'I looked to my right and saw Barbara," said Raymond Burr. "And it wiped 25 years away . . . I have loved her all these years."
NBC is hoping television viewers of sufficient age will splash in the same wave of nostalgia and affection when they see "Perry Mason Returns" Sunday at 9. The NBC made-for-TV-movie reprise of the long-running courtroom drama series reunites Burr with Barbara Hale, sole survivors among the principal players in a show that ran for nine seasons on CBS.
"Next year will be the 30th year since we did the pilot for the series," recalled Burr. "Every season I said I'd like to do a two-hour show. We had to simplify the plots (to keep the shows to one hour). We never did a full Erle Stanley Gardner story," he said.
Finally Burr has his wish, a two-hour period in which to spin a Mason yarn. But Perry Mason enthusiasts should not regard this film as a portent of a full-scale revival. "I would agree to two or three two-hour shows each year. I think that's an excellent idea," said Burr. "It might return as a regular series, but not with me."
As a regular series, with Burr and a tremendous ensemble cast, "Perry Mason" was one of television's most memorable shows. The character of the brilliant defense attorney, created by Gardner, himself a lawyer, had been the center of a radio series for a dozen years.
Burr noted that about 100 actors tried out for the part of television's Mason, including Richard Carlson, Fred MacMurray and Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. Burr strolled in prepared to try out for the role of Mason's perpetual adversary, prosecutor Hamilton Burger. "When Erle saw me," Burr recalled, "He said, 'that's my Perry Mason.'" And everybody else's. Burr won two Emmys for his portrayal.
The original series had Hale as Della Street, Mason's private secretary; William Hopper, son of Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper, was Paul Drake, Mason's private detective; William Talman won the role of Burger, and Ray Collins played police Lt. Arthur Tragg.
A testimony to the special chemistry of the show is the fact that an attempted revival with Monte Markham in the Perry Mason role lasted just 14 weeks.
In this latest Mason outing, we find Perry 19 years later serving as an appellate judge. When Della Street is charged with murder, he resigns from the bench to rush to her defense. William Katt (Hale's son) plays Paul Drake Jr. and Cassie Yates is prosecutor Julie Scott.
Burr, who was born 68 years ago in British Columbia, started acting when he was 12. Before becoming indelibly identified with Perry Mason, Burr made about 100 movies, including "A Place in the Sun" and "Rear Window," generally playing a bad guy. He followed "Perry Mason" with eight seasons as paraplegic Police Chief Robert Ironside. "I think 'Ironside' helped people wake up to the fact that people who are incapacitated can be productive," he said.
An original cast member in the "Godzilla" film of 30 years ago, Burr also plays in "Godzilla 1985," the long- unawaited sequel.
Burr splits his time between his Northern California ranch and the Fiji Islands. In the islands he gets up at 3:30 or 4 in the morning to see to the raising of cattle and orchids. In California he raises sheep for wool and grapes for the table. In five years he expects to be producing grapes for wine.
There's nothing in his career that he wouldn't do over again, said Burr, except, ironically, "the last four or five years of 'Perry Mason.' It took four or five years of removal from life to do it. I should have been married, helping to raise a family, keeping in close touch with friends. I did none of that. I should have done four or five years of 'Perry Mason' -- and went on to do nine."
If he has reservations about Mason in hindsight, he is far more expansive about the current effort. "Fred Silverman, whom I think is a genius, put this together and sold it to NBC," he said. The controversial former network programming executive was executive producer of the show along with Dean Hargrove. Barry Steinberg produced and Ron Satlof directed from Hargrove's teleplay.
"I don't know how you're going to like it," said Burr, "but for me it's a miracle of production, casting, writing and good feeling . . . If that happens once in a lifetime, you're lucky."