“I wonder if you could spare me a little of your time?”
Erle Stanley Gardner wrote crime fiction, and while many of his 100 or so works are unknown to most of us, he created a character who has become as identified with criminal lawyers as any other in fiction. It was in these crime novels that Perry Mason first faced a courtroom. He developed a style where he would investigate these terrible crimes his clients were on trial for. He would find the real killer, and in what has become a Hollywood cliché, reveal his findings in a crucial moment during the trial While we may not remember the novels, we all remember the man in the persona of Raymond Burr. Burr had a commanding presence on our screens and enjoyed a well-deserved 11-year run as the clever lawyer. What makes this run so amazing is that the show followed pretty much the same pattern the entire time. We always know what’s going to happen, but we wait eagerly for that gotcha moment when Perry faces the witness on the stand. We know when he’s got the guy squarely in his sights, and we can’t sit still waiting for him to pull the trigger. OK, so maybe that’s a little over the top, but so was Perry Mason. From the moment you heard that distinctive theme, the stage was set. To say that Perry Mason defined the lawyer show for decades would be an understatement. Folks like Matlock and shows like The Practice are strikingly similar to Perry Mason.
Perry Mason officially ended in May of 1966, but that wasn’t going to be the end. Twenty years later the surviving cast members reunited for Perry Mason Returns. It was Perry and Della back together again. Both Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale returned to their roles. William Hopper had died in 1970, so William Katt joined the reunion as Paul Drake, Jr. Katt might not have really been Drake’s son; he was Hale’s son. When Katt left the films he was replaced by William R. Moses as Ken Malansky. Ken was a young law student helped by Perry once when he was framed in law school for a rival’s murder. He ends up being both a legal assistant and investigator for Perry in the reunion films. Ken’s girlfriend is Amy, played by Baywatch’s Alexandra Hastings. Amy was a rich girl who had too much time on her hands. It led to her involving herself in Ken’s investigations. The films also often starred James McEachin as Lt. Brock, the cop on many of the cases. The team would continue to do 30 television movies from 1985-1995. CBS has now begun to package these reunion films in collections like this. You get six films on three discs. The discs appear in a plastic case, and the cases are held by a cardboard slipcase.
In this collection you’ll find the following movies:
The Case Of The Poisoned Pen:
Perry and Ken answer an urgent call from a man staying at a local hotel. What they find is a dead man. Little do they know but that four months later it will all come back on them. Ken and Della attend a mystery writers’ conference where Ken publically calls out the conference’s lifetime achievement winner for his account of a previous Mason case. Bradley Thompson (Warner), the writer ends up dead from a poisoned drink. And there is no shortage of suspects.
There’s Ken and Della, who argued publically with the man. Laverne and Shirley’s Cindy Williams plays an ex-lover who feels like he ripped her off after she provided the research that made his book. The rest of the room is filled with jealous writers who had ill feelings for the dead man. He appeared to have a habit of taking ideas and not giving credit. The man’s ex-wife gets arrested, and it’s up to Perry Mason to get to the truth.
This film features no less than three Hill Street Blues actors. The suspect is played by Barbara Babcock. The prosecuting attorney is Hill Street‘s Warren Briscoe, Andy Romano. The late Kiel Martin, who played the booze-hound troubled J.D on Hill Street plays a similarly afflicted character in this film. The victim is David Warner.
Raymond Burr appears to have a more limited role than usual in this film. His screen time is much less than ordinary, and there isn’t near as much of the court material here. Most of the episode features Ken on a cross-country trail of a bartender who has vital information.
The film is directed by Christian I. Nyby II, who has directed many episodes of Hill Street Blues as well as many classic television episodes. His father was a director on the original Mason series of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Unfortunately, even with an exceptional cast and director, this remains a rather confused and weaker outing for the series of movies.
The Case Of The Desperate Deception:
Captain Dave Berman (Ryan) goes to Paris on a tip that there is a Nazi war criminal there to be exposed. He watches his witness get killed by a deliberate car attack and is convinced of the identity of the Nazi. But when the suspected war criminal turns up dead, it’s Berman who is on trial for murder. Perry happens to be visiting with the suspect’s widowed mother who was an old classmate of Perry’s, and he ends up taking on the case. The case ends up in military court, and that means Perry has to brush up on his military code of justice. And with a possible Nazi war criminal as a victim, the suspect pool could be in the millions.
The episode/film fails to take advantage of the fish-out-of-water elements here. Not only is Perry in France, but he’s not accustomed to military court. The script soon does away with any hesitations, and the procedural returns quickly to the ordinary Mason case. Likely only the establishing shots were really taken in Paris.
Guest stars and suspects includes Caribbean pirate Ian McShane as a man accused of embezzling from the dead man. There’s a greedy wife and a mysterious business partner.
While the script fails in the unique characteristics for Perry, this remains a better film. There’s plenty of international intrigue and more than the usual twists and turns to be found. There’s also quite a bit more action than most of these films.
The Case Of The Silenced Singer:
Terri Knight (Williams) is a hard-edged singing star who appears to take great joy in abusing the people around her. So when she ends up dead, it’s another large pool of suspects that wanted to see her gone. The suspects include her husband Jack played by WKRP‘s Tim Reid, an ex-husband played by Matlock’s Kene Holliday, who feels he’s the one who made her what she was, the record label executive played by L.A. Law’s Alan Rachins, who wants to keep her from jumping to another label, and the backup singers who resent that Terri ended up being the one in the spotlight. Alice Ghostley guest stars as a witness with the important clue to solving the murder.
Reid’s character is also an old law student of Mason, which is how the famous lawyer ends up taking the case. It’s another case of a frame job, and Perry just so happens to be in the area giving a talk. Perry also participates more actively in the investigation than normal. Ken seems to take a bit of a back seat. He’s off trying to find another missing piece of the puzzle. Raymond Burr is usually the one asking the questions that lead to the flashbacks.
This one plays out quite differently from the usual cases. As each person relates their relationship to Terri, the story is told through flashbacks. This means that the deceased guest star gets far more screen time than you’d expect. There’s also a lot of music to this film as these flashbacks almost always include performances from the dead star. I feel like we really got to know the victim so much better this way. It’s a shame these episodes/films did not incorporate this style more often.
The Case Of The Defiant Daughter:
Perry and Ken are in Vegas to watch a fight. They’re not the only ones looking for a fight. David Benson (Posey) wants to confront the man he blames for his brother’s suicide. That man happens to be Richard Stuart, played by Robert Culp. Stuart is in town for his annual high-stakes poker game, which is really a cover for high-stakes blackmail he conducts every year. He’s a fix-it lawyer who knows a lot of important people’s secrets. When David confronts him with a gun he can’t get the nerve to pull the trigger, but someone else uses the public display to get the blackmailer off his back for good. Perry is recruited by David’s young daughter in a True Grit kind of plea for justice that Perry can’t refuse.
The suspects include Emergency’s Kevin Tighe, who was a politician hiding a scandal. There’s Robert Vaughn as Jay Corelli, whose car company covered up a faulty brakes issue. Jere Burns is an actor with an image problem. Finally Alien Nation’s extraterrestrial mother Michele Scarabelli is a woman who might be part of the frame that lands Benson in hot water. It’ll be Ken’s job to try to find her and crack her story.
The episode/film is a bit unique with the addition of the young daughter played by Jenny Lewis. The girl’s a bit endearing as she both gets in the way and makes a pretty good emotional appeal to Perry. She ends up being a handful to the staff, but of course, she ends up breaking the case by disobeying Perry.
The Case Of The Ruthless Reporter:
Perry Mason is scheduled to be a guest on the channel 8 newscast about one of his cases. His appearance gets bumped, and the anchor gets bumped off. It’s another case of an abusive victim that pretty much everyone wanted dead. He had just sent a memo to the station owner that said some pretty nasty things about his coworkers and demanding that the station clean house, starting with his co-anchor Gillian Pope (Keane). She makes the mistake of having an argument in front of the crew, and Perry has to come to the rescue when she’s arrested for the murder.
Of course, there are a lot of good suspects. Law & Order’s Jerry Orbach plays the station owner who might have been tired of being squeezed by the demands of his abusive star anchor. Hill Street Blues’ own Sid The Snitch is another suspect as Gary Slate, the weatherman who really wants to be a stand-up comic. Miami Vice’s Philip Michael Thomas is the sportscaster who is tired of being mocked by the anchor.
This is a very typical example of these reunion films. Each appears to take us behind the scenes of some industry or cultural set and provide us with an inside-baseball look at the operations. Of course, since Perry has to be educated about how the business runs, the script has an excuse to play on a ton of exposition for that particular industry. Most of the time, however, the climax boils down to the simple motives. A popular one in these shows is blackmail, and it rears its head here again.
This episode is more like the traditional Mason episodes. There’s less action drama and more time spent in the courtroom.
The Case Of The Maligned Mobster:
Ken’s buddy is a former football great and now plans to open a series of fitness centers. Ken’s not too happy to discover that the business partner is Johnny Sorrento (Nader), a known mobster. At the launch party Johnny has a pretty physical fight with his wife. She storms out, and Johnny follows. She ends up dead, and Johnny looks good for the murder.
Johnny’s business lawyer is Frank Halloran, played by Lou Grant’s Mason Adams. Frank is a very old friend of Perry’s and convinces Perry to reluctantly take the case. The case causes a welcome bit of tension within the regulars, as Ken’s not happy with defending the mobster. It’s the old “everyone deserves a good defense” argument, and Ken works his best anyway. It’s just a welcome change to see these guys actually disagree for once.
There’s the huge pool of guest stars and suspects. Singer Paul Anka plays Nick Angel, a Godfather figure who thinks he should have a piece of Johnny’s fitness center action. Dave Barrett (Portnow) is a disgruntled associate. Of course, there are a lot of those in both Johnny’s real family and his mob family.
This one ends up with more twists and turns than most Mason adventures. Mason even gets caught in the crossfire during a drive-by and gets shot. Fortunately, he can carry on just fine. The episode is loaded with red herrings and an unusual number of dead ends. It ends up being the best of this particular collection.
So, there you have it. Six more Mason reunion films. They continued even after Raymond Burr died but couldn’t carry on the interest without Perry Mason himself. There are a lot of fans who charged that the movies were beating a dead horse a little too much. The truth is they were great arenas for nice cast combinations and obviously generated enough interest to retain their spot on the air. With that kind of record, “I move that all charges be dropped immediately.”