The television Perry Mason, as played by Raymond Burr in the 1950s and 1960s, is a cool, professional attorney. He is ever on the side of right and of having his wrongly-accused innocent clients acquitted.
Aficionados of the show may be interested to learn that there is a new version of Mason, this time as an audio drama series.
They may be shocked, however, to learn that the New Perry Mason, billed as “the Reimagined Perry Mason,” behaves more like a sarcastic, hard-boiled detective in the Mike Hammer mold than the staid, conventional character of the TV series. He is threatening to break jaws and beat reluctant suspects with a rubber hose than winning court cases. Breaking in a door on a witness unwilling to open it, he asks sardonically: “Mind if I come in?”
Mason sometimes lies and moves at the edges of the law into the extra-legal territory to further the interests of his clients.
He is more on the street than in the courtroom.
Likewise, Mason’s secretary Della Street is no longer the docile June Cleaver-like “girl Friday” of Barbara Hale but instead explodes with comments to her boss like “You’re too damn good-hearted, Perry!” As for clients, they are beautiful but treacherous femmes fatales, as in “Perry Mason and the Case of the Lucky Legs.”
This “reimagined” Perry Mason is actually not a post-modern version for our cynical times but actually returns to the film-noir style of the Mason character of the pulp novel, as initially imagined by his literary creator Erle Stanley Gardner. The new version is thus worlds away from the sanitized TV series (let alone a previous soap-opera radio series based on Mason but despised by Gardner; this later becoming “The Edge of Night!”). You might say this may not be your father’s Perry Mason but rather your grandfather’s!
The producer and lead actor of this series is Jerry Robbins of Colonial Radio Theatre on the Air, based in Boston. We had an opportunity to interview Mason – we mean Jerry – who told us that his Mason charactor is not based on the Burr interpretation.
“You won’t believe me, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything more than short clips of Burr’s Mason,” Robbins said. “For my Mason, I was thinking Clark Gable as he was in his mid-1930s ‘It Happened One Night’ period.”
Indeed, Robbins has been acting almost all of his life. He informed us that he did his first stage play at age twelve as a newsboy in “Gypsy” and went on from there, including lots of stock in roles like John Adams in “1776,” five productions of “Oliver!” as Fagin, and Henry II in “The Lion in Winter” – close to 100 shows over 48 years!
As for the utterly different take on the “Perry Mason” series, Robbins noted to us that scriptwriter M.J. Elliott followed the Gardner books closely.
“The first Mason story, ‘The Case of the Velvet Claws,’ doesn’t even have a courtroom scene. The original books have a few ‘damns’ and ‘hells’ in there as well, and the books are not totally G-rated,” Robbins said. “Mason in our shows is indeed hard-boiled, just the way he was written in the books – and much more of a detective. He’s not afraid to bend the truth to win a case.”
In the “Velvet Claws” audio drama, Mason has his client thrown in prison briefly and threatens others with jail time. He also induces private detective Paul Drake (himself in Mason’s hire) to imply to suspects that he is an official police detective rather than a PI.
There are five fairly lengthy Mason audio plays in both compact disc and MP3 formats. When I asked if the show is still in production, Robbins told me that the five were recorded from 2009 to the early 2010s, and the series played on SiriusXM radio.
“I wanted to do more – in fact, in anticipation of this, we had a completed script ready to go, but the man who controls the rights was holding out for a TV deal, so we were not able to continue,” Robbins said. “The TV show finally came into being, and they are shooting now. The new productions are set in their original time period, the 1930s, and star British actor Matthew Rhys as Mason.”
The audio dramas are, however, performed with excellence and recommended to Perry Mason fans who already enjoy the stories, as well as to non-Perry Mason readers who might warm up to this version more than the original, more popular television show. In the audio productions, Diane Capen plays Della Street, while J.T. Turner portrays Paul Drake.
Although there are no visual components to an audio series, the sound effects are quite remarkable and make effective use of stereophonic technology not available for television when the original series was made. And, being audio-only, the listener gets to choose whether to imagine this “Perry Mason” in color or as a retro film noir black-and-white version.
Robbins hopes to return to new Perry Mason productions once copyright permissions are cleared. As for current audio projects, he is working on Season 13 of his western series “Powder River,” similar to past western series such as “Gunsmoke” and “Bonanza.”
He is also working on an audio drama of “The Wreck of the Golden Mary,” originally written by Charles Dickens. In the past, Robbins has paid tribute to 1970’s culture in a lengthy audio version of the dystopian science-fiction film “Logan’s Run.” Currently, a horror movie, “The Legend of Lake Hollow,” based on a Robbins’ screenplay, is being filmed. Jerry is working on completing another screenplay for the cinema as well: “Keeping busy!” he said, as we concluded the interview.
The Perry Mason audio series is available from Brilliance Audio and can be ordered at local bookstores and online. The productions are also available on MP3 via the website www.colonialradio.com.