Paramount has been reliably meting out its nine-year Perry Mason series in half-season dollops, but this week’s release, Perry Mason: Season 6, Part 2 (1963), is out of the ordinary. Mason, a defence lawyer who never loses a case, loses a case. And he sits out four episodes in hospital while guest stars pinch-hit for him.
Canadian-born Raymond Burr, who had spent much of his career playing heavies and lawyers, scored the magic role in 1957. Each week, Mason would win a seemingly impossible case against a resentful prosecuting attorney (William Talman as Hamilton Burger), usually after the guilty party confessed his or her guilt from the back of the courtroom. If the plots grew formulaic, the show was a hit. Burr laughed all the way to the Fiji Islands, one of which he bought.
In 1963, when Burr had to miss those four episodes because of dental surgery, it wouldn’t have done to give his spot to a lesser light. The first week, Bette Davis – 13 years after All About Eve and two years after Pocketful of Miracles – starred as a fur-clad lawyer defending an irritating punk played by method actor Michael Parks. She even got her character’s name in the episode’s title ( The Case of Constant Doyle), a spot usually reserved for general alliteration ( The Case of the Surplus Suitor, The Case of the Lawful Lazarus).
It was no great shakes as an episode. Davis looked awkward, speaking her dialogue as if reading the script for the first time. No matter; her character was in Mason’s shoes, so she couldn’t lose.
The next three episodes lent Burr’s spotlight to Michael Rennie ( The Day the Earth Stood Still), Hugh O’Brian (Wyatt Earp on the 1950s series of that name) and Walter Pidgeon ( Forbidden Planet) respectively, while Mason – who, like Burr, was said to be in hospital – appeared in brief scenes filmed in a hospital room.
As for the case Mason lost not long after Burr returned – The Case of the Witless Witness – it was just a plot device. The judge disagreed on the value of a precedent (“Mr. Mason, I’m sorry your first experience in my court was a losing one”), and Mason’s amazing secretary-cum-dancing-partner, Della Street, offered consolation. “Chalk it up to the wrong judge on the wrong day, Perry.” Then the judge was charged with murder and asked Mason to defend him. Ah, kismet.
Davis moved on to play a double role in the horror film Dead Ringer, O’Brian made the comedy Come Fly With Me, Pidgeon took a guest spot on Dr. Kildare and Rennie returned to his role as Harry Lime on the TV series The Third Man. With time out for the series Ironside and a decade of incidentals, Burr played Mason in TV movies right up until his death in 1993. He never lost a case.