Perry Mason still trying new cases


May 14, 1991|By Steve McKerrow

Let's say you were sitting there on the evening of Sept. 21, 1957, and caught the premiere on CBS of "Perry Mason," with a relatively slim Raymond Burr in the role of writer Erle Stanley Gardner's famous defense attorney.

Could you have imagined that you might be sitting down to see Perry/Burr at work again tonight, in 1991, and in a ratings "sweeps" month to boot?

Yet it's true, for NBC tonight has another movie-length return, "Perry Mason: The Case of the Glass Coffin" (at 8, Channel 2, also featuring the return of Peter "Newhart" Scolari). It's proof positive that some old TV stars don't even fade away.

And on the same time-machine trip, ABC announced over the weekend it is picking up another two seasons of movie specials -- four next season and four in the 1992/93 season -- of "Columbo," the series featuring Peter Falk's rumpled detective, who first hit the air in September 1971 on NBC.

What's going on? For all the frequent frenzy on TV to find something fresh and new, it is surprising how often what worked in the past still finds substantial viewers. Somehow, the tube functions as a cultural reference point, offering us familiar figures with whom to spend some time.

In more trivial terms, however, Media Monitor finds it ironic to discover that while Burr and Falk clearly are among the most popular figures of TV past and present, neither was apparently a first choice for the parts (according to the reference work "Total Television," by Alex McNeil)

"Perry Mason" came to TV from radio, and do you know what big movie star was first considered for the visual role? Actor Fred MacMurray (who later would jump to TV in "My Three Sons"). Others considered included Richard Carlson (another '40s movie star), Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (who would star on TV in "The FBI") and William Hopper (who would become detective Paul Drake in "Perry Mason").

And did you know that Burr originally tested for the role of prosecutor Hamilton Burger (subsequently filled by William Talman)?

As for Falk and the role of the unconventional police lieutenant, he was not even the first "Columbo" on TV. That was Bert Freed, who portrayed a Lt. Columbo in a 1961 segment of "The Sunday Mystery Hour," in which writers Richard Levinson and William Link first created the character.

An actor named Thomas Mitchell played the part in a subsequent stage play, "Prescription Murder," and when Universal Studios was casting the TV series, Lee J. Cobb and Bing Crosby were both reportedly considered for the role, but were not available.

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