Dawn had not yet cracked at 3:55 A.M. on what was to be the hottest day of the year in Los Angeles. A visitor tapped lightly on the door of Raymond Burr's dressing room on the old Fox Western Avenue lot (where Perry Mason was being filmed), a dressing room originally built for a little girl name Shirley Temple.
The door was opened by Paul Kennedy, a 24-year-old actor from New York, "at liberty" and acting as a temporary dialog director for Burr, a fancy title for a man who cues an actor in the throes of learning lines.
Burr's alarm clock had gone off at 3:30, as it does every week-day morning. He had brushed his teeth, set a pot of coffee to perking in the kitchen. He was now sprawled comfortably across a king-sized, unmade bed. On the bed with him were a script, an ashtray, a package of cigarettes and the first of an uncounted number of cups of coffee he would consume during the day.
Burr's dressing room actually was a large, comfortable apartment consisting of a combination living room-bedroom, a large dressing room with a cedar-lined walk-in closet, a completely modernized bath, a foyer that serves as his secretary's office, and a kitchen. It was a comfortably cluttered place in which Burr lived five days out of every week.
Burr's press agent was sprawled on the sofa, fighting to keep his eyes open. "I have the funny feeling," he said, "that we're all going fishing any minute."
On the bed, Burr stared at his script. " All right, " he said to Kennedy, "let's take it from page 11." Kennedy read the cues. Burr, stumbling a bit, read his lines, staring at the ceiling and occasionally cheating a bit to glance down at the script.
"Again," he said. They ran through it a second time.
"Once more." Even at 4:30 A.M., the voice had the familiar intonations of Perry Mason.
Burr chuckled. "Funny," he said, "we've got a cigarette sponsor this season and all of a sudden the scripts are loaded with smoking."
Kennedy put another pot of coffee on the stove. The press agent, who felt he had done his duty, left-presumably to go back home and get another few hours' sleep.
Burr studied the script in bursts of complete silence, tossed lines with Kennedy, talked amiably with his visitor.
" I have probably had more TV exposure in a year's time than any actor alive," he commented. " Last season we did 39 shows.
This year we can do only 31 because we got a late start.
" It takes 11 days of elapsed time to film a Mason episode-six days of shooting, plus the intervening weekend, plus holidays and a day of preparation. This year we didn't get under way until July 1.
" Next year we'll do just 26. Over a period of three seasons, that adds up to 96 shows, the equivalent of 192 half-hours. A half-hour series would have to be on the air for five seasons with 39 episodes per season to top us."
The night before, Burr had worked on the sound stage until 9, gotten to bed at 11. " You have to unwind a bit before you can go to sleep. I average four or five hours of sleep a night. It's not enough, but I'm an ox. I can do it if I have to. Actually," he grinned, "my stand-in, Lee Miller, does my sleeping for me."
At 5:45 Burr tossed the script aside and disappeared into the dressing room for a shower and shave. Finished, he put on a pair of jeans and a black sport shirt.
At 6:05 his secretary, Bill Swan, came in. Five minutes later there was another knock on the door and Barbara Hale, Perry Mason's Della Street, staggered in with an armload of breakfast groceries. She was dressed in blue jeans and a heavy, gray wool sweater with a hood pulled up over her head.
" I am not awake," she said sleepily, " and probably won't be all day."
At 6:30 the episode's director, Gerd Oswald, arrived. Burr, Oswald and Barbara got down on their knees on the living room floor, going over minor changes in the day's shooting script.
At 6:50 hairdresser Annabell Levy stuck her head in the door. Burr nodded. He and Barbara walked over to the makeup room, lined on either side with barber chairs. Burr retired into a separate room and makeup man Dick Hamilton went to work on him. Barbara poked her head under a faucet and washed her hair.
The casual, informal, almost unreal atmosphere of the early morning hours now began to give way to a faster pace. Bethel Leslie, a featured player in the episode, slid into one of the barber chairs for her makeup.
At 7:25, Burr climbed out of his own makeup chair and went back to the dressing room. He changed into a brown silk suit, then talked over the script with Oswald while Annabell Levy went to work on his hair.
Promptly at 8 A.M., followed by a wardrobe man Bill Zacha and his visitor, Burr strode briskly toward Stage 8, just 50 yards away. A 37-inch stride carried him well ahead of the others.
At 8:05 Burr and Bethel Leslie sat at a table. The set was the detention room of a jail. Burr, the attorney, was talking with his client. While the lights were being adjusted, the two threw their lines back and forth.
At 8:20 the first camera rehearsal got under way. Assistant director Morris "Mushy" Harmel shouted, "Hold it down , everybody! Quiet on the set, please!" It was to be his chant for the rest of the day.
At 8:30 Oswald said, "Let's take it." It was a fairly long scene, all dialog. Burr and Bethel went through it the first time without a fluff. "Fine," said Oswald. " Print it."
It took the crew 35 minutes to switch the lights around for a long shot of the same scene, which would also include a continuation of the dialog. Burr and Bethel rehearsed their new lines in a corner until the crew was ready. Again, they made the scene in just one take.
At 9:09 the crew shifted over to the familiar set depicting Perry Mason's office. Oswald blocked the scene in with Burr, Barbara and Bethel, using a small view finder to follow the action and set the camera angles in his mind. A crew member put small strips of tape on the floor to mark the various positions the actors were to take.
"OK," said Oswald, "from el starto." The three actors waked through the scene a second time. " Good," he said.
The crew moved in with its lights, the stand-ins replaced the actors and Burr went back to his dressing room to change into a gray suit. Before returning to the sound stage, he autographed a batch of pictures Swan had prepared for him, signed a number of blank checks ("I trust you, William," he told Swan) and made a phone call.
At 9:33 he was back on the sounds stage. "I'm a fine guy to be an actor, " he said to the visitor. " Can't stand to have my picture taken. I don't even watch the show. I've seen three episodes so far. Out of the 90 movies I've made, I've watched only four of them. I can't stand myself. If I could shave without a mirror, I'd do it."
At 10 the set was ready and lighted. The actors rehearsed the brief scene four times.
"In the first place, " Burr intoned his lines, "you are not responsible for the torts of your husband."
"Torts?" said Bethel, not understanding the word.
"Wrongful acts for which civil actions can be brought."
Lights were readjusted and Oswald called for a dress rehearsal.
"In the first place," Burr said for the fifth time, "you are not responsible for the torts of your husband."
"Torts?" said Bethel for the fifth time.
"Strawberry torts," said Burr, deadpan. Bethel broke up. Oswald grinned.
"He's off," Barbara muttered. "It's going to be a long day, kids."
The pattern continued until lunch: block the scene, stand-ins take over for lighting, principals in for rehearsal, dress rehearsal and the take. Most scenes required from one to three takes. One required eight.
Burr had a soft drink for lunch, spent the rest of the lunch hour being fitted for new suits. Back on the sound stage at 1:30 the ceaseless, unchanging pattern continued.
At 4 P.M. cast and crew began to drag. Burr made a constant practice of drinking Barbara's iced coffee when she wasn't looking, but she was too tired to react and he finally gave up.
At 4:30 he purposely tied himself up in knots in the cameraman's measuring tape and stood there looking like a half-wrapped mummy.
"We've reached the silly stage," said Barbara.
At 8:40 the last take of the day went off without a hitch. "That wraps it up!" shouted Mushy, A weak but relieved cheer went up from the crew. It had been the last day of shooting the episode, "The Case of the Purple Woman," and they had brought it in without having to go into an extra day.
In a corner of the stage, sandwiches and spreads had been set up on the permanent restaurant set used by the show. Most stars foot the bill for an end-of-show party after the final episode of the season, but Burr and executive producer Gail Patrick Jackson toss one at the end of every episode.
At 9:30, Burr excused himself and went back to the dressing room, followed by his now dog-tired visitor. He took a quick shower, shaved once over-lightly and put on a dark suit. "It was a good day, " he said, "We've got the greatest crew in the business. Without them, we'd be nowhere."
He climbed into his station wagon, parked outside the dressing room door. "I'm late, " he apologized. " Dinner with some visiting dignitaries from England. Tomorrow's Saturday. I can sleep until 10 out at the beach house. Come see us again. Frankly, I didn't think you'd stick it out the whole route."