I’m giving this post an atypical overhaul to add some links and note the death (on August 21) of Edward Denault, who accomplished a lot of other things in his career but who is probably most familiar to readers of this blog as an assistant director on a many episodes of The Twilight Zone.

I often hear people remark, in response to an obituary, “I thought he died a long time ago!”  I almost never have that reaction to an obit, because it’s my job to keep tabs on such things, but I confess that I thought Eddie Denault died a long time ago.  If I’d known otherwise, I would have sought an interview with him.  I’m pretty sure Martin Grams didn’t talk to Denault for his comprehensive Twilight Zone book, either.

In the fifties and sixties, assistant directors and production managers tended to be staffers at a particular studio, but Denault may have been a rare freelancer.  Checking my records, I find him credited not just on The Twilight Zone but also on some Revue shows and, for a few years in the early sixties, a lot of Four Star productions, like The Dick Powell Show and The Rifleman.  Later he was a production executive at Lorimar, on The Waltons, Dallas, and Knots Landing, among others.  Variety‘s obit is firewalled but it’s been copied here.

Ahna Capri was a really gorgeous ingenue, best known for two films released in 1973, one silly (Enter the Dragon) and one serious (Payday).  On television she was a child actress (Make Room For Daddy), a teenaged girlfriend for Eddie Haskell (Leave It to Beaver), a not-quite-A-list adult guest star on a lot of genre shows in the sixties and seventies (The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Invaders, Banacek), and inactive after 1979 (Mrs. Columbo, not a good one to go out on).  I think Tom Lisanti broke the news on his blog and so far the Hollywood Reporter has the only obit, which reports that Capri never married (interesting) and died on August 19 after being wiped out by a truck and spending 11 days on life support (horrifying).

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Screen and television writer Raphael Hayes died on August 14 at the age of 95.  Hayes was a live television playwright who earned an Oscar nomination for the independent film One Potato, Two Potato (1964) and then found an unlikely home on the Daniel Boone TV series before leaving the industry altogether.  There’s little I can say about Hayes that isn’t covered already in my 2003 interview with him.

News of the death of Jackson Gillis on August 19 just emerged today, but hopefully some real obits will follow in the coming days.  Gillis was a key writer for both The Adventures of Superman and Perry Mason, and also piled up credits on tons of other popular mystery and fantasy shows including Burke’s Law (two scripts in collaboration with cult pulp novelist Day Keene), Lost in Space, both U.N.C.L.E. series, and Mannix.  Gillis did not respond to several of my interview requests during the past decade (poor health or reclusiveness? I’m sometimes tempted to add “please check one” on follow-up letters) but there are brief biographies of him on this Superman site and this Mickey Mouse Club siteUpdate: Variety’s meager obit is reproduced here, and finally the New York Times has one here.

Perry Mason Never Dies

July 23, 2009

Things sometimes move slowly here at the Classic TV History blog.  (It is, after all, mostly about old stuff).  That’s why I’m a bit late in noting that a television classic made an unexpected and widely reported appearance in the news last week. 

During soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings, a question from Senator Amy Klobuchar prompted Sotomayor to mention Perry Mason as an influence (one of several the jurist pulled from the realm of popular culture).  That’s Perry Mason the show, not Perry the man: Sotomayor explained that as a youth her sympathies lay with the series’ fictitious district attorney, Hamilton Burger.  Sotomayor went on to offer a fairly specific example of how the relationship between Mason and his adversary inspired her to become a prosecutor herself:

“Perry said to the prosecutor, ‘It must cause you some pain having expended all that effort and to have the charges dismissed.’

“And the prosecutor looked up and said, ‘No, my job as a prosecutor is to do justice, and justice is served when a guilty man is convicted and an innocent man is not.’ And I thought to myself, that’s quite amazing, to be able to serve that role.”

I guess Raymond Burr was right when he told author David Martindale that “Perry Mason awakened people’s interest in our system of justice.  For a lot of people, it still awakens that interest.”

Later, Senator Al Franken – appropriately, a former television personality himself – followed up by making the jokey but not totally irrelevant observation that Hamilton Burger was kind of a loser.  A legendary loser in the annals of TV history, in fact, and so how exactly did Sotomayor settle upon him as a role model?

Sotomayor then gestured, holding up one index finger, and Franken followed her train of thought by referencing one of the famous canards in television history: that Perry Mason lost only a single case.  Franken and Sotomayor joked about how neither could remember the episode in which this event occurred. 

Perhaps that’s because it’s apocryphal, sort of.  In The Perry Mason Casebook, Martindale explains at some length the circumstances under which Mason actually lost three legal decisions during the course of the series’ 271 episodes.  But those losses were either asides to the main storyline or set-ups for scenarios in which Mason did triumph.  It wasn’t as if Perry ever actually got thoroughly trounced by the hapless Hamilton Burger and watched as an innocent client got hauled off to the electric chair thanks to his legal missteps.

I think it’s probably a good sign for the state of the nation that our leaders are starting to display some evidence of having spent too much time watching television.  But I wish that, if television history is going to be the topic of the day on the Senate floor, someone would consult an expert beforehand.  I, for instance, can think of a couple of follow-up questions that I would have liked to see Senator Franken ask. 

One is, how come Judge Sotomayor was watching Perry Mason instead of The Defenders?  There’s room in the television universe for both of these concurrent but polar-opposite takes on our legal system, one of which had nothing to do with reality and the other of which shoved it into your face.  Perry Mason has been enshrined over the years (escapism is unkillable), while The Defenders is largely forgotten now.  But The Defenders was a show that actually examined issues, like race and abortion, upon which Justice Sotomayor will soon be ruling.  The Defenders also depicted a world in which prosecutors sometimes prevailed over defense attorneys, even when the defendants deserved to win.  I can live with a Supreme Court justice who has a shelf of Perry Mason DVDs in her office.  But I would rather have had a Defenders fan.

My other question would have been, was Hamilton Burger related to the former Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger?  Because some things run in the family.

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