Like most people of my generation, I remember Barbara Hale best as Perry Mason’s stalwart secretary, Della Street. My mother was a big fan of the Raymond Burr series, and we watched it whenever it came on. When I worked at UPN 44 in Tampa, I would often drive home on my lunch break and enjoy a couple sandwiches while Perry, et al worked a case, airing on the same station.
Hale grew up in the midwest and set her sights on a career in art direction in advertising. But facing stiff competition at Chicago’s Academy of Fine Arts, she turned to modeling.
Her modeling agent sent her photos to RKO, which led to a meeting in the studio’s offices. She flew to Los Angeles to meet with Casting Director Dick Stockton. As she was shaking Stockton’s hand, the phone rang. He answered it, then turned to her and asked if she could “say a line.” Apparently one of the girls had gotten sick and they needed an attractive replacement. She was ushered to wardrobe, makeup and Stage 6, beginning her career as an RKO contract player, where she first met future c0-star Raymond Burr.
Hale made 7 films that first year – 1943 – finally becoming a credited player on “Higher and Higher,” one of Frank Sinatra’s early films. She would make some 50 films over the next 13 years. In 1945, On West of the Pecos, she met another career player, Bill Williams. They fell fast in love, married, and played newlyweds in their next film, “A Likely Story.” They had 3 kids, including William Katt, best known as the star of TV’s “The Greatest American Hero” (which Hale guest starred on one episode as his mom!).
After the birth of her third child, she cut back on her acting duties, preferring the life of a mother, taking small jobs to keep her husband happy and was seriously considering retiring when opportunity came knocking.
When Hale was initially asked to read the script for Perry Mason, she turned it down, explaining that she really didn’t want to do a series. But Producer Gail Patrick Johnson, herself a former actress, pressed her hard, enticing her with working with her old friend Burr. She finally agreed, and, remarkably, is the only actor to appear in all 270 episodes, every single Perry Mason movie, and even a short-lived spinoff of the show with Paul Sorvino. Her husband guest starred on a few episodes and her son came on during the movies in the 80’s, playing the son of Detective Paul Drake.
She passed quietly in her sleep in her home in Sherman Oaks at age 94.