Michael Reston: The Washington Generals of Prosecuting Attorneys

With the end of Starz’s relationship with Netflix, the Perry Mason TV movies are set to disappear off the Instant Watch. I’ve set the goal of seeing all the 1980s-90s Mason TV films before they disappear.

So far, I’ve seen nine of them which encompasses the Paul Drake, Jr. era.  Some observations so far on these Perry Mason mysteries:

D.A. Michael Reston’s amazing prosecutorial road show:  The first Perry Mason movie, Perry Mason Returns featured a generic prosecutor.  For the second Mason film, The Case of the Notorious Nun,  Michael Reston (David Ogden Stiers, M*A*S*H*)  took over the role of prosecutor for the next eight movies.  Reston is moderately competent, prone to cockiness no matter how many times Mason hands Reston’s head to him, Reston is always ready to tell Mason that this time he’s picked a loser.

Perry Mason  has never been a “by the book”  legal procedural, but Reston may have been the show’s biggest legal plothole. In his first appearance, Reston is the prosecuting attorney  as Mason represents a nun in California. The next movie, Perry Mason is in New York and defends a TV star accused of murder in The Case of the Shooting Star and once again, inexplicably, Reston is the prosecutor.  Perry Mason’s next case is in Denver, where he defends the hushband of a woman likely to be appointed to the United States Senate. Reston is once again the prosecutor and this time explains that due to the politically charged case, Reston was called in as a special prosecutor. The series then settles down in Denver with Reston having apparently moved to Denver along with Perry Mason, so that he could at irregular intervals, lose court cases. Or perhaps, he thought eventually, somewhere, he could beat Perry Mason. It’s reminiscent of the Washington Generals who travelled the world  for decades losing thousands of games in a row to the Harlem Globetrotters.  Reston’s final case has him prosecuting a case, not in Denver, but in a rural county in Colorado.  I’ll definitely miss Reston’s presence in future films, but at least he got to settle down.

Paul Drake, Jr: I didn’t really get into watching the Perry Mason movies until the 1990s, so prior to my recent spree, I’d only seen one of the episodes featuring Paul Drake, Jr. (William Katt, The Greatest American Hero.)  When Perry Mason Returns aired in 1985, the writers dealt with the death of William Hopper (who played Paul Drake in the original series) by introducing Drake. Jr. as a free spirited young private eye who had pared the once-powerful Drake Detective Agency to just a one man operation, so he could pursue his other interests.

In this case, the resemblance between father and son ended at the name. Drake Jr. more often than not, comically stumbled through his cases, habitually just missing leads and losing suspects.  He was likable, but I definitely prefer William Moses’ performance as Ken Malansky.

Perry Mason and Della Street:  One thing, I’ve found astonishing, reading through fan reviews of the various Mason Telefilms is the complaints about Raymond Burr’s poor health> Some even suggested that show producers should have required Burr (who was 68 when the first film was made and 76 when the last one was completed) to lose weight for the role.

Such thoughts never occurred to me, either when watching Perry Mason as a child, nor watching the movies now. It’s true that Burr has to use a cane in many episodes, but he was still Perry Mason, and while Perry was not in his physical prime, he was just as sharp, shrewd, and dangerous of an adversary as he’d been in the 1950s. Raymond Burr’s voice, his presence, and his great chemistry with Barbara Hale made even the weaker entries worth watching, even all these years later.

Suspending Disbelief: Watching these Perry Mason movies, I’m constantly struck by how much suspension of disbelief is required for some of the courtroom scenes, and I’m not referring to the trademark courtroom confession.  I’m struck by some of the utterly amazing lines of questioning that the lawyers ask for soeemingly no good reason. In one movie, Perry impeaches the credibility of a witness when it will do absolutely nothing to cast a reasonable doubt on his client’s guilt.  In another movie,  Reston  challenges Della’s character testimony on behalf of a client by making he radmit she’d been briefly engaged several decades ago to the Defendant’s brother. I’m reminded that Perry Mason was practically a courtroom fantasy and to properly enjoy it, you have to forget, at least temporarily, how real courts work.

The Best So Far: Of the first nine Movies in the Drake. Jr.-Reston era, I’d say the three best so far  would be:   Perry Mason and the Case of the Lost Love which featured an intricate mystery, the solution to which put Perry in a very difficult position. I also liked the twists in Perry Mason and the Case of the Sinister Spirit and Perry Mason and the Case of the Lady in the Lake. The weakest was  Perry Mason and the Case of the Murdered Madam.

I hope to see the remaining 17 Perry Mason Movies before they disappear from Netflix. The Ken Malansky (William Moses) era of the movies were the ones I remember best.

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  2 comments for “Michael Reston: The Washington Generals of Prosecuting Attorneys”

  1. D.Mae
    July 4, 2012 at 3:18 am

    I so second your paragraph about Perry Mason and Della Street. Such thoughts never occurred to me either, I was rather taken in by Raymond Burr’s powerhouse deliveries and Barbara Hale’s gracious charm, as well as her chemistry with him. And that hasn’t changed until today.

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