Just about the last thing on producer Dean Hargrove's mind is even thinking of trying to replace the late Raymond Burr as TV's "Perry Mason."
The final original "Perry Mason" episode starring Burr, who died in September, airs on NBC on Monday. And Hargrove, sitting on the couch of his office at Universal Studios, says:
"At the moment, there are no specific plans in terms of continuing the franchise. Certainly, the first thing is that no one's going to try to replace Raymond Burr. No one's going to recast Perry Mason with someone else. As far as we're concerned, that's unthinkable. We're not going to do that. I think it would be many years before anyone would attempt to do something like that--to recast the part and start it again."
At the moment, Hargrove, a TV veteran whose credits also include "Columbo" and "Matlock," is, with his frequent producing partner, Fred Silverman, also launching CBS' new Friday night "Diagnosis Murder" series, which resumes next week starring Dick Van Dyke as a physician with a penchant for sleuthing.
But the death of Burr, one of the most successful and respected TV stars ever, was a genuine loss for viewers. And Hargrove speaks vividly of the actor's final efforts in the role that made him a household name:
"Raymond had been struggling with cancer for two years and had most recently had a most serious operation. Raymond always operated on the premise that he was going to live forever, which I think carried him for a great deal of time through a lot of illnesses and maladies which he struggled with over the years.
"He was a very forceful personality, and he decided he was going to do 'Perry Masons' until people stopped watching them. We had an order for 11 more 'Perry Masons' after the last one. The last time I saw Raymond Burr, we met and discussed not only how we were going to shoot the remaining five on the initial order, but where we were going to shoot the six after that. And that was always Raymond's attitude--that he was just going to go straight ahead and keep working.
"And what happened was, when he got to (the location of his final episode), he didn't feel as well as he had hoped he would feel when he was recuperating from the surgery. And he began to suffer a real diminution of energy, to the extent that it was a struggle for him to complete the show. When he was on the set, he would not have any casual discussions with anyone so he could save all his energy for his performance.
"If people had not seen this particular (Monday) show after Raymond's passing, I don't think they would be aware of any difference. Of course, now people are going to be looking with that in mind. And I suspect if they look closely, they will see some of the signs. He has certainly lost some weight in this, and his energy level isn't quite as strong as it was in some of the other shows. But he's very good in the show, as he always was, and very forceful."
Viewers of the two-hour film, which revolves around a mysterious death on the set of a TV soap opera, will probably agree with Hargrove's assessment. Although Burr shows some signs of his ordeal, he is the same commanding, forceful and professional presence he has always been, right to the end.
The loose ends of TV's "Perry Mason" still remain to be tied up. Those contemplating a possible revival might recall a previous attempt to bring back Burr's original series of the 1950s and '60s--a short-lived CBS attempt in 1973, "The New Perry Mason," starring Monte Markham. No way, said viewers.
But, as Hargrove notes, "The character is not going to die because the estate of Erle Stanley Gardner (who created "Perry Mason") wants to retain rights to the character. " 'Perry Mason' existed long before Raymond Burr came around, but he made it his own."
Hargrove says that with Burr's death, the current show is, for all practical purposes, finished: "Yes, that's correct."
But on Dec. 17, there will be another NBC special--without Burr--titled "A Perry Mason Mystery: The Case of the Wicked Wives," starring Paul Sorvino as a visiting attorney, some well-known models including Kim Alexis, actor Eric Braeden and several "Mason" regulars such as Barbara Hale.
"We use the 'Perry Mason' format and storytelling," says Hargrove. "In that show, Perry Mason is in Washington on business, and a case brings the character that Sorvino plays to town to represent a client of his. We don't attempt to replace Raymond with this character.
"This show was actually in the works before Raymond passed away. After Raymond completed the (Monday) episode, we had a series of production dates which he then began to postpone. There was a problem in terms of meeting our delivery dates with NBC because of his illness, so we had a conversation with NBC to fill one of these production dates by doing a show with a guest attorney. There was a precedent for this. They had done this back in the old series, several times.
"If that (Dec. 17) show is successful, NBC has the right to do another one with Paul Sorvino under the 'Perry Mason Mystery' banner with that particular format. And if the show is successful, we might do other shows with Sorvino as a guest attorney. He might go on to have his own franchise, which wouldn't be 'Perry Mason' but perhaps inherit the mantle of the way the show is produced in terms of the storytelling.
"Or it's also possible that we might have some other stars appear as different attorneys under the aegis of 'The Perry Mason Mystery.' "
Characters like "Perry Mason" aren't easy to come by, but Hargrove, with his traditional storytelling, has also become associated with some of TV's most traditional stars. "Columbo," of course--created by Richard Levinson and William Link--was an exception, in a way, with Peter Falk creating a character like no other. And Hargrove co-produced the series for several years after writing the second pilot, the well-remembered "Ransom for a Dead Man," starring Lee Grant.
Of his no-frills, traditional approach--including "Matlock" with Andy Griffith, "Jake and the Fatman" with William Conrad, "McCloud" with Dennis Weaver and "Father Dowling Mysteries" with Tom Bosley, Hargrove concedes his series attract older viewers and that his work is old-fashioned in a way.
"Well, I think it is old-fashioned," he says. "It's very difficult to take this genre and put what programmers would call a new spin on the elements. People expect certain things of them. You are dealing in an arena that is plotted and crafted.
"Virtual reality is fine, but at some point, somebody has to tell a story."
Of Van Dyke's "Diagnosis Murder," which CBS has extended from eight to at least 13 episodes, Hargrove says:
"All the shows I've been associated with over (recent) years, we've always started with a performer. 'Matlock' was designed for Andy Griffith. I wrote the pilot. Dick Van Dyke has a considerable amount of warmth, which made us think of a doctor, which would be an interesting venue to be an armchair sleuth. Doctors are sleuths of a sort.
"The so-called reality shows have taken up a lot of space, and there's less opportunity for hour dramas. It's shortsighted for the networks to put on these shows. They're cheaper (but) they get a slightly lower number (rating). The networks tend to lose audiences when they do that. I think it's a very serious mistake."