The Perry Mason TV Show Book
The History of the Show

The Problems of Success

One of the secrets of the Mason show was that, unlike other television mysteries of the time, the scripts concentrated less on the actual murder and more on looking for the clues and solving the case. In most other similar shows, the execution of the murder was the focal point, and the sequence of putting the clues together was secondary.

Like "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," another popular series running at the time, each Mason show had a last minute twist ending. However, unlike homicides presented on Hitchcock's thrillers, the real murderer was never revealed on "Perry Mason" until the very last moment. This was in part to sustain the element of surprise that was critically needed for the show, especially since the viewer knew that Mason's clients weren't going to get convicted. On occasion, attentive viewers could figure out the mystery even though the real killer's tracks were cleverly disguised. Most times, however, the key clues simply popped up as devices of the plot-an obscure fringe player was revealed in the end as having killed the victim for some motive that would be impossible for the viewer to know.

The judge in the last episode of the Mason series, "The Case of the Final Fade-out" was played by a rookie actor named Erle Stanley Gardner. Courtesy of Capital Newspapers

This restrictive approach caused problems. Writing for the show continued to be troublesome. The first thirty episodes were based solely on Gardner's works, but then original stories started to creep into the caseload. As the seasons went on, standard plots were twisted, cut up, and pieced back together again. Pretty soon, the story lines became virtually interchangeable. A murder was committed; the innocent yet highly suspect party hired Perry. Clues were chased, red herrings revealed. Plots, subplots and sub-subplots rose to the surface.

By the third or fourth commercial break, the drama moved to the courtroom. Once there, the action would always play out to the very last possible moment. Then Perry would either call the unsuspecting criminal to the stand or point him or her out in the courtroom gallery. The attorney would follow with a verbal strafing and the guilty party would usually ‘fess up, then break down. Fade to final commercial. Any loose ends were usually tied up in a brief afterword--usually set in Perry's office--during which the main characters would fill in all the missing pieces, before heading out for a bite to eat. This was the standard procedure over most of the 271 episodes. It became a formula; it was inherently predictable. But it also worked fabulously. The audiences loved it. So, who cared that by the time each story was over, some of the viewers had lost their way?

Well, the critics did. TV Guide's columnist Cleveland Amory once underlined "the knock" on the show, writing, "at least a half-dozen characters . . . are so suspicious that we don't trust them even after [Perry] has told us at the end that they didn't do it. And the suspicious characters are made so saintly that even after we've been told which one of them has done it, we can't believe it."

Objection sustained. The show's writers--Jackson Gillis, Leo Townsend, Malvin Wald, Philip MacDonald, Sam Newman, Stirling Silliphant (who also wrote for the Hitchcock show), Seeleg Lester (Gardner's favorite), and many others--were among the best in the business. Still the show was difficult to write for because of the stringent guidelines set down by Jackson and Gardner, not the least of which was that Perry had to win every time. Also, the main characters had to remain straitjacketed in their roles. Finally, each story line had to pass muster before Erle Stanley himself. Some writers just didn't want the hassles. Not surprisingly, many of Hollywood's best story men began passing up opportunities to write for the show, although the money was as good as any in town. One writer, Eugene Wang, signed on as a story editor and is credited for getting many of the outstanding scripts on the show. Wang was also a lawyer, which must have seemed like a prerequisite for the job because some of the stories--especially in the later seasons--were so complicated, even Clarence Darrow would have had a hard time figuring them out.

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The Perry Mason TV Show Book Copyright 1987 by Brian Kelleher and Diana Merrill. All rights reserved. Presented here by permission of the copyright holder. Commercial use prohibited. Web page Copyright 1998 D. M. Brockman. Last edited 04 Nov 2004.