For most classic TV and movie buffs, Barbara Hale’s most iconic character, without a doubt, is Della Street, the always devoted secretary to Raymond Burr’s equally iconic attorney Perry Mason. She is also the quietest character the actress played in her 50-year-long career and quite different from the other personalities she brought to screen. She was a tough army nurse in captivity, a small-town artist in New York, a worn out Lower East Side mother, an independent lady doctor, a nightclub singer, and a widowed farmer. The characters she portrayed were as diverse as the genres she starred in – screwball, drama, film noir, science-fiction, and Western. Barbara Hale excelled in them all, her Midwestern heartiness, warm voice and genuine smile becoming her trademark early on.Originally from Rockford, Illinois, Hale began her career as an art student at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. She lived at the YWCA and shared a room with a friend when she started modeling for a comic strip called Ramblin’ Bill. Following a chance encounter, she found additional work as a fashion model which ultimately brought her to the attention of a talent scout from L.A. Sent out to California to test for RKO, she landed her first part as an extra upon arrival at the studio, replacing a girl who had fallen ill. Labeled Cinderella by the studio’s PR department, who were thrilled to learn about her fairytale advent, Barbara received a six-month tryout contract which included classes such as singing and dancing, her “paid education” as Hale herself would later call it.
After a variety of uncredited appearances in 1943, Barbara got a full contract and made her supporting actress debut later that year, opposite Frank Sinatra in Higher and Higher. Two stints on the Falcon movies followed before she pursued her ambition and secured her first big part in the 1944 Zane Grey Western West of the Pecos with Robert Mitchum. More leads followed, including First Yank into Tokyo and The Window, as well as A Likely Story and The Clay Pigeon alongside fellow contract player Bill Williams, whom she married in 1946. After giving birth to her first-born daughter Jody one year later, Hale slowly started shopping for alternatives to her ending contract at RKO and finally left the uncertain studio situation in 1948. She stunned many insiders with her demure skills of winning a new contract with Columbia, convincing the studio of her talents opposite Larry Parks in Jolson Sings Again. Only one year later, in 1949, she reunited with former RKO colleague and Lady Luck co-star Robert Young before she starred alongside James Stewart in The Jackpot in 1950. Although already carrying her second child, son Billy (who would grow up to become actor William Katt), she also managed to get the lead in Lorna Doone, then reunited with Parks for Emergency Wedding. In 1953, Barbara had her third child, Juanita, and returned to making Westerns while husband Bill found fame as TV’s Kit Carson. She was cast for Last of the Comanches, which was followed by a couple of other successful films produced by Columbia and other studios, including Seminole and The Lone Hand in 1953, 1955’s The Far Horizons, 7th Cavalry in 1956, and The Oklahoman and Slim Carter in 1957.
Starting with the birth of her children, Hale slowly cut back on her work to dedicate more time to her family and to support her husband’s flourishing career. From 1953 on, she accepted sporadic TV work but was reluctant about accepting offers for regular parts on shows such as Meet Mr. McNulty or The Danny Thomas Show. In 1956, Gail Patrick Jackson offered her the part of Della Street on Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason, but Hale was hesitant about the workload due to the tender age of her children. It wasn’t until she read the script and learned that Raymond Burr would play the famous lawyer that she caved in. After all, she was convinced that no one would last longer than those 18 intended episodes memorizing those long courtroom speeches. But Raymond Burr proved her wrong and Perry Mason had a successful run of nine years. Often praised by her colleagues for her gift to give true meaning to the term supporting actress, her congeniality with her fellow actors was rewarded with an Emmy in 1959. Living up to her reputation, Barbara accepted her award with a humble “thank you” to her fellow cast members and family. She received another nomination for her performance as steadfast Della in 1961 and was a fan favorite of many secretaries in real life. On the air for 271 episodes, Perry Mason was famous for its close-knit cast and welcoming atmosphere which helped it last through time slot changes and network policies.
When Perry Mason was terminated on CBS in 1966, Hale reclaimed her guest-starring qualities and appeared in several popular TV shows of the time such as Lassie and Adam-12. In 1971, she reunited with her friend Raymond Burr on his new show Ironside and became the television spokesperson for Amana kitchen appliances. She also continued working as a supporting actress on a couple of movies, including 1970’s Airport and Big Wednesday in 1978 (as the mother of real-life son William Katt), before Perry Mason successfully reclaimed the small screen in 1985 for another 10-year run. After the death of her husband of 46 years in 1992 and Burr’s passing one year later, Barbara continued working on The Perry Mason Mysteries until she retired from acting in 1994 without disclosing her own health issues. She has committed her time to her grandchildren and great-grand-children since, but recent interviews with her are available on the 50th Anniversary of Perry Mason DVD. Today, she lives in the San Fernando Valley and she celebrated her 90th birthday on April 18th, a milestone which was dearly remembered by her many loyal fans.
Melanie Simone is a writer with a degree in American Studies and English. On Talking Classics, she savors her love for vintage Hollywood.