The Perry Mason TV Show Book
William Talman: TV's Hamilton Burger

Mouthing Off
Willie Tallman, the bad boy from Dartmouth, was one of several arrested at a wild Hollywood party in 1960. Not only were drugs found in the house, according to the raiding police officers, but everyoneTallman includedwas nude. Copyright 1963 Associated Press

The problem with Talman's role as the DA, Hamilton Burger, was that he was put into the position of always having to prosecute a case. In real life, it doesn't happen that way. A DA is never in a position where he has to prosecute someone he believes is innocent. (On the other hand, lawyers are called on to defend people they may believe to be guilty.) If a DA feels there isn't enough evidence against a defendant, he just throws the case out.

People would often ask Raymond Burr how he could possibly win every case. His standard answer was that the viewers only saw the cases he did on Saturdays (or Thursdays or Sundays, which are the days the show ran). Conversely, Talman used to say that he only lost cases on those days.

A reporter once asked producer Cornwell Jackson if it was true that a show in which Burger actually beat Mason was filmed--only to be shown deliberately on a night when Good Friday and Passover coincided so that Burger's only victory would appear when no one was watching television.

The question was intended as a joke. Jackson was not amused. "That story is apocryphal," he replied.

"I know more about Hamilton Burger than Erle Stanley Gardner does."

This Talman boast was most probably true. The actor had always felt the Mason characters had come a long way since the pages of Erle Stanley Gardner's books--and he didn't mind telling anyone who would listen. "As you know, Gardner didn't characterize very much in his books," Talman once said in an interview. "He wrote Perry simply as the idealized dashing lawyer, Della as the idealized beautiful secretary, Drake as the idealized dashing detective, Tragg as just what a lieutenant of homicide ought to be, and Burger as the most loathsome of prosecutors. They existed only in relation to each other. We've [the cast] put flesh on their bones.

"Erle detested Burger and drew him as the prototype of the loud, blustering sorehead, like the one who used to plague him as a young lawyer. We've given Burger some added dimensions."

TV Guide agreed, once saying: "As an actor, Talman wins his case. He has made Burger likable" and "a suitably sly adversary for Perry Mason."

It's not easy playing a straight officer of the court who does his best, has a polished sense of justice, and still comes up holding the short end of the stick. Then he had that name to contend with. Who could take anyone named Ham Burger seriously? Erle Stanley Gardner always insisted that he did not intentionally saddle Mason's adversary with the same name as chopped meat and fat. (Burger should have charged him with perjury.)

Despite his dismal record, Burger was ambitious. A successful DA can set his sights on a judgeship. Or, as Perry and Paul discussed in "The Case of the Crimson Kiss," Burger might have had some thoughts of running for governor someday.

Actually, Perry Mason himself was one of Burger's biggest fans. At the conclusion of "The Case of The Purple Woman," Perry told Della: "There was an article in the Law journal recently; let me quote you the last paragraph. 'A well-tried criminal case is a credit to all involved. There is no winning or no losing in the administration of justice.' The article was signed 'Hamilton Burger."'

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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.