How a hard-hitting cast keeps 'Perry Mason's winning streak alive
If anyone wonders what makes Perry run, he might consider the skilled set of blocking backs who keep setting up the plays that enable Raymond (Perry Mason) Burr to rip holes in the opposition's Nielsen ratings. Burr has working with him a trio of old pros so expert that (to quote Burr) "They could make your Aunt Agatha look like Fullback Bronko Nagurski." Not to mention a lovely interceptor of forward passes named Barbara Hale.
Oldest of the old pros is 70-year-old Ray Collins (Lieutenant Tragg), with 54 years as an actor--on the stage, in 75 major movies and in radio's golden age.
Next is William Talman (District Attorney Burger), with 23 years of experience as stage manager, understudy, leading man, heavy, musical comedian and night-club emcee, veteran of stock and former athlete.
Then comes William Hopper (private detective Paul Drake), son of columnist Hedda Hopper and De Wolf Hopper. Bill began his career in 1938 but after
World War II, fearing someone might think he was trading on his mother's position, quit acting to sell automobiles for eight years.
And finally, there's Miss Hale (secretary Della Street), the one time ingénue form De Kalb, Ill., who in three years has developed into a most substantial and charming asset.
With such strength on the bench, it's difficult to see how nay scene could end up a total loss on CBS's Perry Mason. And it seldom happens.
Take Bill Talman, who as the prosecuting attorney manfully takes his lumps from Perry every week. This part demands real craftsmanship. Burger must not be a heavy; he is a hardworking, long-suffering district attorney, mindful of his oath not necessarily to convict but to see that justice is done. He is also a clever courtroom tactician--in short, a suitably sly adversary for Perry Mason. Otherwise, it would be no credit to Perry to set him down every week.
As an actor, Talman wins his case. He has made his Burger likable. "I know more about Burger than Erle Stanley Gardner does," Talman says. "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 Buger some added dimensions.
"As you know," Talman continues, "Gardner didn't characterize very much in his books. 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--Erle claims he didn't come up with the name 'Ham Burger' intentionally--as the most loathsome of prosecutors. They existed only in relation to each other. We've put flesh on the bones.
"And when one of us is off, there's always another to take up the slack."
Talman's skill at taking up the slack is surpassed perhaps only by Collins, who can sense other actors' needs and throw the scene their way. For example, a young actor may be making his first appearance on Perry Mason and is understandably nervous. During his big scene he starts blowing his lines. What happens then is almost automatic. Collins starts blowing his lines like crazy--that is, if Burr or Talman don't beat him to it. The heat is off; the young man begins doing well.
The prematurely gray-haired Hopper received quite a bit of early counsel from his mother. "Stay away from two-shots [a scene between two actors] with the old pros," Hedda told him. "They'll make you look silly."
Bill took her advice lightly until the day he found himself doing a two-shot with Oscar-winner Walter Brennan. After the director shot one take, Brennan drew Bill aside. "Hey, kid," he whispered, "don't look into both my eyes. Look into just one. It gets your kisser closer to the camera."
"Well," says Hopper, "somebody has to tell a young actor. And the bigger they are, the more they'll tell you. But if all you know is tricks, your dead."
What these men have, in addition to the tricks of the profession, is the ability to laugh, to sense each other's problems, and to be human beings.
"Inasmuch as we are old-timers we are professional," says Ray Collins. "Therefore, no matter how fond we are of one another, we all try to protect ourselves. If Willie Talman can get better lighting than I can, well, I assure you I'll try to change that."
Collins paused, "And yet there is an affection and respect hat makes it all tolerable. Take Raymond [Burr], a man doing 39 hour-long shows a year, appearing in almost every scene, knowing his lines letter-perfect, and who still devotes himself to making it better for other people."
Elaborate practical jokes, in which Burr and Talman are the ringleaders, have became a trademark of the Mason company. They still play the brick gag, a Burr favorite. It goes something like this:
Burr will pull up to Talman's house, get out of his car, silently hand Talman a brick and go home. Next day Burr will take the silver cover off his chafing dish to find two bricks. And so on, until at last a ton of bricks is mysteriously dumped on Talman's lawn.
Recently they were on a green gelatin kick. One day Barbara Hale, Burr's favorite victim, found every container in her dressing room filled with green gelatin--wash basin, flower pots, everything.
Such humor is important to the well being of the Perry Mason company. At the same time there is the presence of an old actor, George E. Stone, now sick and half blind, who sits in the clerk's chair in the courtroom scene two days a week. Why is Stone there?
"That's easy," the wardrobe girl said "This company has a heart."
Too much heart to be true?
"I know it sounds absurd," says Talman, "but the fact is, we haven't had any big fights or problems. Can you think of rooming with a guy for three years [he and Hopper share a dressing room] and never having a quarrel or argument? I can't. But that has happened with Bill and me."
Such felicity, Talman admits, is rare in show business. "We just happen to like each other," he concludes.
"Series television tends after a time to make you a little grumpy and you find yourself fighting to survive," Collins says. "There's something else-call it great affection, like a legit show on the road. When it closes you may never see each other again. Sometimes we think of that. And so we still speak to each other."
"And laugh at each other's jokes," puts in Bill Talman.
"It's like the competition in a family," says Barbara Hale. "You know how they like to keep a girl's ego at low ebb? They tell you at 7 A.M., 'You look all right, Barbara, but don't you think you ought to get some more makeup on?'"