As Perry Mason returns to TV in a new HBO series, a look at the character's history
In 1933, Erle Stanley Gardner finished his first Perry Mason novel. When he died in 1970, he had finished more than 80 books in the series.
When the TV character Perry Mason returns Sunday night on HBO, he’ll look a lot different than what fans of the old 1950s and ’60s show remember. Rather than actor Raymond Burr’s bold, burly version of the criminal defense lawyer, this new prequel version (played by Matthew Rhys) is a wiry, low-rent private eye, untangling multiple mysteries in 1932 Los Angeles.
The HBO Perry Mason isn’t the first time the character has been reimagined. Burr had the definitive take; yet he followed the multiple actors who had played Perry in movies and on the radio. The crime-solving lawyer has also appeared in books, board games and comic strips ... and not always with the approval of his creator, Erle Stanley Gardner.
Here’s a brief history of a character who — in many forms — has been a part of American popular culture for nearly 90 years.
Although Gardner never finished law school, he took the California bar exam in 1911 and opened a law office in 1917. Once he realized he hated the daily grind of being a lawyer, he started dabbling in writing hard-boiled detective stories and two-fisted western adventures, developing techniques that by the end of the 1920s allowed him to crank out over 1 million words a year.
Eager to find a lucrative literary gimmick, Gardner tried combining his day job with his side hustle. In 1933, he finished his first Perry Mason novel. When he died in 1970, he had finished more than 80 books in the series.
Nearly every one of those novels features the same core cast: Della Street, the hard-working legal secretary who is Perry’s most intimate companion but not his girlfriend; Paul Drake, the brave, bullish private investigator; and Mason’s loyal opposition, Lt. Arthur Tragg and District Attorney Hamilton Burger, who respect his mind but think he plays too fast and loose with the law.
In the novels, Gardner advanced arguments in favor of the underdog. (He also did this in a newspaper column and organization called The Court of Last Resort, where he drew attention to unjust criminal convictions.) Through Perry Mason, Gardner made the case that police and prosecutors were too often given the benefit of the doubt.
The Perry Mason books were an immediate hit, and Hollywood didn’t waste any time cashing in. Between 1934 and 1937, Warner Bros. released six Perry Mason movies, the first four of which had Warren William playing the charming, crusading attorney.
Gardner was disappointed in the films. The first few are reasonably faithful (albeit thin) adaptations. After that, they devolve into generic crime pictures with screwball interludes. Poor Paul Drake is re-conceived as a bumbling comic relief character nicknamed Spudsy. Della and Perry get married. Some cases never make it to the courtroom, ending instead with chases and fights.
With the books, Gardner put his faith in a formula, believing readers took satisfaction in seeing the same characters repeat familiar behavior, just as baseball fans enjoy watching their favorite players go through the same motions, game after game. The films abandoned that idea — which may be why they are largely forgotten today.
Perry Mason didn’t fare much better on the radio. From 1943 to 1955, five times a week, CBS Radio aired a 15-minute serial in which, once again, courtroom drama took a back seat to more conventional action and melodrama. The result was something much more akin to a soap opera than to a tautly plotted mystery.
When CBS wanted to move the show to television in 1956, Gardner balked. So the producers tweaked the names and locations and turned radio’s Perry Mason into TV’s daytime drama The Edge of Night, which ran for 28 years.
Before the character’s TV debut, the best Perry Mason adaptation was a newspaper comic strip, which ran from 1950 to 1952. Although serialized like the radio show, the comic was less open-ended. With limited space in the funny pages, Gardner — the credited writer — made each panel count.
Confirming authorship on old comics can be difficult, but the collection of personal papers Gardner donated to the University of Texas includes his notes on possible plots for the strip. Plot mattered more than anything to Gardner.
The TV Show(s)
The unsung hero of TV’s Perry Mason is its producer Gail Patrick, who in the mid-1950s was a retired actress married to Gardner’s literary agent, Thomas Cornwell Jackson. She won over Gardner, who was so impressed with her that he put her in charge of a series truer to his ideals.
So from 1957 to 1966, CBS aired a properly formulaic version of Perry Mason starring Burr. Perry and Della flirted but didn’t couple up. Paul was a reliable legman. Burger and Tragg fumed at Mason’s reliance on theatrical stunts and legal loopholes, while he reminded them why citizens have constitutional rights.
In nearly every episode, a wrongly accused Angeleno calls on Perry, who learns all he can about his client’s life in the first half of the story before revealing the surprise clue in the climactic courtroom scenes. In his essay The Little Church of Perry Mason, cultural critic Dave Hickey rightly compares this structure to Catholic liturgy — comforting in its familiar arc.
Perry Mason has periodically returned to television since 1966. In 1973, CBS debuted The New Perry Mason with a fresh cast, but the show’s overall squareness didn’t fit with the era, and it was canceled quickly. In 1985, Burr returned to the role (while Barbara Hale reprised her role as Della Street) for a popular string of NBC movies, which debuted multiple times a year until Burr’s death, in 1993. But their stories and style were more like Matlock than Perry Mason.
Now here’s HBO’s Perry Mason, decidedly different from what’s come before — like a cross between Gardener’s pre-Perry pulp mysteries and the seedy Los Angeles noirs Chinatown and LA Confidential. Would the author have approved? Probably not — if only because this new show has a long, winding narrative, not a punchy one.
But the new Perry Mason does have a Della Street (Juliet Rylance) and a Paul Drake (Chris Chalk). And this Perry is still pushing against the powerful, using every resource he has to make sure the system works for those who need it most.
Noel Murray c.2020 The New York Times Company
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