Part I—Watching the series as a child
My mother watched the classic 1950s and 1960s Perry Mason TV series at noon every weekday when I was a child during the early to mid 1970s. The show was in syndication on Channel 12, our local independent television station here in Portland. She would make lunch for us, and we’d sit at the dining room table with Perry Mason running on the TV in the living room of our small ranch home. Los Angeles Attorney-at-Law Perry Mason, fictional scion of justice from the late 1950s and early 1960s, brilliantly played by Raymond Burr, an implacable figure to young Dale, relentless in defending his clients.
I saw the murder suspect trapped not only by circumstance but the LAPD and especially Lieutenant Tragg of Homicide. Ray Collins was 68 when he took the role in 1957, craggy and time-worn in his baggy suit, wearing a fedora and bearing a knowing, “gotcha” smile. I was unaware he was a veteran radio actor with hundreds of credits to his name, nine hundred stage appearances, as well as having been a vaudeville performer in his youth.
All I saw was the gleeful old detective who had cornered another innocent victim. The same was true for tireless District Attorney Hamilton Burger, played to an intense tee by William Tallman. My childhood memory had both men collaring the victimized suspect as a duo, when of course Tragg worked with uniformed police and often Sergeant Brice, his faithful assistant. Burger waited in court for Mason and his client, ready to spring the full force of the law on the accused, having lined up witnesses that would spring his legal trap.
As a kid I did not follow the structure well—instead, I focused on the innocent suspect and Perry Mason rising to their defense despite the police having them dead to rights, with the case all but a foregone conclusion. I did not know what Noir was back then, but I picked up on the Noir vibe while watching the show. The black and white gave the show a dire tone to my inexperienced eyes.
So much about the show I did not understand, like the suspects and their woes, the nasty behavior of the murder victims, and the other suspects.
I did not follow Perry’s arguments or the byplay between him and Burger, what I saw was a defending attorney using the force of his arguments and personality to get the actual murderer to confess and thus save his client from the gallows.
Despite seeing it listed on television in the 1980s and 1990s, I stayed away from Perry Mason as a young adult. It wasn’t until 2022 that my wife and I decided to watch it, encouraged by a friend who was a huge fan.
What I discovered was a show nothing like I remembered.
Part II—Returning to Perry Mason as an adult