Barbara Hale's role as Della Street, secretary to Perry Mason on the CBS series of the same name, at first might appear to be a snap, a breeze, a cinch. All the tall, strikingly pretty actress has to do is stand there, asking an occasional question, handing her boss a sheaf of papers, taking notes.
Sometimes, toward the end of an installment, it falls to Barbara to ask Raymond Burr, as Perry, the questions that will enable the lawyer-sleuth to explain how he found out who done it. Having asked, she fades into the background again.
In reality the role is a difficult one. And it is hard work. Frequently Barabara must make her face--registering alarm, apprehension or concern--set the tone for an entire scene. Also she must carry off these ladylike expressions without taking the audience's attention from Burr, the central figure. Many actresses would find this not only distasteful but virtually impossible. Barbara, a thorough professional, finds it challenging but exhausting.
"There was one week of shooting," she told me one day recently, "in which I had six lines in the whole script--six lines, six costume changes, six days of filming. I could hardly drag myself to the parking lot to drive home each day, I was so exhausted from standing around."
Barbara's attitude has made Burr, William Talman, Ray Collins and the rest of her co-workers so aware of her importance to the whole show that they unanimously, one might even say unwittingly, have voted her "The Woman We'd Most Like to Be Cast Away on a Series With."
Their respect is couched in terms of ordinarily accorded the most actressy of actresses, such as the Misses Hayes, Cornell and Fontanne.
"Barbara is a supporting actress in the finest and truest sense," says Talman. "She makes us all seem much better than we are."
Burr agrees, and is even more effusive in his praise: "Barbara, without being ostentatious about it, is a remarkably intuitive actress. She has an instinct for doing exactly the right thing when it is needed."
Gail Patrick Jackson, the ex-film star who is the show's executive producer, originally selected Barbara for the part because Miss Hale seemed to understand at once that she would be required to be unobtrusive and yet gently help the story line along.
New directors do not always grasp this function. One man, directing his first Perry Mason segment, came to a scene in which Della was present but had no lines. He fussed and fumed and finally came to a momentous decision: "just stand there and be quiet and act as though you're thinking."
Burr leaped instantly to Barbara's defense. "She can't just be there. She's got to react to what Bill and I are saying." Later, watching the rushes of daily shooting, the director admitted his mistake. "I never realized how important she is," he said.
Paisano Productions, which produces Perry Mason, recently signed Barbara to a contract which leaves no doubt that the producers recognize her importance. The contract commits Barbara to two more seasons as Della--providing, of course, the show stays on the air. (But, looking further ahead, Barbara has been reading scripts with an eye toward starring in a series of her own.)
By now, as they approach the end of their fifth year of working together, Barbara and Burr have developed a kind of wordless system of communication that enables the character of Della to be drawn into the action even when she has no lines. She has learned to point up Burr's dialog by the simple device of clearing her throat. Burr will emphasize her role by round a chair and absently touching her arm.
Most actresses might chafe at being placed in such a position of near anonymity. Barbara does not; she feels that working with Burr, Talman and the rest has been her happiest experience since she came to Hollywood, which she says happened "many thousands of years ago." There always is a good deal of horseplay on the set, and in this too she fills an important function. She is the chief butt of Burr's practical jokes.
'The best shriek in Hollywood'
One Burr prank kept the gullible Miss Hale on the hook for a week. Every day she received ardent letters from an admirer. He sent flowers to the studio, left telephone messages at her house. Finally Bill Talman told Barbara that her "admirer" was Burr. Another day she ran out of cigarettes and bummed one, providing an irresistible opening for Burr. He enlisted seven or eight members of the cast and crew to keep Barbara abundantly supplied throughout the rest of the day. One after another they casually sidled up and offered her cigarettes--as many as 30 during a half hour, even when she already had one lit.
Barbara always greets Burr's pranks with loud, startled shrieks. She greets everything with a loud shriek, even when someone comes up behind her and touches her back. "Barbara has the best shriek in Hollywood," Burr says.
This lack of affection is the prime quality that endears Barbara to her co-workers. Also her utter candor.
She is an interviewer's delight, I can testify, for she answers every question without hesitation, and even makes jokes about her age, which is 40. Della Street was 22 when Erle Stanley Gardner fist created the Perry Mason stories. She would be 54 today if she were real. One day, as Barbara was visiting the San Diego Zoo with her children, she overheard two women, obviously avid Perry Mason fans, discussing her.
"She looks pretty good for 54," one said.
"Who wouldn't look good with all that makeup on?" the other responded.
In reality the tall (5-foot-6), sparkling-green-eyed Barbara does not wear much more makeup than she did as a young girl in DeKalb, Ill., where she was born on April 18, 1921. She was the second of two children-she has a sister Juanita, a nonprofessional. Some of the bright liveliness that characterizes her behavior today was evident when she was a child, and at 12 she began studying tap and ballet. She was active in elementary grade theatricals, but her principal interest was sketching. She still prefers painting to all other hobbies.
She fell in love with an actor
Indirectly her talent as an artist led her into her career. Attending the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts she helped support herself by posing for a cartoonist who drew a strip called "Ramblin' Bill." This got her other modeling jobs, and presently the head of a modeling school sent her picture to Hollywood. RKO was interested. Barbara had had no thought of going into the movies, but she then was interested in a soldier who was stationed on the West Coast and she saw no reason why the film company should not pay her way to visit him.
She first appeared with Frank Sinatra in "Higher and Higher." That was in 1943. Then RKO put her in "West of Pecos." The cast included a young actor named Bill Williams, whose real name was William Katt. Any lingering thoughts about the soldier vanished as she fell in love at once. She put on an immediate and determined campaign to become Mrs. Katt. "It took me two years to talk him into marrying me," she said.
Williams finally succumbed; that was in 1946. They have three children: Johanna, called Jody, born in 1947; Billy, born in 1951; and Juanita, born in 1952. They live simply in Van Nuys, Cal. Williams was Kit Carson in the series of that name and now does most of his emoting in Assignment: Underwater. His career has not progressed as Barbara's has, and a few months ago there were the usual rumors stating that their marriage was in trouble.
If it is, that fact is not readily apparent to a visitor to the unpretentious Van Nuys household. Barbara, unlike those working-actress mothers who pretend to be possessed of the abilities of our pioneer foremothers, admits that she doesn't have time to be as much of a mother as she would like to be. "The refrigerator's always broken and only one burner ever works on the stove," she once told me, "only because I never seem to find time to call up to get them fixed." She has to shop at the supermarket out of a Spanish cookbook, for her housekeeper speaks little English.
These would appear to be minor tensions and problems. In reality the Williamses and their children seem to be as normal a bunch as one might find living in, say, Bausman, Pa.
However, one aspect of Barbara's job as Della occasionally causes some difficulty. Because she is so quiet so much of the time on the Perry Mason set, she compensates for her silence by chattering away incessantly at home. "Silent actress, huh?" says Bill Williams, grinning. "You ought to hear her at home. I can't get her to shut up!"