Trial for Murder", Raymond Burr appears as Perry Mason in a dream that Jack has. The show has also been parodied in everything from Mad to The Flintstones. A song about the famous defence attorney, "Perry Mason", appeared on Ozzy Osbourne's 1995 album Ozzmosis and was also released as a single. Perry Mason would even produce at least one imitator on television. Matlock starred Andy Griffith as Ben Matlock, a Southern lawyer who, much like Perry, defends people falsely accused of murder.

Perry Mason would even have an impact on the United States' judicial system. "Perry Mason syndrome" is a term used for the way in which jurors who have watched the programme perceive criminal trials. Quite simply, they expect one attorney or the other at some point to come out with a big revelation, much as Perry did on the show. The term first entered usage in the Sixties, when Perry Mason  was still on the air.

Perry Mason was the first hour long crime drama. It was also the first hour legal drama. Between its original run and its syndication run, it seems likely it is the most successful legal drama of all time. Perry Mason first aired sixty years ago and it seems quite likely people will still be watching it sixty years ago.

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