In 1923, Erle Stanley Gardner, writing under the pen name of Charles M. Green, created a short novel entitled The Shrieking Skeleton for which he was paid a mere $160 by a pulp magazine entitled The Black Mask. It was the first creative literary effort by a workaholic young lawyer and would start him on a path which would ultimately lead him to create one of the most famous murder mystery characters in the world.
While Gardner ran a successful law practice in Ventura, California, for decades, he spent every free hour he could spare crafting stories which included imaginative adventures for a variety of characters including Speed Dash, a human fly detective and an assortment of others. Why would a successful lawyer with a busy practice spend his time penning detective novels at all?
A man of precise habits and self-discipline, Gardner seemed driven to satisfy a personal, creative need. He set an annual goal for himself to write at least 1 million words a year. Over the next few years, Gardner wrote short stories, novelettes and nonfiction works at a furious pace. It was not until early 1933, however, that he penned his first Perry Mason novel, The Case of the Velvet Claw.
The Perry Mason book series became wildly popular and was soon translated from English into dozens of languages and have sold more than three hundred million books worldwide. With the huge success of the Perry Mason books, it was not surprising that Hollywood would be eager to jump on the bandwagon.
Before Perry Mason debuted on the 'small screen' in the long running television series, Erle Stanley Gardner's crafty defense lawyer had appeared in some mostly ignored Hollywood films. In 1935, Warner Brothers, which had bought the rights to the Mason books, released The Case of the Howling Dog starring Warren William in the role of Perry Mason. Warner Brothers later recast the role of Perry with actor Ricardo Cortez in 1936's The Case of the Black Cat. Despite Cortez' Latin lover good looks, the film was a complete failure. One year later a third Mason film, The Case of the Stuttering Bishop, premiered starring a forgettable Donald Woods. The fourth Mason movie appeared in 1937, The Case of the Dangerous Dowager, followed by a bizarre attempt to place Gardner's characters in a western setting in 1940's Granny Get Your Gun. Thankfully, the character of Perry Mason did not even appear in this film.
A radio series was also developed and made its debut in 1943 following the adventures of detective/lawyer Perry Mason. Several radio actors portrayed Perry with the most notable being John Larkin. A comic book series was also produced and ran from 1950 until 1952.
The fabulously popular Perry Mason television series debuted in September of 1957 and ran until 1966. The television series cast included : Raymond Burr (Perry Mason, lawyer/detective); Barbara Hale (Della Street, Mason's Secretary); William Hopper (Paul Drake, proprietor of the Paul Drake Detective Agency); William Talman (Hamilton Burger, Prosecuting Attorney); and Ray Collins (Police Lt. Arthur Tragg).
Cool jazz music accompanied the opening of each episode of the television show with the staccato-like notes puncturing the air like a knife. Composer Fred Steiner surely created one of television's most recognizable musical themes for Perry Mason. The first episode which aired on CBS was The Case of the Restless Redhead, and it set the stage for the years of dramas which would follow.
Raymond Burr's portrayal of Perry Mason was simply superb. He WAS Perry Mason. In weekly courtroom dramas viewers saw a murder committed early in the show and the police usually arresting the wrong person. Perry Mason is engaged to defend the accused and Paul Drake is called in to help discover the clues which will bring the guilty party to justice. Of course, Perry always solves the case and often gets the murderer to break down and confess on the witness stand in a highly charged courtroom scene.
The television shows featured large casts and were quite expensive to produce in comparison to other television shows of the era. Nearly 2,000 actors made appearances on Perry Mason over the years. Many well known stars made guest appearances on the TV series including Bette Davis, James Coburn, Ellen Burstyn, Angie Dickenson, Burt Reynolds, Zazu Pitts and Robert Redford. The last episode of the series, No. 271 in May of 1966 was The Case of the Final Fadeout. It was filled with inside jokes and some pretty interesting casting, including DJ legend Dick Clark, and an uncredited Erle Stanley Gardner himself as the trial judge.