Tuesday, 31 January 2017


My obituary of the actress Barbara Hale, who played Perry Mason's secretary Della Street, is up at the Guardian online, you can link to it here. It had to be trimmed for space, which was largely my discussion of her career at RKO and Columbia; she made a lot of films, particularly at the latter, which tried hard to transcend their budgetary and casting limitations. Some of the cutting led to some misinterpretations: Higher and Higher isn't really a Frank Sinatra movie, he wasn't top billed, though it features his singing. Bill Williams' birth name was Herman August Wilhelm Katt, but was generall called William. They also lost my lede, which I thought was particularly relevant given I'd also written Mary Tyler Moore's obit just a few days before, so I'm posting my own full text here. I have added descriptions of a couple of the films, and mentions of the other two where she starred with her husband.


Before Mary Richards, there was Della Street. Barbara Hale, who has died aged 94, played Street, Perry Mason's secretary, in the hugely successful television series which ran on CBS from 1957 to 1966, then reprised her role in 29 television movies between 1985 and 1995. Della's indefatigable calm and poise established her as a partner to Perry and his investigator Paul Drake. Although Hale's all-American girl-next-door looks saw her cast typically as supportive wives in her film career, in Perry Mason she was, unusually in television, clearly a single career woman, fully able to out-banter Drake's flirtatious advances in almost every episode. 'When we started it was the beginning of women not working at home,' she said. 'I liked it that she was not married.'

Hale's path to Hollywood was a highly-publicized Cinderella story. Born 18 April 1922 in DeKalb, Illinois, she grew up in nearby Rockford where he father Luther was a landscape gardener. She was 19 and studying commercial art at the Chicago Academy of Fine Art when she was spotted by a modelling agent, and began working to pay her way through college, including modelling for a comic strip. Her agent sent photos to the RKO movie studio, who sent Hale a ticket to Los Angeles. She was sitting in a casting director's office when a phone call came asking for a starlet to replace one who'd fallen ill. Hale was sent to the set of Gildersleeve's Bad Day (1943), one of a series of comedies based on the hugely popular radio show, and made her film debut. Although studio publicity trumpeted her instant stardom, in reality she had only a single line, and went unmentioned in the credits.

But she landed a contract at RKO, and got her first screen credit in Higher and Higher (1945), Frank Sinatra's fourth movie which featured him singing six songs. Her first starring role came opposite Robert Young in a gambling comedy, Lady Luck (1946). In the RKO commisary the same year she met Bill Williams (born William Katt), and after making West Of The Pecos together, where she starred with Robert Mitchum, they married, and in 1947 co-starred in a light comedy, A Likely Story. Williams would go on to star on television as Kit Carson in a successful western series. Hale, a more talented actor, was trapped in lesser studio parts until she too found success on the smaller screen.

Her best RKO parts came working with child-actors, Dean Stockwell in Joseph Losey's The Boy With Green Hair (1948) and Bobby Driscoll in Ted Tetzlaff's noirish The Window, her penultimate RKO release. Her last was another in which she and Bill co-starred, The Clay Pigeon, a frenetic thriller, Richard Fleischer's third feature, written by Carl Foreman. It involves a soldier who wakes from a coma, is accused of treason for collaborating in a Japanese prison camp, and busts a Jap crime ring.

Hale moved to Columbia, where she generally played adoring wives and steadfast girlfriends, including twice with Larry Parks in Jolson Sings Again (1949) and the comedy Emergency Wedding (1950) where she plays a doctor who puts her career ahead of her millionaire husband's needs. Her light touch saw her cast with James Stewart and opposite Robert Cummings in the early Frank Tashlin comedy The First Time (1952). Hale was loaned to James Cagney's production company to make A Lion Is In The Streets, directed by Raoul Walsh, a B movie version of All The King's Men which also prefigures A Face In The Crowd. She plays Cagney's wife, on whom he cheats (with Anne Francis as a bayou honey named Flamingo McManamee, shades of Lil' Abner) while building a political career. She had the title role in Lorna Doone (1951) but became a feature in low-budget but interesting Columbia westerns, including Andre DeToth's remake of Sahara, Last Of The Comanches (1952) and Joseph H Lewis' 7th Cavalry (1956), her last Columbia picture. She then worked in episodic television like Playhouse 90, made The Oklahoman (1957) with Joel McCrea, and an interesting picture about a manufactured western movie star, Slim Carter (1957) alongside both her husband and William Hopper, the future Paul Drake. Ironically, in her last feature film before Perry Mason, Desert Hell, she played an unfaithful wife of a Foreign Legion commander.

The Perry Mason series, one of the first to use the one-hour format, was a triumph of casting. William Talman, as the always-losing DA Hamilton Burger, and Ray Collins as police Lt. Tragg, were great character actors. Raymond Burr, typecast literally as a 'heavy' in classic film noir, lost weight to reprise his role as a lawyer in A Place In The Sun (1951), though it's arguable a more telling role, with very Perry Mason-ish coutrtroom scenes, was the noirish Please Murder Me in 1956. Mason's creator, Erle Stanley Gardner, reportedly leapt from his chair during test screenings shouting 'that's Perry Mason'. Although publicists tried to promote the idea of a romance between Burr and Hale, in reality he lived with a man, though he and Hale became devoted friends, with a common love of horticulture. Burr bred orchids, and named one for his co-star. Hale's role in Perry Mason wasn't big in terms of screen time, she joked she basically had six scenes and costume changes to denote the changing of days, but its impact was strong enough for her to win an Emmy in 1959 as best supporting actress.

When CBS cancelled the show, Hale reverted to episodic television, including a spot on Burr's successful police series Ironside and with regular roles in Disney's Wonderful World Of Color. She became the early pitch-woman for Amana microwave ovens, someone audiences would trust with new-fangled technology. She had a telling part in the original “disaster movie”, Airport (1970), and in 1975 she played the lead opposite Steve Brodie in the unforgettable disaster of a film The Giant Spider Invasion.

Her son William Katt starred in John Milius' 1978 epic Big Wednesday and in a bit of Hollywood insider humour, she played his mother (see photo left with Katt and Patti d'Arbanville), which she did again in a 1982 episode of the TV series The Great American Hero. When, in 1985, NBC produced a TV movie, Perry Mason Returns, her son was cast as Paul Drake, Jr., replacing Hopper, who had died in 1970. It was so successful that NBC produced 25 more movies before Burr's death in 1993, and three more starring Hal Holbrook, cast not as Mason but Wild Bill McKenzie. The last of the three, in 1995, was Hale's final acting appearance.

She lived quietly, surviving cancer and converting to Baha'i religion. Bill Williams died in 1992. Barbara Hale died from pulmonary disease at home in Sherman Oaks, California 26 January 2017. She is survived by her son, and two daughters Judy and Juanita.

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