Barbara Hale, who played Della Street on ‘Perry Mason,’ dies at 94

Barbara Hale, a wavy-haired model and Hollywood leading lady of the 1940s and 1950s who warbled with Frank Sinatra in his first big film role and had a long television career as the devoted secretary Della Street to Raymond Burr’s tireless defense lawyer Perry Mason, died Jan. 26 at her home in Sherman Oaks, California. She was 94.

Hale was the matriarch of a show business family that included her late husband, actor Bill Williams, who starred in the 1950s western series “The Adventures of Kit Carson,” and their son, William Katt, who played the title role in the early 1980s TV series “The Greatest American Hero,” confirmed the death and said the cause was complications from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Although Hale had a flourishing career in movies – often in wholesome roles opposite stars such as James Stewart, James Cagney and Robert Mitchum – she found her big-screen career overshadowed by her work on CBS’s “Perry Mason.”

The series aired from 1957 to 1966, making it one of the longest-airing courtroom shows in history, and Hale earned an Emmy Award for her role as Street. Two decades later, she reprised her role in more than two dozen made-for-TV movies for NBC.

- FWBP Digital Partners -

Mason, who solved murder mysteries with his savvy as a cross-examiner, is the creation of novelist Erle Stanley Gardner.

There had been many Mason iterations: a low-budget movie series in the 1930s with titles such as “The Case of the Lucky Legs” and “The Case of the Curious Bride” and then as a radio show on CBS from 1943 to 1955, with a rotating cast of Masons and Streets.

The television series was propelled by the chemistry among its top cast: Burr as the brilliant courtroom tactician, William Hopper as the private investigator who helps Mason pull off his legal victories in down-to-the-wire dramatics, and Hale as the glamorous and unflappable secretary who gamely stays late at the office every day. The perpetually stymied adversary was the district attorney played by William Talman.

Hale, who won a 1959 Emmy for best supporting actress in a dramatic series, stayed with the show until it folded. Burr once called her “a remarkably intuitive actress. She has an instinct for doing exactly the right thing when it is needed.” The actor, who cultivated orchids in his spare time, named one after her.

- Advertisement -

She later appeared in movies such as the all-star disaster film “Airport” (1970) – as the wife of a pilot played by Dean Martin – and had a long sideline as a commercial pitchwoman for Amana kitchen appliances.

Hale and Burr – the surviving members of the old principal cast – reunited in 1985 for “Perry Mason Returns,” in which Mason takes leave from a judgeship to exonerate his former secretary from a murder charge. Hale’s son, William, played the private eye role.

“Perry Mason Returns” was an enormous hit and led to a run of made-for-television movies. They tended to accent the personal, thoroughly platonic bond between Mason and Street far more than the old series.

As Hale was doing interviews to promote “The Case of the Telltale Talk Show Host,” which aired in 1993, she confided to a reporter, “This week, at the end of the show, very quietly and very surprisingly, Perry plants one on Della. It’s a first!”

- Advertisement -

After Burr’s death in 1993, the TV movies continued briefly with Hale as Street and Hal Holbrook playing a defense lawyer named “Wild Bill” McKenzie.

Barbara Hale was born April 18, 1922, in De Kalb, Illinois, and grew up in Rockford, Ill., where her father was a landscape gardener. She won a beauty contest while in high school, and while attending the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, she began modeling.

For a time, she became known as the “Long Woolies Girl” for her form-fitting allure in warming undergarments.

RKO studios in Hollywood took notice of her striking looks and put her under contract for movie work. In a small role, she sang with Sinatra in “Higher and Higher” (1943). “I never had been so scared in my life,” she later told the Los Angeles Times, “but he’s been a very dear friend ever since.”

She rose to leading parts opposite Robert Mitchum in “West of the Pecos” (1945) and the comedy-romance “Lady Luck (1946) with Robert Young.

In “The Window” (1949), a first-rate thriller, she and Arthur Kennedy played the preoccupied parents of a tenement youth (Bobby Driscoll) who witnesses a murder and becomes the target of the killers. Hale also starred with Williams, her husband, in “The Clay Pigeon” (1949), a taut drama about a veteran who is framed on a murder charge. In “A Lion Is in the Streets” (1953), she was the sweet-natured wife to James Cagney’s rabid political demagogue.

She co-starred with Larry Parks in “Jolson Sings Again” (1949), playing a wife of the entertainer Al Jolson, as James Stewart’s spouse in the light comedy “The Jackpot” (1950), and in the title role in the costume romance “Lorna Doone” (1951) with Richard Greene.

Hale also was a leading lady in westerns such as “The Lone Hand” (1953) and “The Oklahoman (1957), both with Joel McCrea, and “7th Cavalry” (1956), with Randolph Scott. In “The Far Horizons” (1955), with Fred MacMurray and Charlton Heston as the westward explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, Ms. Hale played a love interest of the two men along with Donna Reed as the Indian maiden Sacagawea.

In addition, Hale became a prolific performer on TV anthology series such as “Climax!,” “Schlitz Playhouse” and “Playhouse 90.” In the early 1980s, she appeared on “The Greatest American Hero” playing the mother of Katt’s character.

Hale wed Bill Williams, whose real name was Herman Katt, in 1946. He died in 1992. Besides their son, of Woodland Hills, Calif., survivors include two daughters, Johanna Katt and Juanita King, both of Van Nuys, Calif.; two half-brothers; and six grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

In 1993, Hale told the Chicago Tribune that playing Della Street for so long was appealing for many reasons – among them, the character did not threaten to throw off her family life when she was a young mother.

“When we started, it was the beginning of women not working at home,” she said. “I liked that she was not married. My husband didn’t have to see me every week married to another man, and our children didn’t have to see me mothering other children.

“When [my son] Billy was in the first grade, we went to school for the first parent meeting, and on his desk were little projects he’d made – pictures of Daddy and Mommy and his sister and his animals. And underneath my picture … he’d written in inch-high block letters, ‘This is my mom. I love her. She is a secretary.’ “