Barbara Hale, Who Played Perry Mason’s Loyal Secretary, Dies at 94

Barbara Hale, the Emmy Award-winning actress who typified the ideal mid-20th-century secretary as the beautiful, loyal, confident but soft-spoken Della Street on the television series “Perry Mason,” died on Thursday at her home in Los Angeles. She was 94.

Her death was confirmed by Jacqueline Stander, the agent for the actor William Katt, Ms. Hale’s son.

Ms. Hale had been working in Hollywood for well over a decade when she was offered the supporting role on “Perry Mason,” the CBS courtroom series starring Raymond Burr as an unbeatable criminal lawyer. The show ran from 1957 to 1966, with Della — Ms. Hale in classic businesslike fashions and her trademark short, dark hair — as a steadying and infinitely reliable presence, if not a constant one.

“Della wasn’t really a very big role,” Ms. Hale told the New Jersey newspaper The Record in 1986. “I had six days, six lines and six wardrobe changes a show. When I changed clothes, it signified another day had gone by in the script.”

It was important enough, however, for Ms. Hale to receive the Emmy Award for best supporting actress in a dramatic series in 1959. In 1985 she and Burr were reunited for a television movie, “Perry Mason Returns,” which won such high ratings that it led to 29 more TV movies starring the same characters.

Some viewers speculated about a possible romance between Perry and Della. Offscreen, Ms. Hale and Mr. Burr were close friends. An avid gardener, he even named an orchid for her.

After Mr. Burr died in 1993, three more films in the series were made, starring other actors. (They were known as “Perry Mason Mysteries,” but the role of Perry Mason was not recast.) The last was “A Perry Mason Mystery: The Case of the Jealous Jokester” (1995), with Hal Holbrook and Ms. Hale. It was her last screen appearance.

Barbara Hale was born on April 18, 1922, in DeKalb, Ill., the younger of two daughters of Luther Ezra Hale, a horticulturist, and the former Willa Calvin. Two years later the family moved to nearby Rockford.

After graduating from Rockford High School, where she was May queen, Ms. Hale went to Chicago to study commercial art at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. Her dream job, she said years later, was to be an animator for the Disney studio. But at 19 she was spotted on a street corner by a models’ agent, who found her work locally (one early job was posing for a comic strip) and was so impressed with his discovery that he sent her photographs to RKO Studios.

RKO offered her a train ticket to Hollywood and a six-month contract. Arriving in 1942, she made her film debut as “girl at party” in a 1943 courtroom comedy, “Gildersleeve’s Bad Day,” the second in a series of movies based on the popular radio series “The Great Gildersleeve.” Her first credited role came later that year, in “Higher and Higher,” a musical comedy with a cast that also included Frank Sinatra.

Over the next 15 years, Ms. Hale made more than three dozen mostly forgettable movies (“The Boy With Green Hair,” in 1948, was an exception) and a score of guest appearances on television series. Then Perry Mason came into her life.

During the almost two decades between the end of the series and the beginning of the Perry Mason television movies, she did commercials for Amana appliances, made five films and appeared on a dozen or so television shows. She was Dean Martin’s wife in “Airport” (1970) and appeared with Mr. Katt, her son, in the 1978 surfer film “Big Wednesday” and on his 1980s TV series, “The Greatest American Hero.” (Mr. Katt also appeared in nine of the Perry Mason television movies.)

Ms. Hale married Bill Williams, a fellow RKO actor, in 1946, and they had three children. Mr. Williams, whose real surname was Katt, died in 1992. In addition to Mr. Katt, she is survived by two daughters, Jody and Juanita Katt; six grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; and two half brothers.

She never seemed unhappy about being identified with one character throughout her career. In 1993 she told The Chicago Tribune that Della Street was “a woman who knew what everybody was thinking.”

“She was informed and very observant of everything that went on,” she continued. “That was my challenge as an actress, to be a necessary part of the office without being too aggressive.”

Ms. Hale also confessed that she had never learned shorthand and could type only 33 words a minute.

Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale on “Perry Mason”; Ms Hale played Della Street, Mason’s resourceful and steadfast secretary. Credit CBS, via Photofest

Barbara Hale, ‘Perry Mason’ Actress, Dies at 94

Barbara Hale, who played secretary Della Street in the “Perry Mason” television series and movies, died Thursday. She was 94.

According to a Facebook post by her son William Katt, Hale passed away at her home on Sherman Oaks, Calif.

“Lost my beautiful wonderful mom Barbara Hale yesterday afternoon,” Katt, star of the television series “The Greatest American Hero,” wrote Friday. “She left peacefully at her home in Sherman Oaks Ca surrounded by close family and dear friends. We’ve all been so lucky to have her for so long. She was gracious and kind and silly and always fun to be with. A wonderful actress and smart business woman she was most of all a treasure as a friend and mother! We’re all a little lost without her but we have extraordinary stories and memories to take with us for the rest of our lives.

Hale played Street, assistant to Raymond Burr’s titular lawyer, in nine seasons of the series and 30 television movies. She spent her early career under contract with RKO, and went on to star in “Higher and Higher” with Frank Sinatra, “Lady Luck” with Robert Young and Frank Morgan, “The Window,” “Jolson Sings Again,” “Lorna Doone,” and “The Far Horizons” with Charlton Heston.

“Perry Mason” aired on CBS from 1957 to 1966 and starred Burr as a Los Angeles criminal defense attorney. The show was one of the first hour-long series in television history. Hale won a Primetime Emmy Award in 1959 for playing Street, and reprised the character when “Perry Mason” was revived in the 1980s as a series of television movies by NBC.

Hale was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960. Among her later film roles were “Airport” and “Big Wednesday.”

Born in DeKalb, Illinois in 1922, Hale was the second child of Willa and Luther Hale. Her father was a landscape gardener. Her late husband, Bill Williams, starred in the western series “The Adventures of Kit Carson” and died in 1992. She is survived by her son William Katt, daughters Johanna Katt and Juanita King, six grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.

'Perry Mason' actress Barbara Hale dies at 94

arbara Hale, a movie actress who found her most famous role on television as steadfast secretary Della Street in the long-running "Perry Mason" series, has died. She was 94.

Hale was surrounded by family when she died Thursday at her Los Angeles area home, said Jaqueline Stander, an agent for Hale's son, actor William Katt ("The Greatest American Hero," "Carrie").

"She was gracious and kind and silly and always fun to be with," Katt posted on his Facebook page Thursday, calling Hale a wonderful actress and a "treasure as a friend and mother."
Stander declined to provide the cause of death.

Hale appeared in "Perry Mason" on CBS from 1957 to 1966, winning an Emmy as best actress in 1959. When the show was revived in 1985 on NBC as an occasional TV movie, she again appeared in court at the side of the ever-victorious lawyer played by Raymond Burr.

She continued her role after Burr died in 1993 and was replaced by Hal Holbrook for the movies that continued into 1995.

"I guess I was just meant to be a secretary who doesn't take shorthand," she once quipped. "I'm a lousy typist, too - 33 words a minute."

Hale was born in DeKalb, Illinois, daughter of a landscape gardener and a homemaker. The family moved to Rockford when she was 4, and she later took part in a local theater. But her goals were to be a nurse or journalist.

When her ambition turned to art she studied at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, where she was often sought as a model. Her work for a modeling agency prompted an offer for a routine contract at the RKO studio in Hollywood.

When she reported to the casting director, he was speaking on the phone to someone who needed an immediate replacement for an actress who was sick.

"It hit every paper the next day: the Cinderella story," she recalled in a 1993 Chicago Tribune interview. "Of course they said it was a starring role. I had one line, but you know about those things."

The movie was a quickie, "Gildersleeve's Bad Day," but she went on to appear with Pat O'Brien in "The Iron Major," Frank Sinatra in "Higher and Higher" and Robert Young in "Lady Luck."

Another co-star was a blond actor named Bill Williams (real name: William Katt), with whom she appeared in "West of the Pecos" and "A Likely Story." They had met over coffee in the studio commissary and married in Rockford in 1946. The couple had three children: Nita, William and Jody.

Williams, who died in 1992, later gained TV fame as star of "The Adventures of Kit Carson." Their son goes by his father's original name, William Katt.

After her RKO contract ended, Hale worked at other studios, usually as the adoring wife of the leading man. She played opposite Larry Parks in "Jolson Sings Again," James Stewart in "Jackpot" and James Cagney in "A Lion Is in the Streets."

In 1957, she joined the memorable cast of "Perry Mason" that included Burr as the defense attorney who solved his cases in the courtroom, William Hopper as investigator Paul Drake, William Talman as never-winning prosecutor Hamilton Burger and Ray Collins as police lieutenant Arthur Tragg.

"When we started, it was the beginning of women not working at home," Hale said in the 1993 interview. "I liked that she was not married. My husband, Bill, didn't have to see me married to another man, and our children didn't have to see me mothering other children."

In the early 1970s, Hale took on another widely recognized role, touting Amana Radarange microwave ovens in TV commercials and print ads.

Burr and Hale were the only original cast members when the show resumed on NBC in 1985 in the movie format. Her son, William Katt, appeared in nine of the two-hour shows, as the investigator son of Paul Drake.

Hale's later films included the original "Airport," playing the husband of Dean Martin's pilot character; "The Giant Spider Invasion," and "Big Wednesday," in which she appeared with her son.

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