They ran a Perry Mason marathon on Encore on Saturday. These were the ‘80s-’90s 2-hour TV movies. They’re a guilty pleasure. They’re bland and there’s lots of filler, but there’s lots of character actors. What I really enjoy is the context behind the show.
Fred Silverman was a television executive and later producer whose success could be summed up this way: Spinoffs, recycling and familiar faces in the mystery genre.
(Some samples of his spinoffs: Rhoda, Phyllis, the Jeffersons, Maude, Good Times, Laverne and Shirley, all hits, then his unlucky streak at NBC: Hello Larry, Sheriff Lobo.
Some samples of his familiar faces starring in mysteries: Jake and the Fatman, In the Heat of the Night, Matlock, Father Dowling Mysteries, and Diagnosis Murder. Brandon Tartikoff writes in his book “The Last Great Ride” about Silverman sending him to James Arness’ home on the ruse of discussing a new series with him, but actually checking him out to see if he’s too old and craggy for TV. Arness answers the door and says, “Are you here to see if I’m too old and craggy for TV?”)
Silverman first recycled Perry Mason in the early ‘70s at CBS, the Raymond Burr version had only been off the air for seven years when he brought back a version with a new cast. Monte Markham as Mason. (The real Raymond Burr was in the hit “Ironsides” and was unavailable.
It barely ran the season, but in the ‘80s he recycled it again (this time as producer) with Burr and Barbara Hale reprising their roles from the original series. This time it worked and the series of 2-hour movies (two or three a year) ran for another 7 years. Incredible.
Toward the last few years Burr was in failing health and his weight was increasingly a problem. Look and you’ll see that he’s usually filmed leaning against something. And later when he was especially in failing health..and when he died...they kept making Perry Mason Mysteries! Nothing would stop Fred Silverman. They used Paul Sorvino and Hal Holbrook to play lawyer pals of Mason’s in town to handle his caseload. Heck they should have gotten Monte Markham!
There’s a good book by Susan Kandel called, “I Dreamed I Married Perry Mason,” it’s one in a series of mysteries about a writer writing biographies of mystery authors and then stumbling onto some kind of mystery herself. In this book the biography topic is Erle Stanley Gardner, so you get some background on Gardner, and a good mystery. This is a brilliant concept for a series of mysteries and I wish I thought of it.