Dinner With Perry and Della

January 31st, 2017 by Max Allan Collins

Barbara Hale is gone.

She was 94, so it’s not exactly a tragedy, but it still hurts. Few actresses have done more with so underwritten a part as Ms. Hale did with Della Street on Perry Mason. She brought humor and intelligence to the role, and her genuine connection with both Raymond Burr and William Hopper brought a sense of reality to a fairly ridiculous if enormously entertaining concept – the defense attorney who (almost) never loses a case.

I was lucky enough to meet Barbara Hale and spend some time with her. Here’s what happened.

Back in the late ‘80s, I got the chance to collaborate on a project with Raymond Burr. Now, coincidentally, I had for some time been collecting the old Mason shows on VHS, and reading the Erle Stanley Gardner novels as crime-fiction comfort food, even collecting Mason first editions. Barb was a fan of the TV show, too, so it was a mutual enthusiasm, which is always nice for husband and wife.

Getting the chance to meet Burr, and work with him, was a dream come true. I made three trips to Denver, where the Mason TV-movies were being shot, and spent a lot of time with Raymond (he preferred that to “Ray”). He was an interesting guy, warm and generous and puckishly funny. The high-end hotel where I was staying had a residential wing where Burr lived during production of the films. I went to his suite, knocked on the door, and he answered, wearing a railroad engineer’s cap and coveralls – he had an elaborate model railroad set-up that threaded through the various rooms of the apartment. And the trains were a rollin’!

He and I got along fine. The first trip we didn’t work – we just got to know each other, and he regaled me with tales of his long and fascinating, much-travelled life. I heard about the Ballets Russes, where his career had begun, and of such world figures as Madame Chiang Kai-shek, as well as his experiences touring with the USO in Vietnam. I told him we should just skip the idea of doing a thriller and put together his autobiography. But he was adamant that he would never write that book, after spending hours convincing me it would be important and fascinating. His bisexuality, which he fairly openly referred to in our conversations – his frankness was part of my acceptance as a friend – was something he never wished to discuss in public.

On the other two Denver trips, we worked – plotting an espionage thriller in the morning and over lunch, with me working several hours in the mid-afternoon in my hotel room to put our thoughts on paper, joining him again an hour or two before supper. Every meal I had on these trips was with Raymond.

One meal was particularly memorable. Barbara Hale was arriving to shoot the next Mason TV movie, which was about to begin production. Raymond asked me if I would like to meet her and go out with them for dinner at the best steakhouse in Denver. I would have gone to the worst diner in Paducah for a chance to do that. I called Barb and said, “Guess who I’m going out to dinner with tonight? Perry and Della!” She said she hated me, but sounded sweet saying so.

Barbara Hale would have been 66 at the time – two years younger than I am now – but I remember being almost startled by how lovely and young she seemed to me, and, frankly, sexy. She came across older on television in the Mason movies. There was a genuine chemistry between us, and the fact that I could make Della Street smile so easily was just about as good as it gets.

We definitely hit it off, and she was impressed that I knew about her career right down to her appearing in small roles in various RKO movies of the ‘40s, like The Great Gildersleeve entries. In the limo on the way to the steakhouse, sitting between her and Raymond like their overgrown child, I told Barbara how much I loved her in Jolson Sings Again. Raymond, with his ever-present twinkle, said, “Oh, I agree. She was wonderful getting down on her knees in blackface.” She giggled and batted his arm and he giggled back. These two loved each other. Was I really here?

At the steakhouse – where actor Tom Bosley (filming the Father Dowling mysteries in Denver) stopped by to pay his respects – we had a long dinner during which I questioned Raymond and Barbara incessantly about the original Mason show. I had brought along the hardcover first edition of a Mason novel that had Barbara and Raymond pictured together on the back cover – I got this signed by both of them. They had a great time reminiscing about the original show and I only wish I’d secretly recorded all of it.

The TV movie they were shooting, The Case of the Musical Murder, had Debbie Reynolds as a guest star, but she wasn’t around while I was. I did get to go on set several times and watch scenes being shot, and also had several nice conversations with William R. Moses, who had just begun playing Mason’s young assistant on the show. For the first nine movies, Barbara Hale’s son, William Katt, had played Paul Drake, Jr., and Moses was essentially replacing him. I didn’t know why and was tactful enough not to ask.

But I did, at our steakhouse dinner, tell Barbara in front of Raymond what a great job I thought her son had done in that role. She beamed at that. The next day, when Raymond and I picked her up at her suite for lunch, she took me aside and gave me a hug, and whispered, “Thank you for what you said about my son.” Katt, it turned out, had left the Mason movies for a (short-lived) series of his own, and apparently Raymond was not happy about it.

Still, the affection between the two performers was obvious. Raymond told me over lunch one day that he planned to end the series of movies with one in which Mason and Della finally got married. The films began to include genuine expressions of love between the characters, even a kiss or two (the original series had been much more coy about what was an obvious long ongoing relationship between boss and secretary).

Unfortunately the project with Raymond (and I do apologize for speaking of him so familiarly) did not go anywhere. The New York editor who had put us together wanted a mystery, and even suggested a courtroom-oriented one, with the world-hopping thriller we proposed not doing the trick. The editor clearly wanted something like Perry Mason or Ironside. Raymond Burr, with all his international interests and travels, wanted something wider-ranging and in the espionage field. I later learned that two other writers were put together with Raymond Burr and in each case the actor’s strong personality guided them to espionage, and each time the New York editor bridled.

Of course Perry and Della never got married. Raymond Burr’s death in 1993 pre-empted that.

While I regret I never shared the Burr byline on a book or even series of books, I still relish the memory of the collaboration.

After all, it’s not everybody who gets to spend an evening with Perry and Della.

* * *

Arrow is giving some info about Wild Dog’s origin. Still haven’t watched an episode.

Here’s a fun look at Mike Hammer in the movies and on TV (though the writer, who quotes me occasionally, does not seem to have read Mickey Spillane on Screen by Jim Traylor and me).

Here’s an article about the Quarry books and a discussion about what order to read them in, with several options.

Finally, here’s an essay that thinks Cinemax ought to give Quarry a second season. My bank account agrees!


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16 Responses to “Dinner With Perry and Della”

  1. Tim Field says:

    I’m creating a cartoon vigilante named Lucky Dog based on your life. Thanks for the story – I’m disappointed the collaborative novel never came to fruition.

  2. Stephen Mertz says:

    After reading the Raymond Burr/Barbara Hale piece, I’ll definitely be watching a Perry Mason episode tonight. Beautiful memories in a fine piece of writing. Love the bit about the toy trains and Perry wearing an engineer hat….

  3. What a wonderful set of recollections! Thank you for sharing them.

  4. Always look forward to your stories, that was a good one… we should do a movie.

  5. Mark Lambert says:

    Al, what a great story! I’ve been watching, and re-watching, the Perry Mason series my whole life (still do)! That show was what convinced me to become a lawyer! How cool that you got to know Raymond and Barbara! One Iowa connection with Ms. Hale: when Iowa-based Amana Refrigeration (as it was known in those days) started marketing the nation’s first countertop microwave oven, the “Radarange,” Barbara Hale was Amana’s celebrity spokesperson on TV commercials and in print ads (late 60s to early 70s).

  6. Carla Dunlap says:

    I’m from Muscatine and as a child ‘Perry Mason’ was my favorite program. I still watch the program now. I lived a few doors down from Barbara. I recall the Elks Chanters.

  7. Linda Donaldson Grim says:

    My first crush on an actor was Raymond Burr when he was playing Perry Mason. My family never missed an episode. Because of him, I started reading Erle Stanley Gardner. When I saw Rear Window for the first time, I was blown away by how creepy he could play as the man that killed his wife and lived across the garden area from Jimmy Stewart. As an adult I was pleased to see him in Ironside. I am so glad that you got to meet him and Barbara Hale. What an experience.

  8. Mike Doran says:

    Today’s Amazing Coincidence!:

    As many of you know, MeTV runs Perry Mason twice daily, 8am and 10:30pm (Central).

    This morning’s Mason (PM/am?) was The Case Of The Bullied Bowler from the next-to-last season – one of the ones that Raymond Burr missed.
    And who was his Designated Counsel?
    Michael Connors!
    MeTV runs their series in original broadcast order, so this one was going to be on today anyway.
    Come to think of it, just last week Diagnosis: Murder had the episode in which Mike Connors came back as Mannix, just a day or so after his sad event.

    The Grim Reaper has one weird sense of humor …

  9. Art Scott says:

    This was a delightful reminiscence! Though lord knows I’ve seen lots of Perry Mason episodes, when I think of Raymond Burr, his radio roles come to mind first — as Inspector Hellman, Jack Webb’s nemesis in Pat Novak for Hire, and then as Ed Backstrand, Chief of Detectives and Joe Friday’s boss in the very first episodes of Dragnet.

  10. Raymond Cuthbert says:

    Thanks for sharing that wonderful reminiscence!

    I watched PERRY MASON as a child and Raymond Burr was probably my first favourite actor who wasn’t a cowboy. My family watched the show and my mother was particularly enamoured with the character. She also read all the Erle Stanley Gardner books (Mason and other mysteries, but not everything Gardner wrote – I doubt she read his SF story). Now I get to enjoy the series on DVD whenever I take a hankering to do so.

  11. Tom Summitt says:

    What a great story! They were awesome to watch. Enjoyed both those shows so much. I think you need to spill all of your Hollywood stories Mr. Collins! I bet you and wife Barb have a lot to share. I always enjoy reading what you have to say. Here, and in the book world.

    Thanks so much for sharing….Sorry to hear of Ms. Hales death. Sad.


  12. Mike Doran says:

    About “Perry & Della”:

    It’s pretty much common knowledge that ‘Della Street’ was a composite of the three Walter sisters, who were the founding members of the army of secretaries who transcribed Erle Stanley Gardner’s dictabelts.
    The eldest of the sisters, Jean Walter Bethell, ultimately became Gardner’s second wife – Gardner had waited until his first wife had died (after years of separation).
    Back in those days, people were discreet about things – not at all like the present, of course …

    I see by Mystery File that Mike Nevins is coming back from open-heart surgery.
    If you haven’t already sent him a “You are not alone” message, now would seem to be the time …

  13. Mike Dennis says:

    Great story, Max! Perry and Della. It doesn’t get any better. The memory of a lifetime.

  14. Max Allan Collins says:

    Thanks for these lovely comments.

    It really was one of the most memorable nights of my life.

  15. craig says:

    I am now confused about where Quarry in the Middle fits into the Quarry chronology. I thought it happened right before he got out of the game and got married.

    1. The First Quarry
    2. Quarry’s Choice
    3. Quarry in the Black
    4. Quarry
    4. Quarry’s List
    5. Quarry’s Deal
    6. Quarry’s Cut
    7. Quarry’s Ex
    8. The Wrong Quarry
    9. Quarry in the Middle
    10. Quarry’s Vote
    11. The Last Quarry

  16. Max Allan Collins says:

    Craig, I don’t remember. I’d have to sit down with the books and figure it out. Both are ’80s novels. Seems to me that the way THE WRONG QUARRY went, it was a wake-up call for Quarry to get a new hobby. Of course, some things went south in MIDDLE, too, and I know he was thinking he’d been at it long enough.