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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Why 'Perry Mason' keeps winning

Raymond Burr, as Perry Mason, in between Ford Thunderbird, left, and Sunliner convertibles. (Screenshot captured by Bob Merlis)

Ever since the original Perry Mason television series ended its 1957-1966 nine-season, 271-episode run, it has been available somewhere, via TV syndication on broadcast and cable/satellite outlets (currently it shows twice daily on MeTV and four times a day on FETV) and home video releases.

Of course, much of it has to do with the extraordinary acting of Raymond Burr: Having played the most vile, sadistic villains in film noir, Burr somehow set the standard for kindness, compassion, and dogged commitment in his portrayal of novelist Erle Stanley Gardner’s high-profile defense attorney Mason.

But the rest of the core cast was equally perfect: Barbara Hale, as Mason’s trusted confidential secretary Della Street; William Hopper, as his go-to private detective Paul Drake; William Talman, as the irritable but grudgingly respectful district attorney adversary Hamilton Burger; and Ray Collins as the rumpled and ever-grouchy yet endearing homicide detective Tragg. And as recently as 2014, Netflix reported that Burr was the favorite actor of subscribers to the service, with Hale rated seventh, and Christian Nyby, who directed many Mason episodes, leading the directors category.

With enough viewers to have kept the series alive since its inception, it’s no surprise that many are relatively high-profile, none more so than ZZ Top’s Billy F Gibbons. He’s also among the most devoted, having had to buy “three so-called complete sets” of the DVDs, since the original programs, which ran between 50 and 53 minutes, were heavily edited by syndicators to allow for more commercials, and some episodes have been withheld at various times from circulation in certain formats.

Gibbons ascribes the appeal of the show to “the Three C's—cars, clothes and casting credits.” But as a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame recording artist, what he likes most about Perry Mason is its audio quality.

“There was something soothing about it,” says Gibbons. “During my wonderful years with the late Joe Hardy as our recording engineer, he heightened my understanding of why the movies of the 1940s and early ’50s sound the way they do: The soundtrack was an optical audio track [whereby the film’s sound track was printed alongside its image]. It sounds different than when magnetic tape became the format and changed the sound dramatically. We’re now very curious as to whether Perry Mason was broadcast with an optical audio track or not, but there was something soothing to it—so soothing that we found we could use it as a sleep aid!”

In fact, this led to Gibbons’ purchase of his initial Mason DVD set.

“My wife Gilligan and I would watch through one episode, and automatically go to the next—which put us to sleep! But besides the soothing sound quality, we knew that Perry was going to suss it all out, and that in itself is a soothing reward: We knew we could go to sleep, comfortably knowing that things were progressing to their logical successful conclusion.”

For Perry Masonphiles, of course, the plots could be enormous complicated, but they were really subordinate to “the Three C’s”—the term credited by Gibbons to his longtime publicist Bob Merlis.

“I’m old enough to have watched the original Perry Mason series first-run but I never did,” admits Merlis, a PR legend who now heads his Merlis for Hire indie firm in Los Angeles.

“I was a kid, and courtroom dramas didn’t appeal to me. But a few years ago, I spent some time backstage with Billy, and he was watching a Perry Mason episode on a portable DVD player, and I wondered why he seemed so enthralled. But in recent months, for some reason, I’ve been drawn to Perry Mason and have taken to DVRing all the episodes as shown on MeTV. The commercials all have geriatric appeal, so I guess they know their demo!”

Being “a certified old car nut,” Merlis now regularly posts screenshots of cars from Perry Mason episodes onto his Facebook page “to the delight of my fellow car geeks.” A recent post showed Mason striding into court between a Thunderbird (“1961 or ’62”) and ’62 Ford Sunliner (both convertibles).

“It’s like they looted a Ford dealership!” enthuses Merlis. “The car parked across the street is a ’59 Oldsmobile with the famous ‘flat-top patio roof,’ and behind that is a ’50 or ’51 Plymouth or Dodge—I can’t see the front to tell for sure--and there’s a ’60 Dodge parked behind that one. And the car that’s driving away is a ’59 Cadillac!”

A particularly active viewer, Merlis delights in shouting out the make and model year as each car appears on screen.

“Paul’s white—or maybe it’s light blue, since it’s in black-and-white--’60 Thunderbird convertible is always exciting to see. The tufted upholstery seen when he opens a door actually gives me a thrill. Even the cars of secondary characters--mostly Ford-built products--are great to see these days, because at contemporary car shows mostly top-of-line convertibles and snazzy hardtops are displayed, and the lesser models are inevitably modified and hot-rodded. Seeing a lowly two-door sedan or station wagon in context is very calming to me for some reason.”

But what also excites Merlis is “the overall look” of Perry Mason’s production, “partly, I surmise, a function of its having been shot in high resolution black-and-white. There is quite a lot to see in terms of how people look and dress, what they drive, and their mannered speech: Perry’s clients and suspects alike are always addressed as ‘Mister,’ ‘Miss’ or ‘Missus,’ and there’s a richness to the actors’ elocution. And characters never slur their speech nor seem to search for a word, irrespective of perceived social standing.”

Again echoing Gibbons, Merlis adds, “I find listening to these conversations strangely calming, a real antidote to today’s strident cable newscasters, and certainly to the nattering doofuses on reality shows.”

Perry Mason’s cars are also a big draw for Susan Whitall, longtime feature writer at the Detroit News following her editorial stint at the legendary rock magazine Creem.

Calling the show “a great thing, especially in COVID times,” Whitall is also like Merlis in being aware of it while growing up, but not watching it much until the pandemic.

“I’m the daughter of an auto executive, so I should at least give identifying the cars a try!” says Whitall, who greatly enjoys doing so.

“I was watching a recent episode where the female protagonist was driving what had to be a ’59 convertible with tailfins [convertible]—a Buick Elektra, or it could have been a LeSabre—even though it was a ’60s episode. I saw these kinds of cars every year in Detroit, so it’s really fun watching. People love that era!”

And then there’s the clothing.

“The clothes, both men’s and women’s, seem to have their own personalities,” says Merlis. “Dark suits and spread-collar shirts, set off by skinny ties, are de rigueur for Perry. Paul tends to wear sportier tweed jackets and lighter color slacks, while Lieutenant Tragg’s duds are a little dowdier. Women are always dressed in the manner of sophisticates, and Barbara Hale, especially, is always smartly stylish and appropriate for just about any occasion. I’ve often mused about her dry-cleaning bills....”

Melenie Caldwell, Merlis’s assistant of 45 years, appreciates that the clothes “stay with the era that they filmed” during its nine-year duration.

“It starts with women with hats and gloves, and then suddenly gloves disappear, and by the end hats disappear!” says Caldwell, also an admirer of Della’s shoes.

“She wore what my mom called ‘mules,’ and what were called ‘springolators’ when I was a kid: open-toed, open-back shoes. When I started working in an office at 16, they posted on the bulletin that you couldn’t wear them--even though they were very popular—because you could walk out of them, or stub your toe and fall. They were considered dangerous, but there was Della, running in the desert with them on. I know they had to film it more than once, because they had to laugh!”

As for the cast, “it’s sensational!” says Merlis.

“You see actors whose faces you know from other shows and films, even if you can’t name them. That’s where the credits come in: I make it a point to watch the actors credits and every now and then I see a name I know and take it upon myself to look him or her up to confirm that I’ve seen them in something else.”

Caldwell cites personal favorites like Allison Hayes, star of Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and a friend of Burr from his own extensive pre-Mason film career, who appeared in five episodes, and actor/musician Bobby Troup, who made three—two (“The Case of the Jaded Joker,” in 1959, and “The Case of the Missing Melody,” in 1961) in which performed, and in “Jaded Joker,” composed and played the theme.

“He was always either a jazz pianist or a beatnik, and always had a strange beatnik name!” notes Caldwell, and indeed, in “Jaded Joker” Troup played Buzzie, in “Missing Melody,” Bongo White. In “Jaded Joker,” she adds, he appeared alongside pop vocal great Frankie Laine.

“I love how Perry has so many friends in the entertainment industry and the art world,” says Boo Reiners, guitarist/vocalist of New York's acclaimed progressive country/bluegrass group Demolition String Band. “He’s establishment, but he’s no square. And the show’s famous theme, ‘Park Avenue Beat,’ is described by its composer Fred Steiner as ‘a piece of symphonic R&B.’ All of the minor 9th and minor 6th chords, along with the chromatic lines and altered scale tones, make it sound dark and bright all at once. I remember hearing it blaring out of our TV as a wee little kid and it sounded so serious--almost chilling. Just a brilliant, timeless piece of music with a monster backbeat!”

Caldwell also points out that Christian Nyby, besides direction Mason episodes, also directed sci-fi movie classic The Thing from Another World, in which both Kenneth Tobey, who appeared in three Masons, and Robert Cornthwaite (five) starred. She further observes that many of the show’s locations, sets, extras and props tend to reappear throughout the series, a fact, incidentally, extensively documented in the Perry Mason TV Series website.

Likewise, Gibbons enjoys spotting the many character actors who more than once populate the Perry Mason cast. And he notes the reverse: “We became familiar with all the [core] cast, and found ourselves reveling whenever we saw a film in which Ray Collins—whom Gilligan nicknamed ‘The Grouch’--appeared in oddball parts before he became Tragg!”

But it’s Burr, of course, who always remains the focus.

“When you see uncut dissertations from Raymond Burr, you realize the elegance of his memorized lines—and the way he delivers them,” says Gibbons. “It’s extremely sophisticated and complex.”

“He was very arresting with his voice and demeanor—and he’s totally believable,” says Whitall of Burr’s Mason, and, notes Reiners, “he’s a respected, successful attorney who never rests on his laurels, always ready to take a needy client regardless of their ability to pay.”

“Mason’s work ethic and tireless devotion to discovering truth combines with a sense of decency and humanity that makes him television’s most loved and respected character,” adds Reiners. “And as great an actor as Raymond Burr was, he no doubt shared many of these qualities, and we love him as much as the character he portrayed so naturally.”

Caldwell, who watched Perry Mason when it first ran, has recently noticed that as it progressed through its nine years, “Della’s hair gets bigger and Perry’s gets flat and straight—and Paul’s just gets white!”

Meanwhile, “Paul usually has a cigarette in his hand—even when he’s scribbling in his teeny notebook--and when Perry lights, up it seems wrong!”

Actually, as Perry Mason TV Series reveals, while Perry often did light up (more often, maybe, when the show had tobacco sponsors), he’s rarely shown actually inhaling. As it turned out, William Hopper died of pneumonia in 1970 three weeks after suffering a stroke, while William Talman died of lung cancer in 1968 after famously taping anti-smoking public service announcements that were shown on TV after his death. Ray Collins made it only through January, 1964, succumbing to emphysema the following year. Burr died in 1993, and Barbara Hale lasted until 2017.

Yet after all this time, Perry Mason remains alive and well.

“The thing with Perry Mason is that the show is a sensual delight in look, sound and set dressing,” reprises Merlis, disclosing that the paneling in Mason’s office is “pecky cypress, a kind of lumber that has a texture characterized by random holes caused by wood worms. It’s no longer sold as far as I know, so it represents another aspect of a bygone era.”

As Merlis lives in Los Angeles—where Perry Mason takes place--he gets to experience the remnants of that era up close.

“Real locations are often cited in the show and that excites me, especially when characters sitting in an office in Downtown L.A. say they’ll be in Santa Monica in 20 minutes. These days it would take three times as long--so that’s something else to be nostalgic about, and every now and then I get a glimpse of an intersection or building that’s still recognizable today. Those sightings truly connect me to the reality of the show—unlike the fake replication of other shows like Happy Days and other ‘nostalgia shows’ on MeTV. Perry Mason was an authentic product of the era that spawned it, and it’s a time and place I enjoy inhabiting whenever possible.”

At any rate, Merlis continues, “I’m drawn to the series as never before”—but he has only joined an eternal club.

“I used to watch it with my grandma, who was totally in love with Raymond Burr!” recalls Caldwell. “I’d get a kick out of how excited she got when it was on: She’d sit in a special chair, and I’d sit next to her—but there was no talking when it was on!”

And Gibbons became so obsessed with the series that he and his wife hoped on having lunch with Barbara Hale at the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hilton in L.A.

“We prepared a nice letter inviting her to lunch, but unfortunately she passed away a week later. We were saddened and deflated, and received a thank-you from her secretary. But in a way the ‘rescue agent’ is the repeatability of seeing her through the Perry Mason reruns: She’s still here with us.”

Gibbons relates how his wife’s “computer genius” nephew once “gladly offered to burn the entire collection down to a postage-stamp plug-in memory stick.”

“We were visiting Gilligan’s mom 10 years ago during the holidays,” he says. “She’s infatuated with Perry, and when Gilligan was little, [her mom] used to go to her room to watch the show—and the door was locked for one hour! Now she has two giant-screen TVs, one dedicated to Perry Mason.”

When the nephew completed the transfer of the complete series onto the thumb drive, says Gibbons, “it was a simple plug-in device that we enjoyed taking on an airplane and watching on an iPad. However, the plug-in that the thumb drive occupied was the same receptacle that the power cord required! So you had to make sure before boarding that the iPad was fully charged, because if it’s a four-hour flight--or even two hours--you won’t get halfway through the second episode before running out of juice!”

So the Gibbonses “became quite friendly with the local electronics outlet.”

“They turned us on to an intermediary device that allows you to plug in a thumb drive and power the iPad, so you’re good to go all day!” says Gibbons, hailing this as “another side benefit of our obsession with Perry Mason!”




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