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Perry Mason is a fictional character, a defense attorney who was the main character in works of detective fiction written by Erle Stanley Gardner. Perry Mason was featured in more than 80 novels and short stories, most of which had a plot involving his client's murder trial. Typically, Mason was able to establish his client's innocence by implicating another character, who then confessed. Gardner, who was one of the best-selling authors of all time, had "135 million copies of his books in print in America alone in the year of his death" in 1970. The character of Perry Mason was portrayed each weekday on a long-running radio series, followed by well-known depictions on film and television, including "television's most successful and longest-running lawyer series" Perry Mason from 1957 to 1966 starring Raymond Burr; another series, The New Perry Mason starring Monte Markham, from 1973 to 1974; and 26 made-for-TV movies starring Burr filmed from 1985 to Burr's death in 1993.
The name "Perry Mason" dates to creator Gardner's childhood. As a child, Gardner was a reader of the magazine Youth's Companion. The magazine (best known for producing the original Pledge of Allegiance in 1891) was published in Boston, Massachusetts, by the Perry Mason Company (renamed "Perry Mason & Co." after the founder died). When Gardner created his fictional attorney, he borrowed the name of the company which published his favorite childhood magazine. Gardner provided more information about Mason's character in the earlier novels; knowledge of his character is largely taken for granted in the later works, the television series and movies. In the first novel, Mason describes himself:
You'll find that I'm a lawyer who has specialized in trial work, and in a lot of criminal work...I'm a specialist on getting people out of trouble. They come to me when they're in all sorts of trouble, and I work them out...If you look me up through some family lawyer or some corporation lawyer, he'll probably tell you that I'm a shyster. If you look me up through some chap in the District Attorney's office, he'll tell you that I'm a dangerous antagonist but he doesn't know very much about me.—Erle Stanley Gardner, The Case of the Velvet Claws (1933)
Gardner depicts Mason as a lawyer who fights hard on behalf of his clients and who enjoys unusual, difficult or nearly-hopeless cases. He frequently accepts clients on a whim based on his curiosity about their problem, for a minimal retainer, and finances the investigation of their cases himself if necessary. In The Case of the Caretaker's Cat (1935), his principal antagonist, District Attorney Hamilton Burger, says: "You're a better detective than you are a lawyer. When you turn your mind to the solution of a crime, you ferret out the truth." And in The Case of the Moth-Eaten Mink (1952), a judge who has just witnessed one of the lawyer's unusual tactics says: "Mr. Mason...from time to time you seem to find yourself in predicaments from which you extricate yourself by unusual methods which invariably turn out to be legally sound. The Court feels you are fully capable of looking after your own as well as your clients' interests."
Another frequent antagonist, Lieutenant Arthur Tragg of the homicide squad, has a discussion with Mason about his approach to the law. Mason is recovering from having been poisoned, and Tragg is investigating. He says:
"How does it feel to be the victim for once?...You've been sticking up for criminals and now you can see the other side of the picture."
"Not 'sticking up for criminals,'" (Mason) protested indignantly. "I have never stuck up for any criminal. I have merely asked for the orderly administration of an impartial justice...Due legal process is my own safeguard against being convicted unjustly. To my mind, that's government. That's law and order."—Erle Stanley Gardner, The Case of the Drowsy Mosquito (1943)
Other than what is learned of his character from the novels themselves, very little is known about Perry Mason. His family, personal life, background, and education are not depicted. In the first season of the television series, Mason helps an old friend from World War II; he mentions that he was in a company that was at Normandy on D-Day. Mason has a professional relationship with Paul Drake, although after The Case of the Velvet Claws fees are seldom discussed. Della Street is Mason's only (unacknowledged) romantic interest. It is known that he lives in an apartment because he is occasionally awakened from sleep to go to his office; he does not entertain anyone at home. His tastes in food are known because many scenes take place in restaurants, and that he is an excellent driver is shown by his participation in the occasional car chase. Other than those sketchy facts, there is so little physical description of him that the reader is not even sure what he looks like. The 1930s films were not closely based on the character of Perry Mason as revealed in the books, and contain plot and character developments which are not accepted as canonical in the remainder of the books and adaptations. For instance, in one film, Mason marries his longtime secretary Della Street, while Paul Drake turns into comic sidekick Spudsy Drake.
Erle Stanley Gardner "had spent more than twenty years practicing law in California, and the knowledge he gained was put to good use in the Perry Mason stories, which hinge on points of law, forensic medicine or science as clever as a watch mechanism ... and also the total lack of characterization". While the Mason novels were largely a form of pulp fiction of the sort that began Gardner's writing career, they are unusual in that the whodunnit mysteries usually involved two solutions: one in which the authorities believed (wherein Mason's client was guilty) and an alternative explanation (wherein Mason's client was innocent). The second half of each novel is devoted to a courtroom scene, during which Mason arrives at the alternative explanation and proves it to the satisfaction of the court. "It is perfectly true that our author works to formula; in one sense, the plot never varies. Having said this, one must add that the variety of persons and circumstances and the ingenuity in contriving the details that Gardner dreamed up in his dozens of cases are astonishing and entrancing."
A hallmark of the stories is that Perry Mason (with the assistance of his devoted secretary Della Street and his faithful private investigator Paul Drake), once embarked on a case, will juggle the evidence using unusual (even bizarre) tactics to mislead the police – but (except for the very earliest novels) always in an ethical fashion:
"It's my contention, Della, that an attorney doesn't have to sit back and wait until a witness gets on the stand and then test his recollection simply by asking him questions. If facts can be shuffled in such a way that it will confuse a witness who isn't absolutely certain of his story, and if the attorney doesn't suppress, conceal, or distort any of the actual evidence, I claim the attorney is within his rights."—Erle Stanley Gardner, The Case of the Long-Legged Models (1958)
The influence of the television series has given the general public the impression that Mason is highly ethical. In the earliest novels, however, Mason was not above skulduggery to win a case. In The Case of the Counterfeit Eye (1935) he breaks the law several times, including manufacturing false evidence (glass eyes). Mason manipulates evidence and witnesses, resulting in the acquittal of the murderer in The Case of the Howling Dog (1934). The Case of the Curious Bride (1934) is
"...a good Perry Mason except for one great flaw, which the author would scarcely have been guilty of later on: he tampers with the evidence, by having a friend move into an apartment and testify to the state of the doorbells. ... One is left with the uncomfortable idea that maybe the murder did not take place as Mason reconstructs it."—Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor, A Catalogue of Crime
In the later novels, the only crime which he can be seen to commit might be illegal entry, when he and Paul Drake are searching for evidence. And even then, he would expect to put up a strong and effective defense leading to an acquittal. Hamilton Burger is constantly under the impression that Mason has done something illegal, but is never able to prove it. Gardner prefaced many of his later novels with tributes to coroners and forensic pathologists whose work was instrumental to solving cases. Gardner inserts his ideas about the importance of proper autopsies into many of his Mason novels. In The Case of the Fugitive Nurse, for instance, close scrutiny of dental records in the identification of burned bodies is a key point. In that same story, the possible use of additives to track illegal resale of medical narcotics is examined.
The six Perry Mason movies from 1934–1937, are available on DVD as a single set "made-on-demand" release from the Warner Brothers Archive Collection. The 1940 Warner Brothers movie Granny Get Your Gun is not part of this DVD set.
Perry Mason was adapted for radio as a 15-minute daily crime serial. It had little in common with the usual portrayal of Mason, so much so that Gardner withdrew his support for a TV version of the daytime serial in favor of the Emmy Award-winning courtroom drama. The general theme of the radio serial was continued, with a different title and characters, as Edge of Night. In 2008 Colonial Radio Theatre began a series of adaptations of Gardner's novels, scripted by M. J. Elliott.
The Perry Mason character has appeared in comic books and a short-lived (October 16, 1950 – June 21, 1952) comic strip. He was also the inspiration for The Whole Truth (1986) by James Cummins, a book-length collection of sestinas. The daytime soap opera The Edge of Night was originally meant to be a daytime version of Perry Mason, until Gardner had a falling-out with CBS network officials. He was later mollified enough to allow TV production of the most famous incarnation of the character. The character is also an inspiration for the TV show Adaalat on Sony TV India. Bengali author Narayan Sanyal created P. K. Basu, a detective character inspired by Mason.
The best-known incarnation of Perry Mason came in the form of a CBS TV series simply titled Perry Mason which ran from 1957 to 1966, with Raymond Burr in the title role. Also starring were Barbara Hale as Della Street, William Hopper as Paul Drake, William Talman as Hamilton Burger, and Ray Collins as Arthur Tragg. The familiar theme song was Park Avenue Beat by Fred Steiner. Several years after the show's cancellation, a new series, The New Perry Mason, aired in 1973 which featured Monte Markham in the title role. It was unsuccessful, and its reruns are not seen in syndication. Reruns of the TV series starring Burr, distributed by CBS Television Distribution, continue to be shown in syndication.
CBS has posted full 60-minute episodes on its website from the first and second seasons for viewing.
American television producers Dean Hargrove and Fred Silverman resurrected the Perry Mason character in a series of TV movies for NBC beginning in 1985 (they would create the Matlock series a year later). Hargrove and Silverman brought back the two surviving stars of the TV series – Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale (reprising their roles as Mason and Della Street respectively) – for the first telefilm, Perry Mason Returns; Mason, now an appellate court judge, resigns his position to successfully defend his secretary Della on murder charges. William Katt (Hale's son) was cast as Paul Drake, Jr. (William Hopper, who played private investigator Paul Drake in the original television series, had died years earlier; Hopper's photograph appears on Paul Drake Jr's desk). In the later TV movies, Mason used the services of attorney Ken Malansky (played by William R. Moses).
Because of lower production costs, many of the later TV Movies were filmed and set in Denver, Colorado rather than Mason's traditional locale of Los Angeles, California. Although set in Colorado, a courtroom wall shown at the end of the opening credits bears a Seal of Los Angeles County, California.
The Perry Mason series of TV movies continued until Burr's death from kidney cancer in 1993. The episode titled The Case of the Killer Kiss was Burr's final portrayal of Mason. The episode aired after his death, and was dedicated to Burr's memory. Thereafter, the title of the series was changed to A Perry Mason Mystery and starred either Paul Sorvino or Hal Holbrook as lawyers and friends of Mason. Hale continued her role as Street, while Mason was ostensibly out of town. William R. Moses continued as Ken Malansky.
Recurring characters in the Perry Mason stories include:
After Raymond Burr's death four movies were produced in a series titled A Perry Mason Mystery, in which Barbara Hale continued to star as Della Street and William R. Moses continued as Ken Malansky. Hale only had a cameo in the final film:
The Butthole Surfers' song "Perry", included on the album Rembrandt Pussyhorse, borrows the title tune from the TV show. The Blues Brothers recorded a cover version of the song, called "Perry Mason Theme", which was included in Made in America. It was later used in the film Blues Brothers 2000 (1998), where it was played during a scene where Elwood Blues (Dan Aykroyd) and Mack (John Goodman) leave two members of the Russian mob unconscious in an alley.
William Hanna and Joseph Barbera stretched Gardner's character by creating "Perry Masonry" in the episode of The Flintstones in which the Rubbles adopt Bamm-Bamm. Masonry's opposing counsel was named "Bronto Burger".
During a case in the TV law drama Boston Legal, a method of proving reasonable doubt was credited to Perry Mason with much success.
The video game series, Ace Attorney is centered around plots much like Perry Mason, with the protagonists being fictional defense attorneys who live in Los Angeles (in the English localization). They act in much the same way as Mason, fighting for their client's innocence in murder trials, ordinarily by finding the real killer and getting them to confess in court. The creator of the series, Shu Takumi, has stated that the Perry Mason novels were among the inspirations for the series. In Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney, a "MASON system" plays a key part in the final case of the game, being used by Phoenix Wright. This was confirmed by Takumi to be a shout-out to the influence behind the games.
In Vincent Clark's novel Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, the protagonist (a world-weary criminal lawyer) has a drunken outburst of anger at Perry Mason: "It's all fine for Mister Perry Mason to go off and find the real culprit, in book after book after book. The real culprit! The real culprit! In ninety nine percent of the cases I have taken, my client was guilty as hell, and I knew it, and what's more the jury knew it, too. It was my job to get the client off anyway, on one technicality or another. That's my job, that's what a lawyer is for, for God's sake. Damn Sir Perry Galahad Mason!"
The Ozzy Osbourne album Ozzmosis contains a track titled "Perry Mason". The song's opening melody is the same as that of the theme music to the television series, and the lyrics carry a story similar to that of an episode of the series and even make mention of the titular character in the song's chorus: "Who can we get on the case? We need Perry Mason. Someone to put you in place. Calling Perry Mason, again".