I find it strange, even a bit eerie, that the two character actors I admire most right now (Simon Oakland and William Talman) were born the same year (1915) and then died a day apart from each other (albeit fifteen years made a gap in between).
I was going to write about The Sun-Bather’s Diary, one of the most fascinating episodes of season 1, but I’ll be setting that aside for a day or two. Today I want to take a moment to honor William Talman and his incomparable portrayal of Hamilton Burger, Perry’s eternal rival who seemed to grow friendlier as the seasons passed.
It’s interesting, how William took a character who had been despised and always written in a negative context by Erle Stanley Gardner and made him so human, so likable. (Even, dare I say, lovable?) Of course, the series’ writers played their part in fleshing out Mr. Burger as well, but William’s interpretation was one of a kind. His wide range of classic expressions, that distinctive voice, and his entire approach to the character’s attitude combined to create a very three-dimensional person—worlds apart from the more one-dimensional, stereotypically bitter antagonist that Gardner invented. Certainly Gardner must be credited for bringing the character to life in the first place, as without his version there likely would not have been a role for William to play in the iconic TV series (and something would have been grossly lacking). But it isn’t hard to believe William’s claim that he knew more about Mr. Burger than Gardner did.
William always was talented at presenting realistic, multi-faceted characters. I have only seen two of his films (both excellent and enjoyable ventures), but I have watched every television guest-spot I have been able to locate. He has portrayed both good guys and bad guys (and characters with many shades of gray) flawlessly. Among my favorites of his roles are from Have Gun-Will Travel (as a friendly fellow at a campsite, determined to protect a boy he believes is innocent of eleven gruesome murders, in The Shooting of Jessie May), Gunsmoke (as a released convict attempting to go straight while his old gang won’t leave him alone, in Legends Don’t Sleep), and The Wild Wild West (as a sheriff trapped in a haunted house with Jim West and Artemus Gordon, in The Night of the Man-Eating House). Perhaps in the future, I will deviate now and then from strictly Perry-related entries to speak of some of these characters in greater detail (as well as characters played by the other Perry actors).
William was the first celebrity to speak out against the dangers of smoking, once he knew he was dying of lung cancer. I highly admire his courage and his determination to not go along with the common views of the day (wherein celebrities were reluctant to do such announcements because of the money made with cigarette sponsors). Not only did he likely and directly save many lives by this bold move, he also opened the door of encouragement for other celebrities to follow his lead and make anti-smoking announcements of their own.
We lost him far too soon, on August 30th, 1968. He is and will continue to be remembered and missed. And, as long as Perry Mason has perennial appeal, William’s Hamilton Burger has earned him a place among the immortal stars.