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Critical Mass: 'Perry Mason': The case of the iconic shyster

by Philip Martin | August 9, 2020 at 3:07 a.m.
Matthew Rhys portrays Perry Mason in HBO’s new version of “Perry Mason.”

Four years ago, when HBO first announced it was rebooting "Perry Mason," you might have been interested; initial reports were that Nic Pizzolatto, late of the University of Arkansas' Creative Writing program and "True Detective," was writing the series that would star a pre-"Doctor Doolittle" Robert Downey Jr.

But invariably, these projects mutate. Less than a year later, Pizzolatto had left to concentrate on the third season of "True Detective." Downey ran into scheduling issues so he stepped away, to be replaced by Matthew Rhys, the Welsh actor best known for his role as Philip Jennings, the KGB agent living undercover in 1980s Falls Church, Va., in "The Americans."

While Rhys is a fine actor — he was good in "The Americans" and even better as the cynical magazine writer in 2019's "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" — he's not a movie star like Downey, and Pizzolatto's departure at least left open the possibility that the series would be somewhat less weird and atmospheric than "True Detective." But then maybe the world didn't need a new Perry Mason after all.

Because Perry Mason looms really large in the American collective consciousness anyway.

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Maybe not quite John Wayne-large, but every courtroom drama derives from the work of Erle Stanley Gardner, who was, at the time of his death in 1970, the best-selling American author of all time.

And Perry Mason, his most famous character, has, for better or for worse, done more to shape the way the public thinks about lawyers and the American system of trial by jury than John Grisham or Atticus Finch.


My Aunt Mary Jo was a Perry Mason fan.

Not just the TV show, though she watched that religiously; she had the novels. "Erle Stanley Gardner" was imprinted on the spines of dozens of paperbacks she kept in her glass-fronted bookcases (barrister cases, I later learned they were called) in her little house near the beach in Wilmington, N.C.

I remember the interior of that house as cool and dark and smelling, not unpleasantly, of her pug Sputnik. I remember her crystal ashtrays heaped with soft gray cinders and a strange book about Edgar Cayce that I sometimes would look at.

But I never read the Perry Mason novels and, as I grew, I came to think of them in that faintly dismissive way we have of remembering the enthusiasms of old maid aunts. Gardner was a best-selling writer of serial detective fiction, that was all I thought I needed to know.

Evelyn Waugh once called Gardner "the best American writer," and lest his interviewer think he was kidding, added, "Do I really mean that? By all means."

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Waugh and Gardner had a brief exchange of letters in which Waugh claimed he was one of Gardner's "keenest admirers," though the purpose of the letter was to correct Gardner, who in one of his books had referred to a piece of sofa-like furniture as a "davenport." Waugh suggested that Gardner in fact meant "chesterfield."

Gardner stuck up for himself, arguing that in America, "davenport" could indeed be a synonym for "sofa," but allowed that he was thrilled that the author of "The Loved One" read his books.

Later, when American scholar Alfred Borrello wrote about these letters for the "Evelyn Waugh Newsletter," he harbored some residual doubt about Waugh's sincerity. With Waugh and Gardner having passed on, he approached Waugh's widow, Laura, who told him that her husband had devoured every book Gardner had written. (Gardner wrote more than 80 novels that featured Perry Mason, nine that featured prosecutor Doug Selby, another 30 under the pen name A.A. Fair about the Cool and Lam detective agency, and a few others under his own name and various pseudonyms.)

"Is it ... out of character that Waugh should be attracted to and take delight in the work of another author who is, though some may doubt that he is anything else, a superb craftsman?" Borrello wrote. "One only need to read Perry Mason's adventures in any of the novels in which he appears to realize the author knows what he's about."


But one doesn't need to read the novels — or to have seen the TV show — to know what Perry Mason is about.

The series, which ran from 1957 to 1966 and starred Raymond Burr (who went on to portray the attorney in 26 more made-for-TV Perry Mason movies, which continued to churn out for a couple of years after Burr's death in 1993, with Hal Holbrook or Paul Sorvino taking the lead as an "old friend" of Mason's defending some unjustly accused murder suspect) we recognize the conventions and the tropes that originated with the character.

The witness breaking down on the stand under shrewd, unorthodox and relentless questioning by the cool baritone undeterred by the prosecutor's ineffective cries of "Objection!"? That's Perry Mason.

So why, apart from practical show business reasons where success formulas are repeated until they lose their effectiveness, would anyone want to remake Perry Mason? The TV show was especially rigid, with Mason investigating the crime in the first half of the show, along the way sharing scenes with four or five disparate characters, each of whom became a potential suspect (for we knew Mason's clients, the seemingly obvious culprits, were innocent because Mason had deigned to handle their defense). In these scenes, each of the characters would say or do something to give the audience reason to believe in their guilt.

In the second half, we'd move on to the courtroom, where each of the characters would take their turn on the stand, generally testifying against Mason's client. But just when things looked bleakest for the innocent, Mason would perform some legal jiu-jitsu and the real murderer would snap on the stand and be led away by the bemused bailiff, who, after all, has seen this happen time and time again.

And astonished District Attorney Hamilton Burger will shoot a look of grudging admiration at his frenemy Mason, who, as Burger admits in 1935's "The Case of the Caretaker's Cat," may be a "better detective than lawyer," but always arrives at the right result.

The key to the TV series is to see it as a kind of game show, the audience can place bets on which of the witnesses will turn out to be the real killer. Burr is a substantial presence, heavy and long-faced with a natural gravitas. As Della Street, Mason's (un-acted upon) love interest and secretary, Barbara Hale personifies the steadfast second. (Though, as Hale remembered in 1986, it really wasn't that big a role. "I had six days, six lines and six wardrobe changes a show," she told Bergen, N.J.'s The Record in 1986. "When I changed clothes, it signified another day had gone by in the script.")

The form might seem as codified as kabuki, with any possible inventiveness pushed out to the margins. While some of the early Mason movies, the ones made from Gardner's novels before Burr claimed the character as his own, played around with what would become the Perry Mason canon (one early film was a comedy, with Mason and Street actually married to each other), the TV series and the subsequent made-for-TV films never deviated.

Mason never lost a case during the run of the series (in the novels, two losses early in his career are alluded to) and Mason and Street's relationship was fond but business-like. (Though there is support for the idea that Perry was carrying a torch for Della, in a 1935 novel Gardner has him propose to her, and she turns him down.)

Never mind that; as anyone who has ever sat through a criminal trial can tell you, real criminal trials are generally pretty boring. Attorneys rarely ask questions that they don't know the answers to, and that the witnesses haven't anticipated. "Perry Mason" was pure fantasy. But it was as reliable as Della Street. And audiences, especially network television audiences in the 1950s and '60s, seemed to like reliable. They came back for reliable. They probably would have kept coming back for a lot more seasons had CBS not made a tactical error in 1965.

It seems network chief Bill Paley wanted desperately to knock NBC's "Bonanza" off of its top rating spot on Sunday nights. So in 1965, the network moved "Perry Mason" from its Thursday night spot, where it had led the ratings for years, to go head-to-head against "Bonanza" on Sundays. They also finally allowed the producers to shoot the one episode in color.

While it did better than any CBS show had previously against the Cartwright clan, "Perry Mason" didn't win the time slot. And Paley canceled the series. (It was revived in 1973-74 with Monte Markham in the lead role, ran for 15 episodes and finished 71st out of 80 shows in the ratings. In 1985, Burr and Hale started appearing in the telefilms that came out, on average, three times a year.)


Somewhere in this piece we ought to address the enigma that was Raymond Burr — an accomplished actor, but he had some real problems. He invented wives, and killed them off. He invented a son, and killed him off.

He lied about just about everything.

But he also gave a lot of his money away and was in a committed relationship for more than 30 years. He was in "Rear Window," he was an iconic film noir heavy, he was proud of his role in "Godzilla, King of the Monsters!" People are strange and hungry creatures.

Tatiana Maslany plays Sister Alice McKeegan, a stand-in for Aimee Semple McPherson in HBO’s “Perry Mason.”
Tatiana Maslany plays Sister Alice McKeegan, a stand-in for Aimee Semple McPherson in HBO’s “Perry Mason.”


In the novels, which began in 1933, Perry Mason was a fait accompli; he sprung full-grown from Gardner's head. His reputation was established, the police knew and feared him. White shoe lawyers might have looked down on him as a "shyster," but he was respected by the prosecutors he tormented. He did not defend guilty parties. His tactics were unorthodox, but usually technically legal. (Gardner's Mason would, especially early on, occasionally enter houses without permission and commit other misdemeanors.) He was a brilliant attorney passionate about justice and defending the innocent.

But what's ingenious about this HBO series, which wraps up its eight-episode first season (it has been renewed for a second season) tonight, is that most of it takes place before Mason becomes a lawyer, before he became the archetype.

Through the first six episodes, Mason isn't a lawyer at all, just a poverty row private investigator working for slipping-down attorney Elias Birchard "E.B." Jonathan (John Lithgow) who has taken on the defense of Emily Dodson (Gayle Rankin), accused of kidnapping and murdering her own baby.

E.B. was initially retained to defend Emily's husband, grocer Matthew Dodson (Nate Corddry), who was initially suspected in the boy's kidnapping and death, by capitalist bulldog Herman Baggerly (Robert Patrick), who at first seems connected to Matthew merely by their mutual membership in an evangelical church modeled on the Angelus Temple of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, a Pentecostal mega-church founded by Aimee Semple McPherson, one of the prototypes of the modern televangelist.

Shari Belafonte and Raymond Burr appear in the 1989 TV movie “Perry Mason: The Case of the All-Star Assassin.”
Shari Belafonte and Raymond Burr appear in the 1989 TV movie “Perry Mason: The Case of the All-Star Assassin.”

This church, called the Radiant Assembly of God and led by Sister Alice McKeegan (Tatiana Maslany in the series, is largely financed by Baggerly.

When Matthew turns on his wife, Emily becomes the main suspect. While other members of the church denounce her, Sister Alice insists on her innocence, and the church funds her defense.

Rhys' Mason — exhausted and with a perpetual five o'clock shadow that demands he one day be cast as Richard Nixon — is a shell-shocked veteran of the Great War who was mustered out on a blue ticket, probably because he helped ease some of his dying comrades out of this world.

He lives alone on a failing dairy farm he has inherited and has an ex-wife (Gretchen Mol) and young son he inadequately supports. He's conducting a half-hearted affair with Lupe (Veronica Falcon), a pilot (the third-place air speed champion of the world) who leases the land for her airstrip from him and also (with Prohibition still in effect for another year or so) runs a speakeasy.

He runs down leads with Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham in yet another appealing seedy period role), a better pragmatist than Mason and his equal as an investigator. Della Street (Juliet Rylance) starts out as E.B.'s Girl Friday and becomes Mason's colleague, the most respectable of this louche crew.

Best of all, the show is gorgeously shot (especially the interiors, all blue shadows and dark walnut) and utilizes a lot of Los Angeles locations (the TV series and subsequent movies, though set in L.A., was famously shot mainly in Denver) and the workings of the fictional Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles criminal justice system will feel familiar to anyone who knows the works of Raymond Chandler or James Ellroy .

Pete Strickland (left, Shea Whigham) and Perry Mason (Matthew Rhys) confer in HBO’s “Perry Mason.”
Pete Strickland (left, Shea Whigham) and Perry Mason (Matthew Rhys) confer in HBO’s “Perry Mason.”

There's plenty of Easter eggs for old-school Perry Mason fans to either enjoy or scoff at — Paul Drake, Mason's faithful investigator in the canon, appears here as a Black police officer (Chris Chalk) frustrated with the his inability to do any real police work. Hamilton Burger (Justin Kirk) appears as a closeted gay assistant district attorney who dates Della as a beard and helps Mason negotiate the bar exam because he senses that his boss (Stephen Root) may be politically vulnerable. (In the '30s, one didn't need a law degree to become a lawyer. Ask Huey Long.)

There's a moral complexity and astringent desperation in these characters, a hard-boiled naturalism that feels earned. It's intelligent revisionism that understands Bruce Wayne is always more interesting than Batman.

This is not your Aunt Mary Jo's Perry Mason.



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