Perry Mason: The Case of the Silent Black Judge and More

Updated on April 30, 2018
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Ron is a fan of the television shows of the 1950s and 60s. In fact, he enjoys them a lot more than most of what's been on TV since then!

Raymond Burr and the cast of "Perry Mason"
Raymond Burr and the cast of "Perry Mason" | Source

Perry Mason was one of the most popular programs of the golden age of television. It was originally broadcast from September 21, 1957 to May 22, 1966, with 271 episodes that have been continually shown in syndication right up to today.

But as familiar as Perry Mason is to those of us who grew up watching it, or who have become fans by seeing it in reruns, there are aspects of the series that remain little known and quite surprising today.

For example, during the time frame in which the original Perry Mason series was produced, the one thing you seldom saw on network television was a black person playing any substantial role other than that of a servant or perhaps an entertainer. That's why I was quite surprised, while recently watching a 1963 episode of the series, to see an African American judge sitting on the bench. A black man shown in a position of authority over whites? That just didn't happen in the television world of the early 1960s!

Of course I wanted to find out as much as I could about what seemed to be something of a pioneering moment for the Perry Mason franchise. It turns out that after more than half a century, not much information is available about that judge. But while attempting to find out more about him, I ran across several other interesting tidbits about the Perry Mason series that most people are probably unaware of.

Here are five little known and surprising facts relating to the show you probably didn’t know about. In the spirit of the way each episode was titled (always "The Case of the ..."), I've called them:

1. The Case of the Silent Black Judge

2. The Case of the Black White Men

3. The Case of the Scrambled Screen Tests

4. The Case of the Persecuted Prosecutor

5. The Case of the Convicted Clients

See if you can solve these cases!

1. The Case of the Silent Black Judge

The episode in which the black judge appeared was “The Case of the Skeleton's Closet,” which originally aired on May, 2, 1963.

Just showing a black judge presiding over a courtroom was, for that time, very unusual. But what's even more unusual is that during the entire episode, which has an extended courtroom scene, the judge never speaks. As far as I am aware, this is the only time that happened during the entire run of the Perry Mason series.

The judge is seen several times in the background as Perry and District Attorney Hamilton Burger interrogate witnesses. And once, for a few seconds, he has the screen all to himself in a closeup. But he never speaks or makes any ruling, not even to call a recess for lunch.

What was going on?

The unknown and silent black judge in "The Case of the Skeleton's Closet"
The unknown and silent black judge in "The Case of the Skeleton's Closet" | Source

For a nationally televised program to show a black person in a position of authority over whites was something that just didn’t happen in mid-twentieth century America. The producers of the Perry Mason series seem to have wanted to help overcome that barrier, but without going too far.

This was a time when the civil rights movement was at its height. Every night on their television sets viewers around the country were seeing African Americans staging demonstrations to demand equal rights and equal treatment. Awareness of how black people had been unfairly discriminated against and held back from full participation in the life of the nation was growing.

But network television was actually behind the civil rights curve. The entertainment industry, with a large portion of its revenues coming from the South, had historically felt the necessity of putting out a product that would be acceptable below the Mason-Dixon line. Since any show that presented African Americans in anything but the most servile positions would simply not be broadcast by local stations in the South, it was very unusual for blacks to play roles that went beyond the maids, Pullman porters, or comedic buffoons that fit the idea many whites had of the positions it was proper for black people to fill.

Since this was the only time during the series (as far as I am aware) where a judge is shown presiding over a trial without ever speaking, the dialog and courtroom action must have been specifically written to accommodate that scenario. In other words, this episode appears to have been designed to feature an African American judge who would stay firmly in the background, but make a statement just by being there. While the producers of the show were willing to show a black man on the bench and theoretically in control of the proceedings, they weren't ready to risk showing him actually exercising authority over whites in the courtroom.

The actor who played the judge was not given screen credit, and now, after more than a half century, no one seems to even know his name. But for him to be there at all, as a judge presiding over a courtroom filled with white people, was a rather timid but important step forward for network television at that time.

2. The Case of the Black White Men

The unnamed black judge who sat on the bench in “The Case of the Skeleton's Closet” was not the only African American seen during the run of the original Perry Mason series. In fact, there were at least two black actors, Ivan Dixon and Frank Silvera, who had significant speaking parts in several episodes. Interestingly, both played characters who were thought to be, or actually were, white men.

Ivan Dixon

Ivan Dixon
Ivan Dixon | Source

In the early 1960s Ivan Dixon was a rising star who had already had roles in such television staples as The Twilight Zone and Have Gun - Will Travel. Best known for his portrayal of Staff Sergeant James Kinchloe in the long-running sitcom Hogan’s Heroes (1965 to 1970), Dixon would go on to be haled as an accomplished director of such shows as The Waltons, The Rockford Files, The Bionic Woman, Magnum, P.I., and The A-Team.

Ivan Dixon appeared in two episodes of Perry Mason. The first was "The Case of the Promoter's Pillbox" which aired on May 19, 1962. Dixon was cast as Maurice Parness, a State Inspector whom the DA's office had asked to examine the records of a particular pharmacy. In his testimony Dixon's character reported that his check had revealed "an unexplained shortage of a considerable amount of arsenic trioxide." In this instance Dixon's role was straightforward - he played an expert witness whose race was irrelevant.

But in "The Case of the Nebulous Nephew," which was broadcast on September 26, 1963, Dixon, though obviously black, played a character who, until the very end of the story, was thought to be white.

The plot involved an attempt to scam the two elderly and wealthy aunts of Caleb Stone IV. Caleb had been placed in an orphanage at a young age, and his family had completely lost sight of him. A man named John Brooks, who had also been in the orphanage and was a close friend of Caleb, managed to meet the aunts and was successful in using the knowledge of the family he had learned from Caleb to convince them that he was their long lost nephew. The plot twist revealed at the end [SPOILER ALERT!] is that the "John Brooks" who impersonated Caleb actually is the real Caleb, while the real John Brooks is an African American played by Ivan Dixon.

Frank Silvera

Frank Silvera
Frank Silvera | Source

Frank Silvera had a leading role in "The Case of the Fancy Figures," which aired on December 13, 1958. He played Jonathan Hyett, the father of a daughter described as a very fair "strawberry blonde." All the characters in the episode, including Silvera's, are presented as being white.

But in real life Silvera was not white. He was born in Kingston, Jamaica of a father who was Spanish, and a mother who was a native Jamaican of mixed race. Although Silvera was very light-skinned, he identified himself as black. The U. S. government agreed. When Silvera enlisted in the U. S. Navy during WW2, he was assigned to Camp Robert Smalls, a training facility for African Americans.

But because his appearance was not obviously black, the parts he played in a multitude of movies and television shows were almost always whites of various nationalities. In fact, it was difficult for him to get roles as a black man. Once he auditioned to play a black elevator operator and was rejected as being "too light" for the part.

3. The Case of the Scrambled Screen Tests

Recently a film reel containing some of the 1956 screen tests for the Perry Mason series came to light. Of course it's interesting to see Raymond Burr, the quintessential Perry Mason, auditioning for the role. But this reel also contains some surprising twists.

Raymond Burr is so obviously "right" for the role of Perry that it's hard to believe anyone else was ever in the running. But perhaps that's hindsight. In fact, Hollywood luminaries such as Mike Connors, William Holden, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., and Fred MacMurray were considered for the part. And so was another actor who was actually screen-tested for the role.

If Raymond Burr is perfect as Perry Mason, so is William Hopper as Paul Drake, Perry's private detective associate and friend. But, believe it or not, Hopper was initially screen tested as Perry, and Burr was tested as, of all people, DA Hamilton Burger!

William Hopper (left) with Raymond Bur
William Hopper (left) with Raymond Bur | Source

The reel does not contain a screen test with Barbara Hale, who in the series played Perry's assistant Della Street to Emmy Award-winning perfection. But the performances of the "Dellas" who do appear in these screen tests demonstrate, by comparison, just how right Hale was for the role.

In the video below you can see six screen tests, three with Hopper as Perry, one with Burr as Hamilton Burger, and two with Burr proving that he was Perry Mason. The following chart shows the time into the video (minutes:seconds) when each screen test starts.

Screen Test Video Segments

Video Timestamp
Screen Test
Notes
0:00
Introduction by Barbara Hale
Hale won an Emmy for her portrayal of Della Street
0:48
Raymond Burr as DA Hamilton Burger
Perry Mason is played by character actor Tod Andrews
4:46
William Hopper as Perry with Della
Della is played in a straightforward way
6:42
Raymond Burr as Perry with Della
Della is played as very sexy
9:11
William Hopper as Perry with Lt. Tragg
Ray Collins played Lt. Tragg here and on the show
12:07
William Hopper as Perry in court
Perry cross examines a witness
16:08
Raymond Burr as Perry in court
Same scene as above - compare Burr and Hopper

That's Perry Mason!

— Erle Stanley Gardner when he saw Raymond Burr's screen test as Mason

The creator of the Perry Mason character, novelist and lawyer Erle Stanley Gardner, knew exactly what he was looking for in the actor who would play the iconic attorney. When he saw Raymond Burr's screen test as Mason, he got so excited that he jumped to his feet shouting, "that's Perry Mason!"

Besides Raymond Burr as Perry Mason, which character on the show was your favorite?

See results

During her successful Supreme Court confirmation hearing in 2009, Sonia Sotomayor related how she was inspired by the Perry Mason program as a child. "But my sympathies were not entirely monopolized by Perry Mason," she said. "I was fond of Burger, the prosecutor, too. I liked that he was a good loser."

4. The Case of the Persecuted Prosecutor

Just as Raymond Burr, William Hopper, and Barbara Hale were the perfect choices for their roles in Perry Mason, so was William Talman as District Attorney Hamilton Burger. (One magazine article at the time couldn't resist referring to the DA as Ham Burger). It was Talman's unenviable task to look foolish at the end of every episode as Mason's brilliance drew a courtroom confession from the real murderer, who was always someone the unimaginative DA never even suspected before the final reveal.

But in March of 1960 William Talman found himself sitting not at the prosecutor's table on the Mason set, but in the defendant's chair in a real courtroom, fighting a charge that could have ended his career.

William Talman (right) with Raymond Burr
William Talman (right) with Raymond Burr | Source

On March 13, 1960 Los Angeles Sheriff's deputies raided a party being held in a Hollywood apartment. The deputies said that when they entered the apartment they found eight people, all either partly or completely nude, along with some unsmoked marijuana cigarettes. All of the four men and four women in the apartment, including a television producer, an actress, and William Talman, were arrested on charges of lewd vagrancy and possession of marijuana.

Talman knew exactly what this arrest meant for him. He claimed that it was all some kind of mistake, and that he had just dropped by for a drink. "This could ruin me," he said. And he was very nearly right.

CBS, citing the morals clause in his contract, immediately fired him from the Perry Mason show. And that's where Talman's career might indeed have ended, except for several things that broke his way.

First, the judge who heard the case immediately threw it out, saying that no laws had been broken. In fact, according to a 1963 article in TV Guide, the judge actually reprimanded both the D.A. and the Sheriff's department for bringing the case in the first place.

Just as important for Talman was the support he received from both Perry Mason viewers and members of the production company. The viewers mounted a letter-writing campaign in Talman's favor, and both executive producer Gail Patrick Jackson and Raymond Burr lobbied hard for Talman's reinstatement. CBS finally reconsidered, and brought Talman back. He remained with the show for the rest of its run.

5. The Case of the Convicted Clients

Most viewers have the impression that Perry Mason never lost a case. But that's not true. In fact, he is known to have lost, in one way or another, on at least three different occasions.

In “The Case Of The Terrified Typist” (air date: June 21, 1958) the jury finds Mason's client guilty. The reason for that, it turns out, is that the man actually is guilty. But after the verdict, Mason is able to prove that the convicted defendant has actually been impersonating the man Mason was hired to represent. So, in reality, Mason's client was never convicted at all.

"The Case of the Witless Witness" (air date: May 16, 1963) starts with Perry Mason having just lost his appeal of a civil case. We are never told anything about that case, since it's actually just a setup for the real storyline that involves Perry defending the appellate judge when he is accused of murder.

In "The Case of the Deadly Verdict" (air date: October 3, 1963) Mason's client is not only convicted, but is sentenced to death in the gas chamber. But this client, Janice Barton, had not been truthful with Perry about some critical issues in the case. Even though Barton had assured her own conviction by lying to her attorney, Perry is still able to uncover the real killer and save his client.

Finally, there's a scene in "The Case of the Desperate Daughter" (air date: March 22, 1958) in which Perry and Della are shown preparing a last minute appeal for a "Mr. Hudson" who is facing the gas chamber. We are not told anything more about that case, and it's never revealed whether Mr. Hudson kept his date with the executioner or not. Because it's quite possible that Mason was not the attorney in the initial trial, but was only called in to handle the appeal, it can't be definitely stated that this is a case Perry Mason lost.

Perry Mason Lives!

Although the original run of the series ended in 1966, the popularity of Perry Mason and the show's original cast members endures.

An attempt to revive the franchise in 1973 with Monte Markham playing Perry was unsuccessful, lasting for less than a full season. But in 1985 Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale came back to reprise their roles as Perry and Della (the other principle cast members from the original series had died by then). That revival was so successful that a total of 30 new movie-length episodes of the series were produced between 1985 and 1993.

And now in the 21st century, syndicated reruns of the original Perry Mason continue to bring the show new fans among a generation that wasn't even born when the world's most successful defense attorney first began to enthrall audiences in the golden age of television.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Ronald E Franklin

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      • RonElFran profile image
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        Ronald E Franklin 2 weeks ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

        Thanks, Heidi. I agree with you about Amazon Prime - being able to watch Perry Mason there would make their recent price increase a little more palatable! And I certainly agree that the casting on the show was impeccable.

      • heidithorne profile image

        Heidi Thorne 2 weeks ago from Chicago Area

        Perry Mason was one of my family's favorite shows when I was growing up. I'm just hoping it will be on Amazon Prime (instead of just Hulu or other rerun networks) in the near future.

        Some interesting story lines both on and off the set, including those with racial implications as you're researched. When I watch these shows again, I'll know what to look for.

        While I chose Della in the favorite character poll, I think all of the actors were well cast.

        Thanks for sharing this bit of TV history! Love it.

      • RonElFran profile image
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        Ronald E Franklin 2 weeks ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

        Thanks, Dora. Your neighborhood was probably like mine - whenever there was a black face on tv, everybody got on the phone to spread the word.

      • MsDora profile image

        Dora Weithers 2 weeks ago from The Caribbean

        Wow! There's so much we don't know about the attitudes behind the scenes. I still remember when black faces on television were such a novelty, we chose to watch them just for that reason. That said, I liked the Perry Mason episodes. Thanks for these revelations.

      • RonElFran profile image
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        Ronald E Franklin 2 weeks ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

        Wouldn't that be great! Thanks for reading and sharing, Brian.

      • B. Leekley profile image

        Brian Leekley 2 weeks ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

        Your thorough research shows that you're an ardent fan.

        I hope someone comes forward with knowledge about the story behind the creation of the silent black judge character.

      • RonElFran profile image
        Author

        Ronald E Franklin 2 weeks ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

        Thanks, CJ. If you are thinking that William Katt might know the name of the actor who played our unknown judge, I wouldn't think so. Even if Katt had been on the set that day with his mother, Barbara Hale, I think it's improbable that the name of that actor would ever have come to his attention. But maybe there's a relative somewhere who will see this and shed some light on this fascinating bit of Hollywood history.

      • lions44 profile image

        CJ Kelly 2 weeks ago from Auburn, WA

        Awesome stuff, Ron. Since there are no living cast members, maybe William Katt knows? Sharing everywhere.

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