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HOWARD ROSENBERG

I Confess! I Did Watch Perry Mason! : Tribute: Raymond Burr, who died this week, portrayed the criminal lawyer. Although based in fantasy, his triumphs were a big wonderful hoot.

September 15, 1993|HOWARD ROSENBERG

The courtroom is still.

"If you weren't there," the attorney asks somberly, resting his thick, slabby frame on the witness stand, "then how did you know your husband was dead?"

The witness's face hardens. The attorney's unanticipated zinger, worded so precisely and economically, is the spear that impales her. Only moments before, she had been so cool, so confident, so completely in control. But now the woman is aware that the attorney and everyone else in the courtroom are staring at her , their eyes accusing her , each of them waiting for her to speak.

Second by second the pressure builds until finally she can bear it no longer. And besides, the hour is almost up.

"All right, I did it. I killed him. I admit it. But you didn't know what he was like."

Even though he's used to this by now, overmatched prosecutor Hamilton Burger's jaw drops.

The trigger for this little flashback is the death this week of Raymond Burr. Rarely has an actor been so closely linked to a single TV character. That character, of course, is the nearly invincible criminal lawyer Perry Mason.

What a brain. What a courtroom tactician. What a fantasy.

Burr spent nearly eight seasons as a paraplegic chief of detectives in NBC's "Ironside." Yet his prior nine seasons as the star of "Perry Mason" on CBS--followed by years of syndicated reruns and a bunch of popular "Perry Mason" TV movies--are what gave Burr one of the boldest TV signatures any actor ever had.

It was "Perry Mason," moreover--TV's 1957-1966 successor to the radio series, based on novelist Erle Stanley Gardner's charismatic character--that for years had such a profound influence on both television and the nation's opinion of trial lawyers.

In 1973, CBS brought back the series with Monte Markham as Perry, a revival that lasted only a season. Only Raymond Burr could be Perry Mason.

The impact of the small screen's original "Perry Mason" on television can be measured by the crush of subsequent courtroom dramas and series that imitated the style and rhythms of the series, especially the trademark, predictable confession sequence that was TV's caviar of camp.

Perry was part defense attorney, part detective. In the courtroom, he was uncanny, he was tricky, he was full of histrionics that, to Burger's dismay, judges allowed ("but get to the point as soon as possible, Mr. Mason") because he was, well, Perry Mason.

He defended his despairing, seemingly hapless clients (who were always innocent, of course) by publicly exposing the real perpetrators. Nearly every "Perry Mason" began by designating a likely victim. Then came the body, followed by an investigation, with the episode culminating in a trial that ended with the guilty party breaking down and confessing under Perry's measured but relentless attack.

Usually it happened on the witness stand, sometimes in the spectators' section of the courtroom, where the murderer, feeling the pinch of Perry's remarkable reasoning, would jump to his feet and voluntarily blab all. Inevitably, the slayer was "glad" that he did it because, of course, the rest of us didn't know what a monster the victim was. Either that or the death had been an accident. "I didn't mean to do it. . . ."

No one on the bench ever cautioned the confessor, never advised him of his rights, never advised him to consult an attorney before publicly pouring out his guilt. The judge was apparently too enthralled himself to think of legal niceties. And poor Burger (William Talman) and his police alter ego, Lt. Tragg (Ray Collins), who was usually the one who had smugly arrested Perry's framed client in the first place. They could do nothing but watch helplessly as their opponent ran the table like a pool shark, their awed resignation a silent acknowledgment of Perry's vastly superior brain.

The pathetic Burger and Tragg (who at times appeared to be the only homicide detective working for LAPD) masochistically persisted in moving against Perry's clients. But you had to wonder why.

According to published "Perry Mason" lore, Perry lost only one courtroom tiff--"The Case of the Deadly Verdict" in 1963--in 271 episodes.

No wonder, then, that the public got from "Perry Mason" a skewed image of criminal attorneys and the way cases were tried in court, leading to lofty expectations that had no foundation in reality. The fact is, most criminal trials are tedious, and trial attorneys are more like Hamilton Burger than Perry Mason. As for courtroom confessions? They happen probably about as often as lunar or solar eclipses.

We're living in an era in which sound bites from sensational criminal trials are daily grist for newscasts, and there's even a cable network--Court TV--devoted to nothing but trials. Yet so ingrained is "Perry Mason" in popular culture that even today potential jurors are sometimes cautioned in court not to expect trials that feature dramatic confessions a la Perry.

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