In my youth, Perry Mason was a cause for Saturday night family conflict. Perry Mason was mom’s favorite TV show. It wasn’t mine. I much preferred Bonanza. So, it was Cartwrights vs Mason from 1959 until the Cartwrights changed nights.
Perry Mason aired from September 21, 1957 to May 22, 1966. It lasted 9 season and 271 episodes.
Perry Mason’s character has been around for nearly a century. Erle Stanley Gardner introduced him in his 1st novel The Case of the Velvet Claws. That was back in 1933. Since then Perry Mason has been one of the most famous characters in all of American culture. The theme music from the long-running TV series is instantly recognizable even today.
Erle Stanley Gardner, who lived from 1889 to 1970, was a lawyer with outside interests including writing pulp fiction. He opened his first law office in 1917. Gardner spent 20 years in the legal profession and nearly that long as a writer before creating Perry Mason. His Perry Mason series has sales of 300 million ranking it 3rd in the top ten bestselling book series. At the time of his death, Erle Stanley Gardner was the bestselling American author of the 20th century.
Many of the Mason novels were first published in popular magazines of the time, such as The Saturday Evening Post. Sometimes different titles were used. Six of the novels were adapted for a Perry Mason film series in the 1930s. Of course, many more were adapted for the television series.
The first to play Perry Mason on screen was Warren William in “The Case of the Howling Dog”. Della Street was played by Helen Trenholme. It was a movie released only a year after publication of Gardner’s first Mason story.
Perry Mason was Hollywood’s 1st hour long weekly series made for television and shown on CBS. The executive producer was Gail Patrick Jackson. The show was considered to be the first authentic law show.
The series began filming in April 1957. The budget for each episode was $100,000. For its first five years, Perry Mason aired on Saturday night surpassing even Bonanza in viewership. In 1962 Perry Mason was moved to Thursday nights.
Many actors tested for the Perry Mason role on TV. Richard Carlson, Mike Connors, Richard Egan, William Holden, and Efrem Zimbalist Jr. were some of those considered.
Raymond Burr initially read for the role of Hamilton Burger, the District Attorney and Mason’s primary adversary. Because of his courtroom performance in the 1951 film “A Place in the Sun” Burr was told he was perfect for the role of Perry Mason and should try out for it. His weight, though, was a concern. Being 60 pounds overweight, he went on a crash diet. A month later Raymond Burr tested as Perry Mason. The rest, as they say, is history.
William Hopper, who played the detective Paul Drake, also auditioned for the Mason role. He was the son of Hedda Hopper, an American actress and gossip columnist. Obviously, he didn’t get to portray Mason. But when he read for Paul Drake he blurted out “You hate my mother!” And that won him the role of Paul Drake.
Barbara Hale, was originally contacted to play Della Street, and she said “NO”. She was raising three young children at home. Hale was told the show would be limited to just 18 episodes. But when she found out Raymond Burr had been signed on, she reconsidered. Burr was one of the 1st people she had met at RKO when she began her acting career. That fact helped persuade her decision to become Della.
The producer had an actor in mind for the Los Angeles district attorney, Hamilton Burger. William Talman, an accomplished actor, was cast as Hamilton burger. Talman later said Hamilton Burger was “the most unsuccessful prosecuting attorney in the history of the legal profession.”
Lt. Arthur Tragg was played by Ray Collins an American character actor on Broadway theatre, radio, film, and television. Executive producer Gail Patrick Jackson said of Collins; “We overlooked the fact that on an actual police force, he would probably be long retired.”
Over the course of nine seasons, the Perry Mason television series featured 270 defendants and cast of 1,903 actors. A total of 34 actors appeared twice as defendants. Nine actors appeared three times as Perry's client. One actor, Lurene Tuttle portrayed a defendant four times.
Perry Mason actually lost one case. “The Case of the Deadly Verdict.” 10/17/1963. But it wasn’t his fault. His client withheld evidence needed to win.
In an episode entitled The Case of the Dead Ringer, Raymond Burr appears in his regular role as Perry Mason, and also plays a character by the name of Mr. Grimes, a drunk, a troublemaker, and the twin image of Perry Mason. The Grimes character role is a lot closer to the type of characters Burr was used to playing before he came to the Mason series.
Talman was the first actor in Hollywood to film an antismoking public service announcement for the American Cancer Society. He was a lifelong heavy smoker. Diagnosed with lung cancer, Talman knew he was dying when he filmed the commercial. The short film began with the words: "Before I die, I want to do what I can to leave a world free of cancer for my six children.” The commercial was not aired until after his death, as per his request.
The last episode of the series, "The Case of the Final Fade-Out", was filmed April 12–19, 1966. The setting was a TV film studio and two murders had occurred in it. This last show gave the entire production crew an opportunity to appear on camera. Most of the behind-the-scenes personnel in the episode had been with the show from the very first day. Even the producer Gail Patrick Jackson made a cameo appearance and persuaded Erle Stanley Gardner to make his acting debut. Gardner portrayed the judge who presides over the second trial.
Decades later, Perry Mason hasn’t lost its entertainment value. I overheard my wife tell her friend that she had to quit watching the show. Mason was upsetting her nighttime sleep schedule.
I bet my mother would still watch the program if she were still around.