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Retro : Barbara Hale’s Success Is No Mystery

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“I have been very, very fortunate,” Barbara Hale says. “V ery blessed, honey.”

Not only is Hale known worldwide as Perry Mason’s devoted secretary Della Street, but, thanks to cable and video, fans can see the numerous films she made before her Della days. They include the classics “The Window” and Frank Sinatra’s first film, “Higher and Higher.”

“I sang with him,” Hale says of Ol’ Blue Eyes. “Isn’t that fun? I never had been so scared in my life, but he’s been a very dear friend ever since. And then there is ‘The Jackpot’ with Jimmy Stewart. I don’t know if they (networks and cable channels) have played ‘Lion in the Streets’ with James Cagney. My golly!”

Hale wasn’t looking to do a TV series when producer Gail Patrick Jackson approached her to play Della in 1957. She didn’t want to be working full-time because her three children--Jodie, Billy (actor William Katt) and Nita--by late actor-husband Bill Williams, were very young. But Jackson insisted she read the script.

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“I called back after reading it and said: ‘Good luck, dear.’ ” Hale didn’t think an actor could sustain Perry’s courtroom monologues on a weekly basis. Then Jackson told Hale that Perry Mason’s creator, Erle Stanley Gardner, had chosen Raymond Burr to play the ace attorney.

“I said, ‘Wait a minute. I think you have a man that can do that on a weekly basis. He’s so professional and so fine and looks great for the part. Well, I think he’s just a marvelous choice.’ She said, ‘Now, Barbara. You must do it.’ ”

Hale talked it over with her husband, and with a promise from Jackson that CBS was only going to shoot 18 episodes, Hale signed on as Della. The series ended up lasting nine seasons. “The first year, honey, we did 36 shows,” she says. “We were the first one-hour continuing series. Did you know that?”

Hale first met Burr, who died in September of cancer, 50 years ago. “Honey, both Ray and I were fussing about this,” she says, laughing. “He said it was the 12th and I said it was the 13th of February, 1943. I always said to Raymond, ‘I was three and you were four.’ He said, ‘Just a minute. I don’t think so. I was three and you were 4.”

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Burr, she says, “had the greatest sense of humor of any person I ever met. What a lovely man.”

For the past eight years, Burr and Hale starred in a series of enormously popular “Perry Mason” movies for NBC. In August, Burr shot his last “Mason,” “The Case of the Killer Kiss,” which aired three weeks ago.

Burr may be gone, but “Perry Mason” continues. The latest in the series, A Perry Mason Mystery: The Case of the Wicked Wives, airs Friday on NBC. This time around, Paul Sorvino (“GoodFellas”) plays Frank Caruso, an attorney friend of Mason’s who defends a young widow accused of murdering her high-fashion photographer husband.

Hale says it was “bittersweet” doing the new movie because it was produced so soon after Burr’s death. “We were with our crew who have been with us for six years,” she says. “But believe me, Raymond’s presence was there, as it will always be.”

Bringing in a friend of Mason’s to solve a case is nothing new, Hale says. During the original series, Burr had surgery and missed four episodes. “We were on a deadline and we continued shooting,” she recalls. “We brought in Perry Mason’s friends who were attorneys. One was Bette Davis, one was Walter Pidgeon, one was Michael Rennie and one was Macdonald Carey. So consequently, this show with Paul is similar in that respect.”

And having Sorvino play Caruso had been planned long before Burr’s death. “The show had been planned to give Raymond more convalescent time. It was on the books.”

Hale doesn’t know if the “Perry Mason” mysteries will continue. She says a good deal will depend on the response of “our family. In other words, the viewing audience. Because let’s face it, we’ve been in their living rooms for so many years.”

Since Burr’s death, Hale has received numerous letters, especially from young fans. “It’s just astonishing. I’ve never seen so much sweet, if I may say bittersweet, mourning and kind letters. Lovely letters. What a wonderful thing for Raymond. If anybody had a hero, I did. And Raymond was the man.”

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“A Perry Mason Mystery: The Case of the Wicked Wives” airs Friday at 9 p.m. on NBC; repeats of “Perry Mason” air weekdays at 3:30 a.m. on KTTV, 9 a.m. on TBS, noon on XETV, 1 p.m. on KDOC, and Saturdays at 9 p.m on KDOC.


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