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

Innocent as Charged

The story of the Hollywood party at which Talman got himself arrested was splashed across the L.A. and show biz newspapers as everything from a "sex mixer" to a "narcotics party in the buff." The actor was formally charged, along with six other people (also members of the television industry), with "gamboling without garments."

Throughout it all, Talman steadfastly pleaded not guilty. "I am innocent of having committed any crime or doing anything immoral," Talman told the press. He claimed that he had just dropped by the party for a drink.

But CBS didn't buy it. Talman was fired on March 17, 1960, before his case ever went to court.

The actor's dismissal was particularly ironic, as his lawyer Harold Rhoden told the press at the time. "[Bill] Talman has not been tried as yet for any offense. He has not been found guilty of any offense. Yet here CBS, producers of, of all things, 'The Perry Mason Show,' has found Talman guilty before he has a trial.

"[This is] a violation of the doctrine of the show. The producers fired a man without giving him any hearing at all."

Nevertheless, CBS--which based the firing on Talman's alleged violation of his contract's "morals clause"--went about trying to find a replacement. Actor James Aubrey* was cast for a while as the DA. Because a number of Mason episodes took place outside of the L.A. setting anyway, other DAs could be used. But CBS was also faced with a financial dilemma: How could they fire a man for violating his morals clause and still have him appear in the lucrative summer reruns? Talman had started with the show in 1957 and had had his mug in almost every episode since. His image couldn't be magically lifted from the film print.

Talman was acquitted of all charges in a hearing held in June of 1960. But apparently, this didn't impress CBS. Not only was Talman not reinstated, he found himself unofficially banned from working in Hollywood. Of the sudden lack of work, he said: "Everyone has a right to be timid, but they're abusing the privilege."

To earn money, Talman fell back on his previous profession--writing. He had to use a pen name to write a few scripts for CBS, and was able to star in two episodes of "Have Gun, Will Travel" around September 1960; he played a cowhand in the episode "The Killing of Jesse May" and a sheriff in "A Long Way Home."

All during his exile, Talman was finding out who his friends were. Although Burr and Talman played archrivals on the set, they were friends, allies, and co-conspirators in the practical joke department behind the scenes. All of the cast rallied around their costar but it was Raymond Burr who, typically, led the charge. He campaigned hard for Talman's reinstatement. He forbade studio personnel to clean out Talman's belongings, and this included his coffee cup on the famous mug rack. Even after Talman was canned, his mug continued to hang there, name and all, among those belonging to the rest of the crew. Wherever Burr went in the United States, he would make special efforts to persuade the local CBS affiliates to pressure the network for Talman's return. The public let their thoughts be known on the issue. Mail poured in from all over, favoring Talman's rehiring. A crusader to the end, Burr also took the time to answer personally all fan mail written to support Talman's cause.

Talman had one other very important person in his corner: Erle Stanley Gardner. Although the two men were occasionally at odds, Gardner liked the way Talman played Burger, thought he was essential for the show's success, and therefore supported Talman's reinstatement. (But Talman apparently had a short memory. Gardner would be stung later on when the actor rather undiplomatically criticized Mason scripts in public.)

Finally in December of 1960, six months after he had been acquitted, CBS cried "uncle" and compromised. They agreed to allow Talman to make "occasional appearances." A new contract was drawn up and signed.

The close-knit Mason cast had won another victory. "Welcome Home, Bill" signs greeted Talman, on his first day back on the set.

* Webmaster's Note: Myron King points out the James Aubrey was not an actor but was, at the time, the president of CBS Television Network.

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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.