Sunday, March 6, 2016

THE TV SIDEKICK BLOGATHON: Della Street and Paul Drake of "Perry Mason" (1957-1966)


Perry Mason: Noted criminal lawyer - intrepid, dramatic, elusive fighter, whose cause is never lost.
- The Case of the Perjured Parrot, 1939

The sign on the office door is a comfort to clients found at the wrong place at the wrong time; clients with secrets and clients who lie, innocent clients accused of murder.  In over 80 novels written by lawyer/author Erle Stanley Gardner and 271 television episodes from 1957-1966, Perry Mason,  and his Emmy winning portrayer (1959 and 1961) Raymond Burr, won the day.   



Della Street:  As much Perry Mason's right arm as his secretary.
- The Case of the Waylaid Wolf, 1960

Perry, however, was not in the fight for justice on his own.  Those clients would be languishing in cells to this day, or worse, if the entire team hadn't pulled together.  A lawyer like Perry is only as good as his confidential secretary and Della Street is the gold standard.  Competent, intuitive and fearless Della Street was played on the series by Barbara Hale.

A star attorney such as Perry must be armed with the truth when he enters the courtroom and that information requires legwork.  The legwork for Mason's cases is provided by the Paul Drake Detective Agency.  Paul, played by William Hopper, knows his job, even though at times he is baffled by Perry and the risks his friend is willing to take for often less than forthcoming clients.



Barbara Hale

Barbara Hale was born in DeKalb, Illinois in 1922.  As an art student she turned to modeling as a means of making money which led to being signed by RKO Studios.  A featured player and sometimes leading lady, a few of Barbara's pictures include The Falcon Out West, The Falcon in Hollywood with Tom Conway and Higher and Higher with Frank Sinatra.  RKO teamed her with her husband Bill Williams (married 1946-1992) in The Clay Pigeon, A Likely Story and West of the Pecos.  Barbara played the title character in Lorna Doone, leading lady to Larry Parks in Jolson Sings Again, to James Stewart in The Jackpot, to Randolph Scott in 7th Cavalry and to James Cagney in A Lion is in the Streets.  Barbara is a sympathetic teacher in The Boy with Green Hair, a harried mother in the film-noir classic The Window and a bombshell entertainer in the nifty noir The Houston Story.



Della Street:  Mason's confidential secretary with an intuitive flair for the feminine angle.
- The Case of the Cautious Coquette, 1949

In the 1950s Barbara was devoting most of her energies to raising her young family.  On interview extras included with the television series 50th anniversary DVD release Barbara relates that she was speaking with Gail Patrick Jackson about an idea for customizing costumes for dolls to be sold in specialty boutiques.  Gail, as executive producer of a new TV program based on Erle Stanley Gardner's popular Perry Mason novels, had other ideas.  She wanted Barbara for Della Street.  Previous secretaries to the crime busting attorney included Claire Dodd to Warren William, June Travis to Ricardo Cortez and Ann Dvorak to Donald Woods.

Barbara Hale won the Primetime Emmy in 1959 for Best Supporting Actress (Continuing Character) in a Dramatic Series.  She was nominated for Outstanding Performance in a Supporting Role by an Actor or Actress in a Series in 1961.  Don't you just love the way the Emmy folks play around with their categories?!  There were three nominees in the category that season including Barbara as Della, Abby Dalton as Lt. Hale in Hennessy and the winner, Don Knotts as Barney Fife in The Andy Griffith Show.  Don't you just love the way the Emmy folks put that mix together?!



This coming April 18th Barbara Hale, a great-grandmother, turns 94.  Barbara's attendance at fan conventions in recent years affirm how beloved she is among generations of Barbara and Della watchers. 

 Della Street:  She was a one-way street and the way was always Perry Mason's.
The Case of the Beautiful Beggar, 1965

Della was more than the gatekeeper to Perry Mason's inner sanctum.  Perry relied on her instincts when sizing up clients and on her legal secretarial skills to keep the office and trials running smoothly.  Della could be counted on giving more than one hundred percent to any cause of Perry's.  She was not afraid to get her hands dirty in the field as a decoy or to hiding clients at her apartment.  When forced into court, she was unflappable in the face of cross-examinations.  This is not to say that Della wouldn't offer a word of caution to her foolhardy boss upon occasion, but there was never any doubt of her total support.  On a personal level, while it was more apparent in Gardner's page turners that Perry and Della's closeness extended beyond business (all those late night dinners), there was never any doubt among TV fans of the depth of feeling between the two.



Paul Drake:  Detective, long, laconic, and loyal, willing to toss his natural caution to the winds in the service of Perry Mason.
- The Case of the Perjured Parrot, 1939

Perry's most frequent combatant, District Attorney Hamilton Burger played by William Talman could call upon the services of the police department in the form of Ray Collins as Lt. Tragg, Wesley Lau as Lt. Anderson, Richard Anderson as Steve Drumm and Lee Miller as Sgt. Brice.  Who's Perry gonna call?  Paul Drake!  The Paul Drake Detective Agency had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of operatives on call around the clock and contacts in cities far and wide.  Paul may have dreamed of keeping regular business hours, but Perry knew he could call any time during the 24 hours allotted to us and Paul Drake would be on the case.  


William Hopper
(1915 - 1970)

William Hopper's parents were the actor DeWolfe Hopper Sr. and actress turned influential gossip columnist Hedda Hopper.  It was at his mother's urging that the young man entered the acting profession with no genuine sense of a calling.  Signed by Warner Brothers in the mid-30s you will see in such pictures as The Footloose Heiress, The Adventurous Blonde and Public Wedding a handsome and pleasant actor of potential.

William Hopper was a Navy frogman during WWII, the stress of which left him with his striking white hair and a drinking problem.  Resuming his acting career he played leads in Bs and solid supporting roles in prestigious features.  The sci-fi fave 20 Million Miles to Earth stars Harryhausen effects and Hopper.  He is Natalie Wood's distant father in Rebel Without a Cause and Patty McCormack's too normal father in The Bad Seed.  I think his best roles in this period are for director William Wellman as Jan Sterling's fiance in The High and the Mighty, the good brother in Track of the Cat, and especially as a sympathetic dog trainer in Goodbye, My Lady.

William Hopper was one of the many actors who auditioned for the role of Perry Mason and the clip  below is one of his screen tests to play the attorney.  It may seem strange as we are so used to Raymond Burr as Perry, but I think Bill Hopper gives a credible characterization.  Nonetheless, things worked out as they should.  Nothing tops the breezy way Paul greets Della with "Hello, Beautiful" as he enters the Mason offices ready for the next adventure.



In 1959 William Hopper was nominated for a Primetime Emmy for Best Supporting Actor (Continuing Character) in a Dramatic Series.  The season featured the Drake-centric episode The Case of Paul Drake's Dilemma, giving our favourite P.I. a chance to shine.  The other nominees included Herschel Bernardi as Lt. Jacoby in Peter Gunn, Johnny Crawford as Mark McCain in The Rifleman and the winner, Dennis Weaver as Chester Goode in Gunsmoke.

Paul Drake:  Detective with a lot of explanations to make and sleep to catch up on.
The Case of the Empty Tin, 1941

Paul Drake had a phone in his car!  When I was a kid I thought that was the coolest thing ever!  Nowadays people of far less importance in my eyes walk around with little phones as if it is commonplace.  Are they on a case?

Paul's favourite cases seem to be anytime he gets to interrogate a pretty girl.  On more than one occasion Paul has put his private investigator's license on the line backing up one of Perry's convoluted schemes.  Paul Drake seems to have the respect of the police and the loyalty of his employees and I certainly would have tuned in for a spin-off series focused on the Paul Drake Detective Agency.  The imagination takes flight.  



Barbara Hale and William Hopper

Loyal and hard-working, Della Street and Paul Drake are the support Perry Mason needs to get his clients acquitted.  However, the brilliant attorney's mind races so that by the end of the episode, and for our benefit, there is usually some little bit of information that must be explained to the team before celebrations can begin.  Above we see our stalwarts in the only colour episode of the original series, The Case of the Twice Told Twist from 1966.  "My, how he does blather on" seems to be in back of Della's expression.  Paul has the confused puppy dog look of "I never get it when he talks like this, but he pays his bills on time"


Rick at the Classic Film and TV Cafe is hosting THE TV SIDEKICK BLOGATHON which runs from March 6 - 8.  Click HERE to spend time with our favourite folks from our favourite classic TV shows.  






27 comments:

  1. PERRY MASON is one of my all-time favorite shows and I love Raymond Burr as Perry. But the secret sauce in this classic series is Paul Drake. Perry may piece together many of the clues, but it's Paul who collects them. It's Paul that travels to Vegas or Mexico to track down a suspect. It's Paul who has to occasionally play rough with the bad guys. You did a great job paying tribute to Mr. Drake and the wonderful William Hopper that played him. I always wondered how he got his distinctive white hair. (I love Della, too--they're both terrific sidekicks...but it's so nice to Paul get special recognition!)

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    1. The room lights up when Paul enters. He's just that kind of guy. Perry is an amazing character, but like Holmes, he needs to be grounded by Della and Paul. Gardner recognized this when he created the team and we have certainly benefited in years of entertainment.

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    2. The TV series also had a lot of fun with Paul's roving eye for the ladies!

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  2. I haven't seen Perry Mason in years and my DVR is currently 83% full thanks to Mason because I've been taping episodes from Me-TV. I adored this show as a kid and can't wait to get back into the fold with these people. Fantastic and enjoyable read as always. I love your description of the color image you include. Brings back lots of memories. Great choice of sidekicks!!

    Aurora

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    1. Thanks.

      One of the coolest things about watching "Perry" is the number of classic character actors from movies and radio that appear on the program. When I was a kid I didn't know a lot of these people, and now it is a wonderful game and a treat to see them.

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  3. I've never been much of a TV mystery fan but reading this post makes me need to delve into Perry Mason and his band of cohorts. So William is the son that Hedda was referring to in Trumbo -- I'm sure a lot of people now have a definite impression of her after seeing the movie, not something that they might have had before. Even if he wasn't propelled into acting by personal drive, his natural charm really works. I had forgotten until I looked him up how much I enjoyed him in "The Bad Seed" and also in "The Deadly Mantis" -- I love those stalwart 1950s guys! Also those stalwart 1950s gals!

    Such a enjoyable post and a great tribute! Speaking of Perry Mason, I visited the Shell Museum in Sanibel Island, FL a little while ago and Raymond Burr was a big supporter. They have some Burr artifacts there on display, right next to his beloved mollusks! Really sweet!

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    1. William Hopper had an innate charm about him. I love his voice! He appears in two episodes of "Gunsmoke" from their first season that show his range. Worth checking out.

      I love Raymond Burr. Nice of the museum to give him that tribute. I saw him in a play years ago here in Toronto. It was a mystery called "Underground" and it co-starred his 70s sidekicks Don Galloway and Don Mitchell.

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  4. How lucky can a guy be to have two sidekicks. Certainly Hopper's claim to fame.

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    1. Yes, indeed. Classic TV immortality. You never know when that special role will come along.

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  5. How lucky can a guy be to have two sidekicks. Certainly Hopper's claim to fame.

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  6. Perry Mason really sets the bar for supporting cast in a mystery. Paul and Della somehow stop the formula from feeling formulaic.

    Season nine's "The Case of the Sausalito Sunrise" where Paul goes undercover as a truck driver is one of my favourite later episodes. He's really terrific in that one.

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    1. I agree about that episode. Most of them have a noirish feel to them, but "The Case of the Moth-Eaten Mink" and "The Case of the Sausalito Sunrise" really bring the noir to TV.

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  7. Such a great, informative article! I know Perry Mason best, actually, through the reunion movies, which I adore. So, I know a bit about Della, but didn't know that much about Paul. It would seem that Paul's son, played by Barbara's real life son William Katt in the TVMs, had the same taste for pretty ladies and gathering evidence!

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    1. Yes! When they created Paul Drake Jr. they didn't let the apple fall far from the tree.

      I remember getting the chills when the theme played for "The Return of Perry Mason" the first night it aired. We're lucky to have those TV movies to enjoy alongside the original series.

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  8. I was so excited to see your blog today! I absolutely love "Perry Mason" and Perry, Paul, and Della are impeccably portrayed on this classic TV show. Just recently I rewatched an episode with a writer who needed defending. At the end of this show an excerpt from her first book was read and then she showed them all the cover that was entitled something like "The Amorous Adventures of Paul Lake, Private Investigator." How awesome that was! From what I have read it sounds like Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale were very good friends. I think it is lovely hearing about friendships that form from or around working closely together. Thanks so much for this wonderful post!

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  9. Thanks a lot! Like you, I love "Perry Mason". A couple of years ago I did a post on the program which ended up being one of the longest articles I ever wrote for this blog. I just could not shut up when talking about the show.

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  10. I'm a big Paul Drake fan too. Rick mentioned the color of Drake's hair but I'm always drawn to the tight cut! What an amazing head of hair. Anyway...love this essay!

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    1. Paul was one spiffy looker, and I love his voice.

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  11. Hoorah to Gail Patrick for realizing what a stellar "Della" Barbara Hale would make! I watched all of the early Mason films and none of them had a Della Street as appealing ( nor as helpful to Perry ) as Barbara made hers. Thanks for a great read, as usual....

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    1. I don't know if it is science or luck when you put a cast together, especially one you hope the audience will want to spend time with week after week, but whatever it is, it sure worked on "Perry Mason".

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  12. Love this team. Raymond Burr as Perry was great, but I was always more interested in his sidekicks. Such great memories of a great show.

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    1. Perry Mason without his team is like a sundae with no syrup. (I've had an ice cream craving all day. Gotta do something about that.)

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    2. Great write up! I love Perry Mason's team. Della the perfect secretary and Paul Drake - the PI with the biggest Shoulders in LA. But what about the other guys? The guys who went O-200 against Perry, but still kept on swinging? Tragg and Burger. I loved them too. Will we get a write up on them?

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    3. "Will we get a write up on them?" Sometime before the year is out.

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  13. Loved watching the screentests, Pat. In fact, loved the whole post. :)

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  14. Loved watching the screentests, Pat. In fact, loved the whole post. :)

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    1. Thank you so much, Yvette.

      My daughter called it "the post you were born to write". She was teasing me because I'm such a fan of Perry Mason. She is as well. She likes to freeze-frame William Talman when Burger is particular perturbed.

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