The Perry Mason TV Show Book
The History of the Show

The Case of the Fading Lawyer

For the 1962-63 season, CBS moved "Perry Mason" to Thursday nights at eight to nine, led in by "Mr. Ed," but directly across from ABC's "Donna Reed Show" and "Leave It to Beaver." The ratings plunged. Perry found himself looking up from Number 23, while archenemy "Bonanza" was grazing at Number 4.

Real cracks started showing in 1963-64 when CBS moved Mason back an hour to counter a cowpoke named Jimmy Dean on ABC, and a doctor-maid duo (Dr. Kildare and Hazel) on NBC. The show dropped off the Top 25 list for good. In 1964-65, it was back to the eight to nine slot. Donna Reed was still opposite on ABC, as were Fred MacMurray and his three sons--a small bit of irony there, as we shall see later.

In its last season, 1965-66, CBS put Mason into the nine to ten Sunday night slot to do battle with its old foe, "Bonanza." The Cartwrights didn't take kindly to these city slickers trespassing on their time slot, especially since the horse opera was now TV's top-rated show, and had been since 1964-65. Nor did Pa and the boys forget that Perry had whupped them five seasons before. But things had changed in those five years. Cowboys were in. The Cartwrights had the horses (to borrow a football phrase), not to mention an electrified guitar theme song and a novelty called color TV. The stark black and white, cool jazz of "Perry Mason" was becoming pass. "Bonanza" won this shootout. With Raymond Burr showing signs of burnout (and publicly saying so), CBS decided it was time to give up the ghost.

On November 17, 1965, Gail Jackson announced that CBS was dropping the show after the 1965-66 season. "CBS figures we are worn out," she told The New York Times.

The move to Sunday nights across from "Bonanza" was cited as a contributing factor, according to the Times, which theorized that the Mason show was being offered as a "sacrificial lamb in the twilight year of its television practice."

Jackson reported that, oddly enough, the show was getting more mail that season than any season before, as was Raymond Burr.

As the series neared its end, the scriptwriters--with little to lose--delivered several bizarre plotlines. The second to last show, "The Case of the Crafty Kidnapper," which featured mild-mannered Gary Collins as the killer and Cloris Leachman as a character named Gloria Shine, is probably the darkest, most violent episode. Three episodes before that was "The Case of the Dead Ringer." In this strange piece, Raymond Burr appeared as the killer--as well as the lawyer--playing a dual role, of course.

The last original episode ever filmed was appropriately titled, "The Case of the Final Fadeout." The story concerned a homicide that was committed during the shooting of a scene for a TV show. The murder was thus caught on film, as was the killer. But the story was secondary here. Because the action revolved around a soundstage, behind-the-scenes personnel were shown. Many of these people were, in fact, authentic members of the Mason production company making final, cameo appearances. This was all too obvious when the police questioned the "witnesses" on the set after the murder had been committed.

In addition to this, the episode was rife with inside jokes. One of the characters was named "Jackson Sidemark," a clue for fans alluding to producers Gail and Cornwell Jackson. Gail Jackson herself appeared briefly in the episode. One actress commented between sips of a drink that she would never take part in a show that was on opposite "Bonanza," which of course, the Mason series was at the time.

When the case moved into the courtroom, Dick Clark (who looks younger today) confessed to the murder, which in itself seemed to have some redeeming value. But the best of all was the casting for the judge: Appropriately enough, Perry's last case was presided over by a rookie actor named Erle Stanley Gardner.

And even as the camera drew back for the last time, Perry, Della, and Paul plot strategy for their next case. "I think we should start at the beginning," Perry says with a smile, as the scene and series fade away. No doubt he was referring to the years of highly profitable reruns to come.

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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.