The Perry Mason TV Show Book
The History of the Show

On to TV, and Lawyers in Love

By 1955, the television industry was firmly established and Gardner began getting some very tempting offers to turn his favorite lawyer loose on the small screen. Supposedly he nixed a million-dollar offer from one production house for the entire TV rights. No doubt the bad memory of the Perry Mason films was still indelibly etched in his mind, along with the less than satisfying radio experience. Gardner wanted total control of his character again. So he set up his own TV production company and named it Paisano Productions after his south-of-L.A. spread, Rancho del Paisano.

Walter Pidgeon, the actor who nearly was the voice of Perry Mason on the CBS radio show, got his chance on the TV show in "The Case of the Surplus Suitor." Courtesy of Capital Newspapers

Rejuvenating Perry Mason for TV allowed Gardner to weed out the soap opera elements that had crept into the radio plots. When CBS bought the series, the "pure" Perry Mason aspects--those of the investigative lawyer--went into the TV show. But the soap opera elements were not abandoned; they were turned into "The Edge of Night" and put on TV as a daytime soap opera. This highly popular program went on to run for more than twenty-five years.

Meanwhile, back at Paisano, it was taking more time than originally calculated to get a TV show together. Gardner turned to his old friend and agent Cornwell Jackson for help. It was Jackson who put Paisano Productions together, then appointed a beautiful former actress as the show's executive producer. The actress, known to film-goers of the thirties and forties as Gail Patrick, was now Gail Patrick Jackson, Cornwell Jackson's wife.

Gail Jackson, no stranger to show biz, was also no stranger to the legal profession. She had spent some time studying law at the University of Alabama before winning a beauty contest and heading for Hollywood. It was no small feat for a woman to take on an executive producer's job in the man's world of TV production. But Gail Jackson nevertheless took control of Paisano and got it moving. "Erle liked me," she said at the time. "I was Delta Street. I was the organized type." Proof of this can be found in the fact that Gardner originally wanted Gail Jackson herself to play Della, a part she declined.

One of the first tasks Jackson tackled was auditioning the dozens of actors who showed up to test for the part of the world's most famous lawyer. Jackson also faced the formidable job of getting scripts written and approved. Once again, Gardner was of little help in this department. He was no better at writing for TV than he had been for radio. However, he insisted on approving every script, and did so throughout the show's history. Jackson lassoed a stable of writers and they started churning out scripts based on Gardner's novels. It went very slowly. Characterwise, the writers had very little to go on; Gardner never really went into great depth describing what his book characters looked like or what they were all about. In addition, it seemed as if a year or two in law school was mandatory to produce workable, accurate Perry Mason scripts. "They had eighteen scripts [at one point], and [they] were on the verge of eating all of them," an insider reported at the time.

Raymond Burr accepting one of his Emmys. Courtesy of the Bettman Archive

The situation stabilized when another lawyer appeared on the scene. Ben Brady was hired on as the day-to-day producer under Gail Jackson. It was he who set down the rules on how Perry Mason should be. Said he: "Perry thinks, he investigates, he studies. He is not a smart aleck. He acts with his eye. We want to see him thinking."

Eventually it all began to jell. Raymond Burr was selected for the lead role, with William Hopper tabbed to play Paul Drake, Barbara Hale as Della, William Talman as Hamilton Burger, and Ray Collins as Lieutenant Tragg. Once the production, actors, and scripts were right, Gardner instructed his troops to let the networks know Perry Mason was finally "available."

NBC nibbled first. But it was CBS that was hooked. The network not only offered a contract worth $500,000 to Gardner and company, but also half of all the profits, plus creative control. That was all Erle needed. Paisano Productions was on its way. The show was finally set for launch in September 1957.

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The Perry Mason TV Show Book Copyright 1987 by Brian Kelleher and Diana Merrill. All rights reserved. Presented here by permission of the copyright holder. Commercial use prohibited. Web page Copyright 1998 D. M. Brockman. Last edited 04 Nov 2004.