Tuesday, August 30, 2011

In Memoriam: William Talman

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.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Perry Mason: Timeless and Adaptable

I don’t plan to talk for any length of time about my fanfiction stories, but I may bring them up every now and then. This will be one of those times, particularly since today’s musing concerns a broader topic that affects more than just fanfiction.

Possibly one of the most controversial moves in my fanfiction writing is that, unless a show can only be a period piece (such as Daniel Boone), I will move it into the present day. I find nothing wrong with this and do it for several reasons. First, it helps me relate better to have the setting be the here and now. Second, it makes me happy to think of the characters young and alive and well and having their adventures in the present (instead of being either old or dead, as they would be now if I left the time where it was). Third, if it’s a show that works in any modern era, why in the world not?

As far as I know, every separate branch of the Perry Mason franchise has updated the time period to whatever the present day was at the time. The books started in the thirties; the movies took place then as well, because that’s when they were made. The radio show, as far as I know, took place in the time period in which it was released—the forties, I believe. The classic TV series, which this blog is really for, took place over the fifties and sixties. And the short-lived remake took place when it was produced—the early seventies.

Clearly, Perry adapted just fine to every one of these time periods. (The remake failed because the public wasn’t ready to accept a new cast, not because of the setting.) Therefore, there shouldn’t be anything remiss about the characters living and working in the good old twenty-first century.

Of course, any Perry fanfiction I write is specifically about the classic TV series, just moved to the present day. But, since I refuse to consider the TV movies of the eighties and nineties as what really happened after the end of the TV series (too depressing!), I find nothing wrong with that, either. Perry has a computer; Mr. Burger has a USB drive. They and Lieutenant Tragg use cell phones.

I can certainly imagine Perry being impressed with current methods of crime-solving. He always seemed up-to-date with the most cutting edge possibilities available to him at the time and wasn’t afraid to move into the new era. Picturing him with a computer or a cellphone seems perfectly in keeping with his character.

Mixed in with this, however, are hints of the past. Fedoras (my personal favorite hat) are still in high style, in use by the police and others. I imagine the characters to look just as they did in the TV series; Della, for instance, still dresses very modestly. The main cast, collectively, behaves just as in the TV series, all with high moral standards. It’s the present day, yet other than the little mentions of current technology it’s just like what would have been seen on the TV series. (And if the technology had existed then, I’m sure it would have been featured in the series too.)

I suppose this does bring up the question of “What about Perry’s service in the war?” Well, I solved that too (even though I haven’t actually written about it); make it a different war. I don’t think the particular war he served in is as important as the fact that he served. (I may have taken partial inspiration from John Watson’s update in the modern take on Sherlock Holmes, the BBC series Sherlock. He still has a bullet wound from a war in Afghanistan, just not from a 19th-century Afghan war. Clever, really.) The time period from when Perry served in World War II to around the time Perry started airing was approximately the same as between the Gulf War and several years ago. So to have a present day setting, I find it plausible to have Perry have served in the Gulf War instead of World War II.

(For Perry’s friend Major Jerry Reynolds and the deceased Captain Caldwell from The Misguided Missile, I determined that they served in Afghanistan instead of Korea. It’s never mentioned in my works, but that’s what was in my mind, and the very reason why I didn’t specify what war when I wrote a short follow-up to their episode.)

Do let it be said that I’m not advocating a new Perry Mason revival, via movies or television or anything else. As far as I’m concerned, we had our perfect Perry Mason in the classic TV series, and that can never, ever be replicated. But if it were to happen, I feel it could work just fine in the present day, as long as the characters’ personalities and morality were not damaged in any way. I am so tired of remakes of anything where the characters have degraded into immoral behavior that their counterparts would never dream of!

As a parting note, I found this amusing statement on a button (or “piece of Flair”, as they’re called) on Facebook the other day:

Google only gets you so far. After that, you need Paul Drake.

It stands as a reminder that, even with technology, never forget the good old-fashioned legwork. After all, it would be boring if the characters just looked things up on the Internet for answers!

Next topic, unless something else hits me in the head between now and then: The Sun-Bather’s Diary, and what it meant for the interaction between Perry and Mr. Burger.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The mind of a ladybug is a strange and curious thing.

Hello and welcome to my mind! I have to say, I am very nervous about this venture. I've been on Livejournal.com for almost eight years now, so I'm no stranger to blogging, but I use Livejournal more informally. This blog, rather than being a smorgasbord of whatever comes to me on any subject, is meant to focus solely on Perry Mason and all aspects thereof. Although it will be a smorgasbord of whatever Perry Mason thoughts come to me.

As I open this blog, I am nearly one month shy of my 25th birthday. Perry Mason has been a part of my life for over a decade, thanks to a wonderful and amazing local PBS station which plays many old television series. I remember countless nights of doing my high school homework while Perry was on. I would sit in the living room in my favorite chair while my parents watched the latest exploits of our favorite lawyers. I pretended to read, and sometimes I actually did, but I picked up more of the episodes' contents than I tried to let on.

It wasn't long before I started noticing some very intriguing things, mostly involving the interaction between prosecutor Hamilton Burger and defense attorney Perry Mason. They seemed to be seen together at lunch and dinner semi-frequently. Their exchanges outside of the hearings were often very relaxed and open, in complete contrast to their sparring, and Mr. Burger's frustration, in court. And sometimes they even discussed the cases and occasionally worked together to solve them.

Now, one thing about me that sometimes makes me an odd duck from most others: I have little to no interest in most romantic ventures in series or movies. (There are exceptions, but that's a tale for another time.) I prefer platonic relationships. Any time there is a fascinating bit of platonic interaction, my attention is captured.

And the platonic interaction between the two attorneys was and is fascinating! There are so many layers to their relationship. I began eagerly looking for such scenes and delighting in discovering more of them. (And of course, many of my future posts will focus on their connection, which I finally realized is a unique friendship.)

At some point which I don't recall, I finally acknowledged to myself that I was hooked. There were many factors; among them the mystery and suspense, and my growing fondness for every one of the main cast, but foremost was my total fascination in the above-described interaction. It particularly surprised me coming from Mr. Burger, considering how upset he often got during court. (We must have been in season 1, when plots came more from the books and he had even more of a chip on his shoulder at times.)

That night I looked up information on the series (or perhaps it was on William Talman specifically; I don't recall for certain) and stumbled across the wonderful website The Perry Mason TV Show Book, which is still in existence today. I read and read. And I was thrilled by the wealth of information. I also learned of two "Holy Grail" episodes, which from that point on I tried desperately to catch: Paul Drake's Dilemma and The Prudent Prosecutor. My interest in both of them was due to what the book said about Mr. Burger's behavior during their events.

I don't recall how or why it happened, but eventually I did drift. (It may have been during the time of William Talman's absence.) I no longer stayed to watch full episodes, although I often heard the episodes on from other parts of the house and smiled to myself at the familiar theme and the characters' voices. I often did catch parts of episodes, and occasionally complete ones, while performing various tasks around the house. And when we moved to a new home, Perry continued to be just as much a household name as before. I never stopped loving the characters, nor seeking to catch my "Holy Grail" episodes, but during that period I was taking it all for granted.

It was directly thanks to the great character actor Simon Oakland that I came back. Earlier this year I became deeply interested in his works. Of course, that eventually led me to his two guest-spots on Perry. With the DVD sets being released, and with our new Netflix subscription, I set out to get hold of those episodes.

I remembered what I'd read years ago about the point in time when William Talman was unfairly fired. I couldn't remember for how long he had been absent. At the time, I mistakenly thought it had been for several seasons. After I viewed Simon's episode The Misguided Missile on my disc, I planned to send the disc back without viewing the other episodes. Either that, or simply give it over to my parents if they wanted to see the others. I didn't have much interest in seeing the other episodes if William wasn't there. I felt, and still feel, that his character Mr. Burger is vital to the series. Both he and Perry are needed. Actually, all the characters are needed; I'm not looking forward to the episodes on our station where Lieutenant Tragg is gone. But I'll confess that Mr. Burger is one of my two favorite characters. (Perry being the other.) And without the dynamic of the two lawyers, the episodes feel particularly lacking.

I decided to research the other episodes on the disc. To my surprise, William was in all of the other three. So I determined I would watch them all. And when I did, all the old feelings came back in full force. I remembered why I'd loved the series years ago. I remembered the scenes I was fascinated by. And I renewed my determination to see those "Holy Grail" episodes.

I finally did. My wonderful station showed them at last when I was able to catch them. I was thrilled by both of them, but particularly The Prudent Prosecutor. And now I have a new "Holy Grail" episode, The Nervous Neighbor. I hope it won't take me another decade to catch it!

Currently I've been watching season 1 and what's up of season 2 online, legally at CBS.com and Bing Videos. I've discovered some old favorites as well as new ones. And once again I've been making time for the episodes six nights a week on our station. We are in season 4, and I miss Mr. Burger highly. I'm looking forward to a season 6 episode on Saturday night. (Saturday's episodes don't follow the weekday schedule; they have their own.)

Despite still being a fairly steady viewer himself, my dad sometimes complains about what he deems the flaws in the series, such as the courtroom confessions and Mr. Burger's and Tragg's continuing arguments against Perry. I think he probably hasn't picked up on the friendlier scenes between the lawyers that captured my interest from the start. But regardless, in spite of whatever flaws the series may have, the good far outweighs the bad. Hence comes the title of this blog.

Objection overruled; Perry Mason is awesome. And I won't take it for granted again.