“The Case of the Return of Perry Mason” instantly seemed the obvious and appropriate title for this feature. After all, this coming Sunday sees the return to television of one of the longest-standing characters in modern American media in a brand-new HBO series. And “The Case of”? Well, that’s obvious, too; all of the Perry Mason novels and films and TV episodes began with that. Here’s where it seems kind of funny, though: Perry Mason would have had to have gone away to return. As it stands, the character and his supporting cast have been part of American popular culture for nearly a century. It would seem that this makes this “The Case of Perry Mason and How He Became an Icon.”
The author of the Perry Mason books, Erle Stanley Gardner, published his first story in 1923. His original vocation, that of a trial lawyer, had started to bore him. Nevertheless, his predilection for defending immigrants and others at the mercy of the system would certainly inform his work in his second field. The prolific Gardner established a number of pseudonyms so that he could contribute more stories to various outlets; among his regular markets were Argosy, Black Mask, Detective Fiction Weekly, and, later on, The Saturday Evening Post. Gardner would eventually leave his law firm in 1933 upon the publication of his novel The Case of the Velvet Claws.
That novel is notable as the first appearance of defense lawyer Perry Mason, his assistant, Della Street, and his good friend and private investigator, Paul Drake. In that first book, Mason outlines his mission statement, describing himself as “a specialist on getting people out of trouble.” Outside of Mason’s legal brilliance and propensity for clearing his clients by producing a confession from the guilty party, you don’t learn a whole lot of Mason’s private life at all. That doesn’t change much over the course of the 80 Mason novels that Gardner wrote between 1933 and 1970. It may also be part of his appeal; his forthright protection of his client and his investigations with his two dedicated partners are backstory enough.
Mason proved instantly popular — enough for Hollywood to come calling. Warner Bros. knocked out six Mason films between 1934 and 1937, four of which starred Warren William in the lead. Claire Dodd played Della twice; in a strange divergence from novel continuity, the film series saw Mason and Della get married. Weirdly enough, another Mason novel was adapted in 1940 under a different title. The Case of the Dangerous Dowager was adapted as Granny Get Your Gun, but the film discards Mason and his regulars in favor of being a wacky comedy.
Radio beckoned, so the stories were adapted into the CBS Radio series Perry Mason. Each episode was 15 minutes long; the hugely popular show ran from 1943 to 1955. By 1956, CBS wanted to transition the show to television. When they pitched Gardner on the idea of making it a daytime serial that he would write, he balked, particularly at the network notion of giving Mason love interests. He withdrew from the idea, taking Mason with him. However, Mason radio writer Irving Vendig wrote a pitch that starred basically a copy of Mason, and that became The Edge of Night. The mystery flavored soap was popular in its own right and ran from 1956 to 1975 on CBS; in 1975, it jumped over to ABC and ran until 1984, 28 years in all.
CBS wasn’t quite done with Mason, so they went back to Gardner with the idea of doing a prime-time series that retained the original flavor of the character. Gardner agreed, and the Perry Mason TV series was born. The executive producer was Gardner’s friend, Gail Patrick Jackson; she, her husband Thomas Cornwall Jackson (Gardner’s agent), and Gardner formed the production company Paisano Productions. Gardner sold an option to CBS on 272 of his stories and a dozen major Mason characters through the production company; the deal provided that the partners own 60 percent of the show. Casting was laborious, but Gardner loved the guy chosen for Mason, actor Raymond Burr; the other lead roles were filled out by Barbara Hale as Della Street, William Hopper as Paul Drake, and William Talman as Mason’s frequent courtroom antagonist, L.A. D.A. Hamilton Burger.
The show was a massive success. During its 1957 to 1966 run, it was one of the most popular shows on TV. It won an Emmy for Best Dramatic Series in its first season, and would net two for Burr and one for Hale over its run. Its theme by Fred Steiner is one of the most familiar on television. 67 of the 69 Mason novels that Gardner wrote before 1963 were adapted into episodes of the show. Gardner had daily involvement with the show, reading and approving scripts and showing particular interest that matters of law were represented with accuracy; he also played a judge in the final episode of the series, “The Case of the Final Fade-Out.” The show was cancelled by CBS in 1966, despite its ongoing popularity.
CBS tried to reboot the series in 1973 with a new cast, but it flamed out after half a season. Fortunately, Gardner didn’t see it. The incredibly prolific writer and staunch defender of his characters had died in 1970.
In 1985, producer Dean Hargrove took on the task of bringing Mason back to TV in a series of TV movies for NBC. At the time, he was known for his work on The Man from U.N.C.L.E., McCloud, and Columbo. Hargrove managed to get Burr and Hale back as Mason and Street; unfortunately, William Hopper had passed away in interim. Hargrove had the inspiration to cast Hale’s real-life son, William Katt (best known for The Greatest American Hero) as Paul Drake Jr., carrying on his dad’s role as Mason’s right-hand man. Burr and Hale made 26 TV movies between 1985 and 1993; Katt stuck around for nine, and was replaced by new character Ken Malansky, played by William R. Moses. Burr died in 1993, but they retitled the films as A Perry Mason Mystery and had guest actors like Paul Sorvino and Hal Holbrook play fill-in characters alongside Hale, under the pretense that Mason was out of town. The series ended in 1995.
Mason stories haven’t been confined to TV. The character and his cast have appeared in comic books and were featured in a newspaper strip from 1950 to 1952. The Colonial Radio Theater on the Air started adapting Mason novels into full-cast audio dramas in 2008. For decades, the Burr series has been a staple of syndication and has been widely available on DVD. When the streaming age began, the show found new interest; the first seven seasons currently stream on CBS All Access.
That brings us to today, and the all-new version hitting HBO. The new series boasts all-star producers, including Team Downey (the production company of Robert Downey Jr. and his wife Susan), and Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald, who are known for Friday Night Lights and other programs. The show is set in 1932, the year before the first novel was released. Matthew Rhys (The Americans) stars as Mason, while Chris Chalk plays Paul Drake and Juliet Rylance is the new Della Street. Breaking convention, the episodes are listed by chapter titles (“Chapter One,” for example), rather than “The Case of . . .” The handful of critics who have filed reviews, including Dan Fienberg from The Hollywood Reporter, Judy Berman from Time, and Alan Sepinwall from Rolling Stone, have given high praise to the cast and the look of the show. It remains to be seen if America will embrace this new Perry Mason. Based on nearly a century’s worth of evidence, it’s probably safe to bet on a favorable verdict.
Featured image: Raymond Burr as Perry Mason from the 1961 CBS series (Cowles Communications, Inc.; photograph by Robert Vose / Public domain)