The Perry Mason TV Show Book
Barbara Hale as Della Street

Nice Girls Finish First
Go West, Della. Barbara Hale had co-star billing with Robert Mitchum in the film West of the Pecos (1945). It was on this movie set that she met her husband, cowboy actor, Bill Williams. Courtesy of Jerry Ohlinger's Movie Material Store

Webmaster's Note: Leah points out that this photo is from The Lone Hand (1953).

In all her years in show business, Barbara Hale is something of an anomaly. It is just impossible to find one bad thing that has ever been said or written about her. From all reports, she is a friendly, hardworking, unpretentious, highly professional actress. "Unlike those working actress mothers who pretend to be possessed of the abilities of our pioneer foremothers," TV Guide once dripped, "Barbara Hale admits she doesn't have time to be as much of a mother as she would like to be." Of course, this was back in 1962 when it was still chic to be a "housewife." And she took her job seriously. Once, when one of her small children was asked what his mother did for a living, the youngster answered: "She's a secretary."

Sometimes, Barbara probably wished she was a secretary. She had one of the most difficult jobs on TV at the time. Although her presence was absolutely necessary for the success of the "Perry Mason" show, she had less on-screen time and dialogue than any of the other principals, except maybe the actors playing the police lieutenants.

"Barbara is a supporting actress in the finest and truest sense," said actor William Talman at the time. "She makes us all seem much better than we are."

The star agreed: "Barbara has an instinct for doing exactly the right thing when it is needed," said Raymond Burr. "She is a remarkably intuitive actress."

Executive producer Gail Jackson apparently saw these traits in Hale right away. When TV critics later compared Hale-as-Della to Jackson herself (hardworking, efficient, and beautiful), Jackson wisely didn't deny the connection. She let it be known that the actress got the part (which Jackson had turned down) because, unlike the other auditioners, Hale seemed to understand how to stay in the background, yet be visible enough to help move the plot. This meant a lot of "face registering" (alarm, apprehension, concern, sympathy, frustration, anger, joy), all without saying a word. It meant a lot of paper-shuffling, note-taking, and telephone-answering. It meant being a role player, a job some actresses would turn up their noses at, and other principals, like directors, were hard-pressed to understand.

William Katt, Barbara Hale's son in real life, played the hero who could flywell, just barelyin the TV show "The Greatest American Hero." Courtesy of Capital Newspapers

Once while shooting a scene in which Della had no lines, one rookie director barked at Hale: "Just stand there and be quiet and act as though you are thinking." Raymond Burr immediately challenged the director. "She just can't be there," he told the cub. "She's got to react to what Bill [Hopper] and I are saying." The director got the message. Later, while watching the results of the day's filming, he would tell a reporter: "I never realized how important she is."

But for Hale, the hardest part probably was the "Just standing there," the endless "hanging around." She rose so early some mornings, she would put on a bathrobe and drive to the studio in her pajamas. A typical work week for her might include six days of filming, and six costume changes--all for six lines of dialogue. "[Sometimes] I could hardly drag myself to the parking lot to drive home each day," she would say, "I was so exhausted from standing around."


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.