Excerpt: Hiding in Plain Sight

By the end of its second season, Perry Mason was firmly entrenched in the public zeitgeist. It was averaging thirty million viewers a week and had cracked the Nielsen top twenty— which was ominous news for The Perry Como Show. By February 1959, Como was talking about leaving his Saturday-night perch to replace Milton Berle as the host of Kraft Music Hall, which aired Wednesday nights. He made the move in September.

Perry Mason's popularity expanded into other areas. Gardner continued to crank out his Perry Mason books, but the television franchise took on a life of its own. There were Perry Mason lunchboxes and board games. Sponsors began lining up to buy time on the show, and Raymond, in one instance, complained about the abundance of on-camera smoking when a cigarette company bought a chunk of time. Lawyers' groups began inviting Raymond to speak at their meetings, and he surprisingly accepted many of their invitations. That added weekend travel, often out of town, to his already-grueling schedule.

"He made a lot of speeches, and he became an officer of the Freedom Foundation in Washington and would travel there occasionally," said Art Marks. "He was very involved with law enforcement with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department. He was very much into who he was as a character. Bar associations gave him all kinds of awards . . . and he spoke to them, whether it be in Kansas or Texas. He would fly in for one night and fly back and be shooting the next morning. I said, 'Ray, why do you put yourself through these things?' and he said, 'Because it's such a relief to get away. And I love it.' And he did enjoy it."

The Perry Mason cast grew extremely close and was known as one of the tightest-knit ensemble groups in the business. Raymond, Barbara Hale, William Talman, Ray Collins, and William Hopper all hung their personalized coffee mugs on a shared rack near the back of the set. Practical jokes abounded; sadness and joy were shared among cast and crew. "We saw children grow up and marriages and divorces," Hale said. "It was just amazing. We became very good friends. It was an extended family."

Raymond hosted dinners for the cast and crew out in Malibu, featuring sumptuous spreads of the best food and wine. An invitation to a Raymond Burr dinner party was a sought-after commodity, with the host whipping up dishes in his huge kitchen. A writer who was invited to one of Raymond's dinner parties described his host as "sitting at the head of the huge table like some lustily benevolent medieval squire, tossing his head with raucous laughter at some guest's joke."

Jokes, too, were used on the set to ease the tension and the long, boring hours. Perry Mason was, in essence, an hour-long movie being filmed each week. Tempers flared often, and Raymond used practical jokes to lighten the mood and to fend off the stifling boredom between shots. More often than not, he was the jokes' instigator. And more often than not, Barbara Hale was his target. The stories are legion: Raymond putting a baby alligator in a drawer on the set, awaiting Barbara's inevitable shriek; Raymond filling Barbara's entire dressing room and bathroom, floor to ceiling, with flowers; Raymond enlarging one of Barbara's old studio beefcake shots showing her in a leopard-print bikini and placing it behind the judge's chair; Raymond camouflaging Barbara's car under some lumber; Raymond filling Barbara's commode with green Jell-O. And on and on.

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