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Perry Mason

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Perry Mason (TV series): The Case of the Restless Redhead

Perry’s client is menaced by a car driven by a hooded assailant, whom she shoots at with a revolver that was planted in her room. When the guy winds up dead from a bullet wound, Perry confuses matters by firing an identical revolver at the scene of the crime, but after the fact. Sep. 21, 1957.

Perry Mason is an American legal drama produced by Paisano Productions that ran from September 1957 to May 1966 on CBS. The title character, portrayed by Raymond Burr, is a fictional Los Angeles defense attorney who originally appeared in detective fiction by Erle Stanley Gardner. Many episodes are based on actual stories written by Gardner, others are based on characters created by him. At one time, the show was “television’s most successful and longest-running lawyer series.”   Another series starring Monte Markham as Mason ran from 1973 to 1974, and thirty made-for-TV movies aired from 1985 to 1995, with Burr returning as Mason in twenty-six of them.

Synopsis

Each episode’s format is essentially the same: the first half of the show usually depicts the prospective murder victim as being deserving of homicide, often with Perry’s client publicly threatening to kill the victim; the body is found (often by Perry and his investigator, Paul Drake, who through circumstance happen to stumble upon the body) surrounded by clues pointing to Perry’s client. Perry’s client is charged with murder, but (in the second-half courtroom setting) Perry establishes his client’s innocence by dramatically demonstrating the guilt of another character.   The murderer nearly always breaks down and confesses to the crime in the courtroom – if not on the witness stand, then in the arms of the bailiff, who blocks the murderer’s effort to escape into the hallway.

In most episodes, the identity of the guilty party was discovered without an actual trial being held. Instead, this occurred at the preliminary hearing stage, wherein the district attorney was only required to produce enough evidence to convince the judge that the defendant should be bound over for trial (this spared the company the expense of twelve extras in a jury box).   During this stage, other malefactors (blackmailers, frauds, forgers, etc.) were frequently forced into confessions by Perry’s relentless and clever questioning, and the real killer was exposed. At this point, it was common for the camera to zoom in on the faces of the potentially guilty (visibly uncomfortable in their seats) as Perry slowly but surely moves to the climactic identification of the real murderer, who confesses, often to the accompaniment of a kettledrum-laden orchestral score, followed by a fadeout to black as the show went to commercial. In the closing scene (the epilogue), the characters often gathered together, to discuss how the case was solved. Occasionally, Perry invites District Attorney Hamilton Burger and police Lt. Arthur Tragg to join them.

In a few episodes, Burger and Tragg are shown assisting Perry and Paul as they team up to catch the killer. In one episode, after Perry’s client was convicted, Burger provided assistance to Perry which ultimately led to having the verdict reversed just as Perry’s innocent client was being prepared for the gas chamber.

Barbara Hale (known for being in a number of RKO Pictures B grade war films where she was menaced by leering Jap captors) played Perry’s confidential secretary, Della Street, known as “Beautiful” by detective Paul Drake, played by William Hopper. Just when things were at their bleakest for Perry’s client, Paul would often rush into the courtroom with an envelope, the contents of which an appreciative Perry (“Good work, Paul!”) would use to turn the tables on the prosecution and carry the day in the nick of time.

Scattered throughout the run were episodes that would take place beyond Burger’s jurisdiction and Perry, Della and Paul would wind up in another courthouse defending an accused murderer arrested and prosecuted by unfamiliar authorities rather than the police and D.A. of Los Angeles. In 1960, when William Talman, who played the part of Hamilton Burger, was suspended for allegedly violating the morals clause in his contract, several assistant prosecutors were seen in court. Talman had attended a party at which he was charged with having engaged in indecent activities.   He was later acquitted, and largely through the efforts of Burr, Talman was reinstated to his position on the show.

William Talman played Mason’s perennial adversary, District Attorney Hamilton Burger, whose eyes bulged in anger and frustration each week as Mason defeated him yet again. Burger was noted for objecting to Mason’s “courtroom theatrics and grandstanding” with the adjectives “incompetent, irrelevant, and immaterial.” Erle Stanley Gardner claimed that Raymond Burr originally auditioned for the role of Burger; Gardner said he intervened personally to ensure that Burr was picked to play Mason instead.

Burr and actor Ralph Clanton on the premiere episode of the show in 1957.

Burr with Robert Bray, 1962.

Ray Collins played the part of the crusty, dedicated police lieutenant, Arthur Tragg, who often frustrated Mason. Collins’ appearances diminished toward the end of the 1963–64 season (he was 67 when the series began and died in the summer of 1965), and he was assisted by Wesley Lau as Lt. Andy Anderson, who took the position by himself until the end of the 1964–65 season. Thereafter, Richard Anderson as Lt. Steve Drumm had the job. Several episodes took place outside the city of Los Angeles proper but still within the county (and Burger’s jurisdiction), and often featured L.A. Sheriff’s Department’s Sergeant Ben Landro (Mort Mills) fulfilling the police detective’s functions. Others took place even further away, with both prosecutor and police played by guest actors. One, “The Case of a Place Called Midnight” (November 12, 1964), was set in West Germany and Switzerland and featured no series regular other than Burr (the previous episode, “The Case of the Bullied Bowler”, had been filmed without an ailing Burr, and this one reflected the excuse given there for Mason’s absence).

Among the actors appearing as judges were John Gallaudet, S. John Launer (the father of Dale Launer, who wrote My Cousin Vinny), Bill ZuckertMorris Ankrum, and Kenneth MacDonald, well known for his appearances as a villain in Three Stooges shorts. Connie Cezon, who had a recurring role as Gertrude “Gertie” Lade, Perry’s receptionist, had also appeared in a number of Three Stooges short films. After the series ended, several of the actors who played different character roles during the series found roles working for Jack Webb in the 1967–70 Dragnet series. Author Erle Stanley Gardner played the judge in the last episode of the original series.

The series also set a precedent for future mystery series in being the first detective show to feature either a tape or chalk outline to mark the spot where the murder victim’s body had been found.   This first appeared in the episode “The Case of the Perjured Parrot.” However, Gardner used this idea in a much earlier book, Double Or Quits (1941) written under his pen name of A. A. Fair.

The theme music, “Park Avenue Beat”, by Fred Steiner, is one of television’s most recognizable themes.   When asked why Perry Mason won every case, Burr said, “But madam, you see only the cases I try on Saturday.”

All but one of the episodes in the series were filmed in black and white. The episode “The Case of the Twice-Told Twist“, an episode heavily influenced by Charles Dickens‘s Oliver Twist, was filmed in color. (Dickens did not receive screen credit.) In the episode, Perry’s car, a then-current model Lincoln Continental, was stripped down to the frame in a parking lot next to the Angels Flight incline railway by a ring of car strippers who had cajoled a teenager into going along.

In the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings of Sonia SotomayorSupreme Court nominee, during questioning by Senator Al Franken, Sotomayor said that watching the series had made her want to grow up to be a prosecutor. Franken noted that the prosecutor lost all the cases on the series but one.   Subsequent research by CNN found that the prosecutor won two cases against Mason rather than just one, and Mason himself lost in some form or manner in at least three cases.

May the record reflect that Perry Mason did lose three cases of almost 300 – a record any lawyer would envy, especially since he got one of his losses reversed on appeal. His losses were: “The Case of the Witless Witness,”  “The Case of the Deadly Verdict,” and “The Case of the Terrified Typist.”

Mason also loses a civil case at the beginning of “The Case of the Dead Ringer,” partly due to being framed for witness tampering. He and his staff then spend the rest of the episode trying to prove his innocence. They eventually do, and—although this is not stated explicitly—the verdict of the civil case is presumably either overturned or declared a mistrial. In a July 15, 2009 interview on National Public Radio‘s program All Things Considered, Barbara Hale claimed that all of Mason’s lost cases were declared mistrials off the air.

Characters

See also: List of Perry Mason cast members

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