My mother, a lifelong secretary, once joked that an entire generation of secretarial school graduates had been deceived by Della Street. She was referring to the witty and resourceful confidential secretary to super lawyer Perry Mason, who appeared in a best-selling string of mystery novels dating back to 1933. Perry Mason made it to television, in an hour-long black-and-white series that ran from 1957 to 1966, starring Raymond Burr as Mason and Barbara Hale as Della Street. Watching the ever-present reruns today, I can see what my mother meant: Barbara Hale’s Della never does anything as mundane as type a legal brief. Instead, she is involved in an endless stream of detective work: sweet-talking the landlord to gain entrance to a suspect’s apartment, concealing damaging evidence, hiding Mason’s client from the police in an out-of-the-way motel, while the ever-vigilant head of L.A. Homicide, Lt. Tragg (Ray Collins) closes in. When she wasn’t doing legwork, Della was escorted by Perry to lots of swanky cocktail parties, gallery openings and elegant L.A. nightspots, always sporting a spiffy wardrobe. What Katie Gibbs wannabe wouldn’t dream of a job like this?
I discovered Perry Mason as a child in the early 1970s. The reruns were on Portland’s local independent station, KTPV (Channel 12) every weekday at noon. They were a fixture of my summer vacations. I loved their black-and-white view of 1950s and’60s, L.A, loved the dense plots and the purple performances of the guest stars. But what I loved most was Barbara Hale’s Della.
It’s easy enough to figure out why we love some of the great screen and TV performers: the Bogarts and Davises and Jack Bennys. But it’s often more interesting and even more personal to explore our affection for Hollywood’s lesser players, to try to figure out why they click with us. I loved Hale’s Della for her direct yet unobtrusive manner, the wry, husky-voiced delivery of her lines, and the looks of barely concealed contempt that she shot in Lt. Tragg’s direction. It wasn’t until later that I learned that Hale had also had a movie career, mostly in “B” pictures, long before Perry Mason came into her life.
In the summer of 1997, I conducted an interview with Hale on assignment for Irish America Magazine. The article never ran, but when Hale died this January at the age of ninety-four, I felt a passing sadness for the loss of those childhood years, planted in front of Perry Mason on our black-and-white TV screen. So I dug out the interview transcript and edited it for followkellow readers:
BK: I wondered if we could start with your early days in DeKalb, Illinois. That was not a terribly big town—about 30,000 people?
BH: Yes, it was quite small then. My dad had a farm there. And Mom sold groceries, odd and ends and vegetables. It was just a dear little farm. We moved to Rockford when I was about five.
BK: You weren’t too far from Wisconsin, were you?
BH: No. Twenty-nine miles to Beloit. When I was in my teens, that’s where the boys would go to pick up the beer. Because in Beloit, Wisconsin, you could buy it all weekend. I didn’t participate. Those were the bad fellas. (Laughs) The really bad ones had Coke with aspirin! You had to watch out for those boys—they were wild!
When I finished high school, I went to Chicago, to the Art Institute. I drew.
BK: You wanted to be a commercial artist?
BH: You got it. I should say I did. I had a lovely year, and after that, I started modeling.
BK: What led you into modeling?
BH: I was standing on a street corner with a friend. We were catching a bus, and we were standing on the island by the Drake Hotel, and up pulls a car with a man in it. He rolled down the window. Well, a man pulls up and rolls down his window to talk to girls….But there was a woman in the car, too. And they were holding out a card. And it said, “Come to the Models Bureau.” So I went to see them, and the lady said, “Did you have a red coat on?” I said yes, and she said, “You’re the one! I want you for a job.” They wanted a girl in a red coat with dark hair blowing in the wind. So I called my mom to see if I could stay in Chicago. And Connie and Al Seaman of the Chicago Models Bureau said, “You can stay with us, and take care of our baby!” So I stayed with them through the summer and the next school year. I did many Coca-Cola ads. Weddings. Hat modeling. War Bonds. Rosie the Riveter type of things.
BK: How did you get from Chicago to Hollywood?
BH: Al knew someone at RKO, Perry Lieber, in the publicity department. Al sent Perry my picture, and later a talent scout from RKO named Arthur Willi came through Chicago and asked to meet me at the Sherman Hotel. I said, “I’m not going to see a strange talent scout from Hollywood by myself!”
BK: He might have aspirin and Coke.
BH (Laughs): Right! So Connie Seaman went with me. They asked me to go out to RKO on a stock contract for a couple of months. Rick, my high school sweetheart, was going to be stationed in California—so I thought I would go. I took the Super Chief.
The first day I was in Hollywood, I was taken into the casting director, and the phone rang and I heard him say, “No! Well, I have someone here right now in my office. I’ll send her up to Stage Six right away.” And he got off the phone and said, “Take the kid to makeup and wardrobe and get her to Stage Six.” The movie was Gildersleeve’s Bad Day. I had one line. I was so green and I just said it when they pointed at me. The director, Gordie Douglas, said, “Honey, you were fine.” And I said, “Oh, I was nervous; it’s my first day.” And he said, “Good God, honey—when did you get here?” I said, “This morning.” So of course, the press loved that. The Cinderella girl and all of that.
BK: You did many little walk-ons before you got a part of any size, in Higher and Higher, a musical with Frank Sinatra. It was loosely based on the Rodgers and Hart stage musical. Did you do your own singing in that?
BH (Laughs): Yes! I was so scared of Frank. Of everybody. But he was a doll. He has a little temper, but so what? He was wonderful to me. The studio drove me out to meet the train that he came in on. I didn’t think we were ever going to get up to him, because these hundreds of kids were all over the station, screaming and hollering.
BK: Do you remember any early tips that your directors gave you?
BH: I remember that in a drama class a bunch of us studio kids were sitting around. And one of them asked the coach, “When you have to make love to somebody, what if you don’t like him at all?” And the coach said, “Say your lines and count the pores in his skin.” Count the pores, because that’s the look.
BK: One of your big films at RKO was a wonderful thriller, The Window.
BH: Correct. We shot it in a tenement in New York, up on 105th Street or something. And the story was the heat of the summer, as you recall. But we shot in the dead of winter. We all had long underwear under our short-sleeved dresses and had to hold our breath when we talked because of the steam coming out of our months. It was so cold. Arthur Kennedy was just marvellous. And Ruthie Roman. We had a grand time.
BK: The Window was a big hit for RKO.
BH: Yes, it was.
BK: There was a lot of turnover of studio bosses at RKO while you were there.
BH: Yeah. Mr. Kerner. Mr. Raskin. Mr. Hughes. But I went to Columbia just as the changeover from Raskin to Hughes was taking place. It was a lucky thing because I got to do Jolson Sings Again. Columbia bought my contract from RKO.
BK: Were you surprised by the success of Jolson Sings Again? It was the number-one box-office movie of 1950.
BH: Well, I was just in awe when I was doing that film. I went with Al Jolson to New York to do three weeks of stage appearances. In those days you would go out and appear onstage at the theaters and talk to the audience. Seven shows a day. Al had three gentlemen who followed him around. They took turns, because one man couldn’t keep up with him.
One thing I’ll never forget: going into the soundstage where Columbia’s symphony orchestra was recording the soundtrack for Jolson Sings Again. Just sitting there hearing that wonderful orchestra, with that glorious sound all around me. That was just one of the greatest things that ever happened to me.
BK: Did you worry about how a film was going to do at the box office, or did you leave that worrying to other people?
BH: In the beginning years, you were more concerned with how you did. And were you going to get another job? But as time went on, you learned other parts of the business—the financial import. And we’re aware of that more and more now.
BK: In 1950, you did a very charming comedy called The Jackpot, opposite James Stewart. The two of you play a couple that wins a radio giveaway contest, and you are quite wonderful together. Was that a commercial hit?
BH: I don’t recall. Jimmy had another picture—I think it was Harvey—that came out right away and took center stage and received much more press.
BK: Tell me a bit about Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Pictures. Did you have much contact with him?
BH: Not much. He was very demanding. He would walk through the studio at night and if the lights were on, and nobody was there, he would have a fit because there was wasted electricity.
BK: You did something very unusual at Columbia. The studio wanted to give you a big buildup after Jolson Sings Again, but you resisted it.
BH: I did. I wanted to stay where I was. I was married to an actor [Bill Williams, star of Deadline at Dawn, The Clay Pigeon, and TV’s Adventures of Kit Carson] and we were happy. I enjoyed working, but I didn’t want to get into overdrive. Kill or be killed. I was kept pretty busy.
BK: You were tested for the lead in Born Yesterday.
BH: I would love to see a copy of that! They put a blonde wig and sexy outfit on me, and it was the first time I realized that blondes do have more fun. It was really something—the whistles! I did the test with Aldo Ray. I had to put on a voice, like Judy Holliday’s. So many of us tested for it.
Around that time, I met Bill Holden. He said, “Barbara, you’ve got to get away from Columbia.” I said, “I can’t break my contract.” And he said, “Yes, you can. All you have to do is make an appointment to go up to Harry Cohn’s office and take off a shoe, rip your blouse, throw the shoe through the window and claim that he’s attacked you.” Bill said, “Come on over to Twentieth Century—Fox.” But I was very content. I wanted to work, but I didn’t want to get more attention than my husband was getting.
BK: Columbia cast you in the title role in Lorna Doone. It was supposed to be shot in England, but actually it was filmed at Yosemite, right?
BH: That’s correct. The hairpieces and wardrobe that I wore weighed seventy-five pounds. I had to dress at 4 a.m. and drive to the location in that wardrobe and have it on all day. I couldn’t understand why I felt so sick. When we finished the picture, I found out I was six weeks pregnant [with her son William Katt, best known for Carrie, Big Wednesday, and T.V.’s The Greatest American Hero].
BK: You had done quite a lot of T.V. work before Gail Patrick Jackson, who was producing Perry Mason, chose you to play Della Street.
BH: When this series came up, I said, “Oh, Gail, I just couldn’t. I don’t want to do a series because the children are so young.” We were all up at Lake Arrowhead on a vacation and she said, “You and Bill come and have lunch.” And we did, and she said, “Now, Barb, we’re just going to do eighteen episodes. So please do it, because I think you’re right for Raymond Burr.” I hadn’t known before that Raymond Burr would be involved in it. I had met him at RKO. I thought he was wonderful. You know that Raymond interviewed for the part of Paul Drake. And Erle Stanley Gardner saw it and said, “He’s not Paul Drake. He’s Perry Mason.” So I signed for eighteen episodes. And 300 shows later….
BK: Did the pace of a weekly series bother you at first?
BH: Not just at first. Always.
BK: Della Street had a job that lots of secretaries would have loved—doing all kinds of detective work.
BH: Secretaries used to write to me all the time. And fellows would write and said they were going to become lawyers, and did I want a job? I had no secretarial skills! None. I took a shorthand class at night school when I started, but I laughed so hard in the classes that I ended up just writing notes to Raymond. My assistant, Annie, just brought me a thing she found—a framed certificate from my junior high school that says that on the L.C. Smith typewriter, Barbara Hale typed for ten consecutive minutes at a speed of thirty-one words a minute! (Laughs) I can’t stand it.
BK: One of the special guests on Perry Mason was Bette Davis, who filled in for Raymond Burr one week. Were you nervous working with her?
BH: No. Just thrilled. We got along very well. I had dinner with her several times thereafter. She was a little upset because she was still having trouble with Gary Merrill, which we girl-talked about.
BK: Were you surprised when you won an Emmy for Perry Mason?
BH: My gosh, yes. We had a wonderful crew on the series. They were all getting me dressed to go to the Emmys that night and the last thing they yelled at me was, “Don’t trip!” Which, of course, I did.
BK: Your husband, Bill Williams, was a good actor. Did he ever feel frustrated that he did mostly Westerns?
BH (Laughs): He was a Brooklyn cowboy if ever there was one. He came from Brooklyn and when I met him, he still said, Green Pernt.” He loved his job, as long as he didn’t have to clean up after the horse. A beautiful man. We were married for forty-seven years. Still hard to talk about him.
BK: After Perry Mason ended, you did quite a bit of T.V. and a few film roles. In 1970, Ross Hunter hired you for Airport, which was an enormous commercial success.
BH: Bill and I knew Ross when we were at RKO. And Burt Lancaster was the star of Airport, and Bill had known him from years earlier, when they were both with the circus!
BK: Any special anecdotes about the filming of Airport?
BH: I was so nervous about an upcoming scene with Burt and Dean Martin. We were staying in one of those round Holiday Inns, in Minneapolis. So I was walking around and around in the hallway. There was a door open. I went by several times, and I heard this voice say, “Miss Hale! Miss Hale? Miss Hale, would you come in here, please?” So I went to the door and it was Helen Hayes! I said, “Miss Hayes! How are you?” She said, “Come in and have a cup of tea.” I said “I’m too nervous. I don’t think I could sit down.” She said, “You know what? I’m nervous, too.” Isn’t that dear? From then on, no matter what I did in the picture, I would look around the stage and she’d be watching me, and after I would finish, I would look back at her, and her little hand would go up, with her thumb and forefinger—the “OK” sign.
BK: In 1985, you reprised your role in Della Street in a long series of TV-movies, which were hugely popular.
BH: Dean Hargrove wanted to know if I wanted to do the remakes of Perry Mason. I said, “Honestly, I don’t know, Dean, if it will make it, because all the boys are gone—only Raymond and I are left.” And he said, “I”m going to put in a young person as Paul Drake, Jr., for the younger viewers. There’s a kid I’m trying to get. But I can’t reach him, and I don’t want to talk to his agent. He’s in that Greatest American Hero thing.” I said, “Oh—that young man is in Kansas City doing The Music Man.” And he said, “Oh, do you know him?” I said, “Actually, Dean, I changed his diapers.” He didn’t know that William Katt was my son.
BK: Did you ever do any theater?
BH: Once. Raymond and the whole Perry Mason cast did it: The Happiest Millionaire. A benefit for Ramona Convent. We did for three nights, and it was very successful, but I was ready to collapse at the end of it. I did a live show once on Playhouse 90, called “The Day They Gave Babies Away.” I died in the third act and believe me, I was so scared I was ready to die. Eighteen-second wardrobe changes. And i mean eighteen seconds. A friend of mine, Jeanne Cooper [longtime star of the soapThe Young and the Restless] always says, “Someday we’re going to do Arsenic and Old Lace.” And I called her the other day and said, “We’re ready!”