TV’s Greatest: Lawyers

Counting down the greatest members of (TV's) legal profession.

Raymond Burr as Perry Mason
Raymond Burr as Perry Mason from the 1961 CBS series (Cowles Communications, Inc.; photograph by Robert Vose / Public domain)

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The Saturday Evening Post’s “TV’s Greatest” series is an ongoing look at the greatest characters, songs, and moments in the history of TV. Also see TV’s Greatest: Best “Best Friends” and “TV’s Greatest: The 20 Best Supernatural Detectives.”

Shakespeare wrote “Let’s kill all the lawyers,” but TV gave them immortality. Whether they come into your living room as noble crusaders, shady dealers, or somewhere in between, the lawyers who populate dozens of legal dramas and comedies have been among the most vibrant characters in TV history. Counting down from the somewhat ridiculous to a #1 that’s known for, well, being unbeatable, here are TV’s Greatest Lawyers.

12. Harvey Birdman (Gary Cole)

Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law (2000-2007)

Five Harvey Birdman Courtroom Showdowns (Uploaded to YouTube by Adult Swim UK)

Birdman was originally a Saturday morning cartoon character created by the great comic book artist and animator Alex Toth. Debuting as the front half of Hanna-Barbera’s Birdman and the Galaxy Trio on NBC in 1967, Birdman fought crime for one season. In the 1990s, Cartoon Network had great success reinventing another of Toth’s creations, Space Ghost, as an animated talk show host in Space Ghost: Coast to Coast. Birdman appeared in that series, reimagined as Harvey Birdman, attorney at law. By 2000, he’d been spun off into his own series, frequently representing other Hanna-Barbera and Warner Brothers characters in comedic plots for mature audiences (most notably defending Shaggy and Scooby-Doo from a possession rap). The voice of Harvey Birdman was provided by the versatile Gary Cole, known for his work in Office Space, the Brady Bunch films, The West Wing, and NCIS. Birdman managed to win cases despite being as confused as some other lawyers (see Matlock) would occasionally pretend to be.

11. Harmon “Harm” Rabb and Sarah “Mac” MacKenzie (David James Elliott and Catherine Bell)

JAG (1995-2005)

David James Elliott and Catherine Bell of JAG (Shutterstock)
David James Elliott and Catherine Bell of JAG (Shutterstock)

Speaking of NCIS, the franchise was a spin-off of producer Donald P. Bellisario’s earlier hit, JAG. After one season on NBC, JAG hopped to CBS for nine more years. The show followed Harmon Rabb, a Naval officer who worked for the Department of the Navy’s Office of the Judge Advocate General. His partner from Season 2 on onward was Marine Sarah “Mac” MacKenzie. The duo spent time in the field and in the courtroom, conducting investigations and alternately defending and prosecuting military-related cases. With a combination of legal intellect and action hero prowess, the pair bridged genres in a way that other court shows didn’t. Rabb and MacKenzie returned on two episodes of NCIS: Los Angeles in 2019; Rabb was XO of the U.S.S. Allegiance, and MacKenzie was USMC liaison to the Secretary of State.

10. Dan Fielding (John Larroquette)

Night Court (1984-1992)

John Larroquette
(Shutterstock)

NBC had a thing about lecherous lawyers in the 1980s. One will appear later on the list. The other one managed to somehow be both sleazy and sympathetic, earning big laughs while being the most outrageous and insulting person in the court. That was Night Court’s Dan Fielding, played by John Larroquette. Night Court was a big hit for the network, and Larroquette won four straight Emmys for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series. Larroquette must have liked the law, because he would later play White House Counsel Lionel Tribbey on The West Wing and attorney Carl Sack on Boston Legal.

9. The firm of McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney, Kuzak, and Becker

L.A. Law (1986-1994, 2002 TV movie, possibly more)

IMAGE: https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/beverly-hills-aug-08-jimmy-smits-1577435734

Jimmy Smits
Jimmy Smits (Shutterstock)

Co-created by Stephen Bochco and Terry Louise Fisher, L.A. Law struck a chord with its timely and often controversial subject matter. It also featured Bochco’s trademark memorable characters and stellar casting, with the likes of Harry Hamlin, Jimmy Smits, Susan Dey, Blair Underwood, and Corbin Bernsen populating the cast. One of the show’s writers, David E. Kelley, would go own to have repeated success with a number of other legal shows, two of which are on the way here. As far as a breakout character among a large and talented ensemble, the best bets would be on Jimmy Smits’s Victor Sifuentes (a part that won Smits an Emmy) and Bernsen’s skirt-chasing divorce lawyer, Arnie Becker. The fact that Bernsen made the character as likeable as he was is something of an acting miracle. Over time, the show pulled in four Emmys for Outstanding Series. Much of the principal cast reunited for a 2022 TV film, and a sequel series is in pre-production, with Underwood and Bernsen scheduled to return.

8. Denny Crane, Alan Shore, and Shirley Schmidt (William Shatner, James Spader, Candice Bergen)

Boston Legal (2004-2008)

James Spader
James Spader (Shutterstock)

David E. Kelley spun Boston Legal off of his hit series The Practice after introducing Crane and Shore during the parent program’s eighth season. Both characters were conundrums; Crane was fond of repeating his own name and Shore would go to dubious lengths to win, but each had a moral code that put their clients above conventional behavior. Bergen’s Shirley Schmidt was a sharp lawyer and a partner in the firm, but frequently found herself having to control Crane’s propensity for getting himself, and the firm, into hot water. Nevertheless, the trio were strong courtroom operators. Shore’s devotion to Crane was so thorough that, before the series was over, he actually married Crane so that he could ensure that he had power of attorney to see that Crane’s Alzheimer’s would be treated in the way that Crane wished.

7. Robert Donnell and Associates (Dylan McDermott and many more)

The Practice (1997-2004)

Dylan McDermott
Dylan McDermott (Shutterstock)

Legal TV titan David E. Kelley put two shows set in Boston law firms on the air in 1997. The Practice launched in March on ABC, and Ally McBeal followed on Fox in September. While McBeal slotted in a more comedic vein and became something of a pop culture sensation, The Practice ran in a more dramatic direction while deploying occasionally outrageous and controversial storylines and plot twists. That high-wire act would propel the show to Outstanding Drama Emmy wins in 1998 and 1999 (against such competition as ER, NYPD Blue, and The Sopranos) while pulling in a dozen more for acting categories throughout its run. In addition to McDermott as the show’s center, Bobby Donnell, The Practice featured strong turns from Camryn Manheim, Steve Harris, Kelli Williams, Michael Badalucco, James Spader, and more.

6. Annalise Keating (Viola Davis)

How to Get Away with Murder (2014-2020)

Viola Davis
Viola Davis (Shutterstock)

On film, Viola Davis can sometimes essay a warm, comforting presence that issues from a core of inner strength. She can also be utterly freaking terrifying. With Annalise Keating, she managed to play every card in her deck. By turns vulnerable and traumatized, and yet steely and ruthless, her Annalise Keating was a stern law professor with a mess of a personal life and students who tended to exacerbate every other situation. Her continued ability to mangle the law while keeping (most) of her students and minions out of prison was part of the draw. But none of the crazy turns would have worked without Davis. No matter how insane the events of a particular episode might have been, she made you believe Keating, and that grounded everything around her. That performance made her the first Black woman to win the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series in 2015.

5. Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies)

The Good Wife (2009-2016)

Julianna Margulies
Julianna Margulies (Shutterstock)

It’s possible to be a good wife, a great lawyer, and still end up not being a great person. That’s the arc of Alicia Florrick, who has more in common with some of the shadier characters on the list than she’d like to admit. Julianna Margulies won two Emmys for her complex work during the show’s seven season run. What made Florrick fascinating is that she did try to stick by her corrupt, cheating husband (Chris Noth) while also trying to protect her children, but she would fall into the traps of moral and political compromise that made her much more of an anti-hero by the show’s end.

4. Ben Matlock (Andy Griffith)

Matlock (1986-1995)

Andy Griffith discusses the genesis of Matlock (Uploaded to YouTube by FoundationINTERVIEWS)

It’s no mystery why Andy Griffith was an icon of American television. Across 249 episodes of The Andy Griffith Show, he became an amalgam of America’s favorite smiling lawman and America’s favorite dad. Folksy kindness and humor radiated from the man. Writer/producer Dean Hargrove, who wrote for both classic sitcoms (My Three Sons) and classic action and mystery shows (The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Columbo, McCloud), created a series that could spin Griffith’s natural appeal into the role of a mystery-solving lawyer. Launched with a TV movie, Matlock ran for nine seasons across NBC and ABC while spinning off both Jake and the Fatman and Diagnosis: Murder. Though the supporting cast would change over time, Griffith’s Ben Matlock powered the show with a keen mind masked by a rumpled kind of charm. Matlock has been in continual syndication since 1991 across a number of networks and on streaming outlets like PlutoTv and Amazon’s Prime Video.

3. Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston)

Law & Order (1994-2010; 2022-?); various spin-off episodes (1999-2018); episodes of Homicide: Life on the Street (1997-1999)

Sam Waterston
Sam Waterston (Shutterstock)

When you think of the Law & Order franchise, you think of three characters: Olivia Benson, Elliot Stabler, and Jack McCoy. Played by Sam Waterston, Assistant District Attorney McCoy is a dogged advocate for victims of crime and willing to push the boundaries of what is acceptable to bring down criminals in court. Across 376 episodes of television and one made-for-TV film, McCoy became such an exemplar of rough justice and an icon in New York City that the New York Landmarks Conservancy declared him (and late co-star Jerry Orbach, who played beloved detective Lennie Briscoe) a “Living Landmark.” When a revival of the original Law & Order series was announced, the most hotly anticipated element was the question of whether or not McCoy would return. The affirmative answer hits screens February 24. It seems that this particular TV lawyer is far from (forgive me) Dun Dun.

2. Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk)

Breaking Bad (2008-2013); Better Call Saul (2015-present)

Bob Odenkirk
Bob Odenkirk (Shutterstock)

Maybe it’s not right to call Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman/Gene Takovic one of TV’s Greatest Lawyers. Let’s face it: his character arc is a two-series fall from grace told in reverse, showing you the depths to which a person can go. Odenkirk originated the character on Breaking Bad; creator Vince Gilligan expanded Saul’s part when he saw Odenkirk’s range. Already a corrupt lawyer for criminals, Saul gets pulled deeper into the web of Walter White (Bryan Cranston). After that award-winning show came to an end, Gilligan and Peter Gould created Better Call Saul, pulling the unique trick of making the show a prequel that eventually runs concurrent with Breaking Bad. The tightrope act of juggling the various plotlines and characterization across time has proven an acting masterclass by Odenkirk, who plays the various aliases at different stages of moral decay while still managing to be a good, or at least effective, lawyer.

1. Perry Mason (Raymond Burr)

Perry Mason (1957-1966); 26 TV movies (1985-1993)

Raymond Burr as Perry Mason
Raymond Burr as Perry Mason from the 1961 CBS series (Cowles Communications, Inc.; photograph by Robert Vose / Public domain)

To quote sci-fi cult classic The Highlander: “There can be only one.” On no known planet does anyone but Perry Mason top this list. The seemingly undefeatable defense lawyer originated in the fiction of former trial lawyer Earle Stanley Gardner; Gardner featured Mason in 82 novels and four short stories, a number of which first appeared in The Saturday Evening Post. On TV, Burr exerted a kind of moral authority unmatched by his contemporaries. Aided by his tireless secretary Della Street (Barbara Hale) and P.I. Paul Drake (William Hopper), Mason turned the tables on countless criminals, often driving them to confess in court. In the 1980s, Matlock creator Dean Hargrove brought Mason back to live-action in a series of TV movies. Burr and Hale were on board, but Hopper had passed away; Hargrove made the inspired decision to cast Hale’s real-life son, William Katt (The Greatest American Hero) as her investigator son, Paul Drake, Jr. The TV movies were a major success. Though Burr passed in 1993, Hale carried the franchise for two more years as A Perry Mason Mystery, featuring various guest-stars helping her while Mason was “out of town.” In 2020, the character returned in a mini-series on HBO; set in the 1930s of the original novels, it cast Matthew Rhys (The Americans) as Mason in an origin story that begins with his days as a P.I. The show will continue as a regular series, ensuring that Mason, in one form or another, will keep working to maintain the title of TV’s Greatest Lawyer.

Featured image: Raymond Burr as Perry Mason from the 1961 CBS series (Cowles Communications, Inc.; photograph by Robert Vose / Public domain)

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Comments

  1. Martin Mogul: I remember The Defenders; back then, I’d not seen 12 Angry Men, in which E.G. Marshall played one of the 12 jurors.

    I also remember Peter Falk’s too-short-lived lawyer show, The Trials of O’Brian. Most of those shows listed I’ve never seen, but when I was little the folks watched Perry Mason & later The Defenders. Even as a lad, I found the lawyer shows mesmerizing.

  2. I’m sure most people won’t remember the 60s series, “The Defenders” starring E G Marshal and Robert Reed, as a father and son law team, but I think that was one of the most thought provoking, reality based series, not just lawyer shows, ever on tv. It’s the show that first got me thinking about becoming a lawyer.

  3. There are a lot of great lawyers on this list, that’s for sure! Boston Legal’s list alone and Viola Davis are my favorites after Perry Mason. The original series began and ended during mid-century, but continued again (with Burr) in the just as great 1985-’93 series of TV movies. These are a joy to watch today in no small part to the fact that those years visually recaptured much of the class and style of mid-century once again for the last time, sadly forever.

    The TV movies were true to the concept of the ’57-’66 episodes as well. What was fun for me was getting in on brand new episodes then the way audiences did originally. Too young back then. 4 months old when it started, ending 4 days before I was 9. Around 1971 I got into the re-runs of Mason (new to me) and had already been a fan of Ironside for some time along with Mannix, Mission Impossible and Hawaii 5-0.

    Fortunately, Columbo was a favorite I got in on new, and probably had its 1989-2003 revival to thank in part due to the successful Perry Mason movies. It’s too bad the 1973 version wasn’t on for (say) 3 seasons, like the New Dick Van Dyke Show was. Neither show was as good as the original, so you have to see them as something unto themselves.

    I’ve seen a couple of episodes of the latest version of Mason, and look at it that way. Anything even halfway decent at all now is great by vintage TV standards. Just don’t exploit the name with continuous carnage and pyrotechnics like the ‘revived’ Hawaii 5-0 and MacGyver. Or with over-stimulation saturation of the comic book genre either.

    I recently watched the final TV film with Burr: ‘The Case of the Killer Kiss’ from 1993; wonderful! As the son of a lawyer, I have a legal mind also. ‘You Be the Judge’ is a Post favorite I always look forward to in the magazine and online. Sometimes I agree, other times no way, such as the case in the Jan./Feb.’22 issue.

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