The Perry Mason TV Show Book
Raymond Burr as Perry Mason

A Visible Hero at Last
Disorder in the court. No, this is not a scene from one of Hamilton Burger's nightmares. It's actually a skit spoof on "Perry Mason" that appeared on "The Red Skelton Hour" in 1964. That's Julie Redding being judged by Red and defended by Raymond Burr. Courtesy of Capital Newspapers

But the hard work paid off. The Perry Mason of TV was the kind of attorney that Erle Stanley Gardner could finally admire. Tough. Unrelenting. Unpredictable. A champion of the underdog. The kind of lawyer you'd love to have as a relative or close friend.

Perry would never plea-bargain a case for a reduced sentence for his client, even if it meant the client might find himself in a 20,000-volt hotseat. "I'd rather risk the life of a client than ruin it!" he declared.

He was high-priced; $5,000 retainers were not uncommon, and he charged $100 just to write a will. But money spoke differently to Perry. In one episode, a retainer check for $2,500 arrived. Della exclaimed: "Twenty-five hundred clams!" but Perry scolded: "Della, when the amount is more than one thousand dollars, we don't refer to them as 'clams'" On another occasion, a check for $1,000 arrived from a client, but it only caused Perry to worry: "Whenever a client sends in a thousand-dollar retainer voluntarily, he knows he's in trouble."

But the lawyer was not without compassion. Many times he gave his services free of charge for clients he knew couldn't afford to pay. Not bad for a lawyer with a 1.000 batting average. So, it is odd that many of his clients--even the paying ones--made life so difficult for him. They always seemed either to be hiding something themselves or covering up for someone else. Perry's famous line, seemingly uttered over and over to his clients, was "What else haven't you told me?"

Perry was a creature of habit. In the early days of the show, when he wore a hat, he regularly put it on the head of a bust of an English barrister* that he kept by his office door. Because he rarely ate at home, he had a regular counter stool at Clay's Grille (where he took an occasional phone call), and "usual" tables at Morey Allen's Steak House, "CC's" Chinese restaurant or any one of a dozen L.A. eateries.

Some people thought Perry was completely without flaw. Who could blame them? After winning "The Case of the Flighty Father," Perry's client--a girl who had been reunited with her long lost, slightly shady father--told her dad she'd make an honest man of him yet, and not to worry because "not everyone is perfect like Mr. Mason."

Della knew better. "Mmmmmm, perfect?" she asked.

"That's what I've been trying to tell you," Perry said.

Perfect? Well, not exactly.

Sometimes Perry would bend the rules. During "The Case of the Screaming Woman," he looked the other way as a client burned incriminating evidence. Why? Because he knew the evidence could hurt innocent people. Or, in "The Case of the Long-Legged Models," Perry switched his lady client's gun for another so she could not be implicated in a murder charge. (But, when the gun he had given her turned out to be the murder weapon anyway, even he was shocked.) Nor was he beyond "buying" evidence. In "The Case of the Crying Cherub," Perry laid out $26,000 to buy a painting at an auction, knowing the piece contained the evidence he needed to win the case. Another time, he bought an entire building, just so the authorities couldn't charge him with breaking and entering the structure.

Burr at the home he kept in North Malibu while he was working on the Mason show. He had a passion for growing orchids. Towards the end of the series, Burr made it quite clear to the pree that he preferred gardening to playing the famous lawyer, Courtesy of AP Newsfeatures

He took risks that some would consider foolhardy. He left his own fingerprints in a client's house, hoping it would be searched and turn up evidence he was looking for. He had a close call in "The Case of the Carefree Coronary," after he'd agreed to help an insurance company investigate a number of injury frauds. When Perry put one of the "frauds"--an ex-boxer--to the test to see how real his disability was, the man had a heart attack and died. This led to a real chance that the lawyer might be implicated in the death.

And, while Perry is definitely a thinking man's hero, we did see him mix it up on occasion. In "The Case of the Bashful Burro," he broke up a fight in the Gold Nugget Saloon between the town bully and a prospective client. And, we saw him actually run, chasing a suspect, in "The Case of the Twelfth Wildcat." His job could be a dangerous one. More than one killer paid him a visit, looking to get even, and his office was the scene of at least one shoot-out.

It was in "The Case of the Sausalito Sunrise" that Perry came closest to becoming a murder statistic himself. He coolly confronted a killer who had been swindling art treasures. The crook was about to shoot Perry when the police arrived in the last instant and plugged the baddie.

But the courtroom was where Perry was at his best. Part wizard, part snake-oil salesman, he did everything from dragging a burro into court to identify its real owner to cross-examining a parrot. He had men dress up as women, just to lead the unreliable witnesses astray. In one case, when he had to prove that a murder could have been committed by remote control, he had Paul throw a switch while riding in a helicopter some forty miles away. He started fires, introduced exotic bits of evidence, and once even argued two cases in two different courtrooms simultaneously! The list of courtroom theatrics could go on and on. "I object to Mr. Mason's courtroom pyrotechnics!" Hamilton Burger would scream ad infinitum, but it was a rare judge who stopped Perry from proving his point.

* Webmaster's Note: Patrick Reilly points out that the bust seen in Perry's office in the show is not an "English barrister" but is actually the famous French writer and philosopher Voltaire.

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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.