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Barbara Hale, who played the steadfast secretary Della Street opposite Raymond Burr on the legendary courtroom drama Perry Mason for nine seasons and 30 telefilms, has died. She was 94.
Hale, a former contract player at RKO and Columbia who made more than 50 films before landing her signature role, died Thursday at her Sherman Oaks home in Los Angeles.
Survivors include her son William Katt, best known as the star of the 1980s ABC series The Greatest American Hero. He reported her death on Facebook.
“We’ve all been so lucky to have her for so long,” Katt wrote. “She was gracious and kind and silly and always fun to be with. A wonderful actress and smart businesswoman, she was most of all a treasure as a friend and mother!”
Hale was mulling retirement to raise her three young children with her husband, actor Bill Williams (The Adventures of Kit Carson), when producer Gail Patrick Jackson approached her about playing Della on Perry Mason.
She quickly accepted the gig when she discovered that Burr, her old friend from RKO, was going to star as the fictional defense attorney on the series based on the Erle Stanley Gardner mystery novels.
Hale received two Emmy nominations (winning in 1959) for playing the quiet beauty who was the rock of stability on Mason’s team. She liked the fact that Della was unmarried and without kids so it wouldn’t confuse her real-life children.
Perry Mason, with its distinctive Fred Steiner theme song, “Park Avenue Beat,” aired on CBS from 1957-66 as the first network hourlong show to be filmed, not done live.
In 1985, Burr and Hale came back for the NBC telefilm Perry Mason Returns to kick things off again. (It also marked the first time that Katt played Paul Drake Jr., the son of Mason’s right-hand man/private investigator portrayed by William Hopper on the CBS original.)
Della “was to a great degree, a woman who knew what everybody was thinking,” Hale said in a 1993 interview with the Chicago Tribune. “She was informed and very observant of everything that went on. That was my challenge as an actress — to be a necessary part of the office without being too aggressive. Della was quietly overpowering: She knew when to speak and when to keep her mouth closed.”
Four of the Perry Mason telefilms were made after the death of Burr, with Paul Sorvino and Hal Holbrook stepping in. Hale retired from acting after the last installment, 1995’s A Perry Mason Mystery: The Case of the Jealous Jokester.
Hale also played a murder suspect on a 1971 episode of Burr’s follow-up to Perry Mason, the NBC crime drama Ironside.
Barbara Hale was born April 18, 1922, in DeKalb, Ill. After graduating from Rockford (Ill.) High School, she studied art and drawing at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts (not surprisingly, she often sketched during lulls on the Perry Mason set) and modeled for a comic strip called Ramblin’ Bill. That got her tryout at RKO.
The day after she arrived in Los Angeles, she visited the studio and casting director Dick Stockton.
“As I was shaking hands with him, the phone rang,” she recalled in the Tribune story. “He took the call and as he listened, he started looking at me. ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, just a minute.’ He turned to me and asked, ‘Honey, can you say a line?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’
“He said into the phone, ‘There’s a kid in the office right now. I think she’ll work. I’ll send her right over.’ He told his assistant, ‘Take her to wardrobe, take her to makeup, take her to Stage 6. One of the kids is sick. We’ve got to have a girl there immediately.’
“It hit every paper the next day. Cinderella story. First day on the lot, she gets … of course they said a starring part. I had one line, but you know about those things.”
The movie was Gildersleeve’s Bad Day, one of seven 1943 films in which she appeared as uncredited eye candy. She did receive her first credit that year when she played a debutante in Higher and Higher, one of Frank Sinatra’s first movies.
Hale met fellow RKO contract player Williams (real name: Herman Katt) on the set of West of the Pecos (1945), and they married in 1946. They were together until his death in 1992.
After appearing in such films as The First Yank in Tokyo (1945), The Boy With the Green Hair (1948), The Window (1949) and, with her husband, The Clay Pigeon (1949), Hale delivered perhaps her most notable movie performance in the Columbia sequel Jolson Sings Again (1949), playing a nurse and the singer’s new wife.
Hale then appeared often as the female lead in a number of top-level movies, including Lorna Doone (1951) with Richard Greene, The First Time (1952) with Robert Cummings, Seminole (1953) with Rock Hudson and Hugh O’Brian, The Lone Hand (1953) and The Oklahoman (1957) with Joel McCrea, A Lion Is in the Streets (1953) with James Cagney, 7th Cavalry (1956) with Randolph Scott and The Houston Story (1956) with Gene Barry.
After the Perry Mason series ended, Hale appeared in the star-studded Airport (1970), in the lamentable The Giant Spider Invasion (1975) and alongside her son in the John Milius surfing picture Big Wednesday (1978). She also played Katt’s mom on a 1982 episode of The Greatest American Hero.
“We’re all a little lost without her,” Katt wrote, “but we have extraordinary stories and memories to take with us for the rest of our lives.”
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