Emmy Award-win­ning actress played Della Street on ‘Perry Ma­son’ se­ries

The Washington Post Sunday - - OBITUARIES - BAR­BARA HALE, 94 BY ADAM BERN­STEIN adam.bern­stein@wash­post.com

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, Calif. She was 94.

Ms. 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.” Katt con­firmed the death and said the cause was com­pli­ca­tions from chronic ob­struc­tive pul­monary dis­ease.

Although Ms. 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 longes­tair­ing court­room shows in his­tory, and Ms. 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.

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-thewire 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.

Ms. 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.

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.

Ms. 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. Ms. Hale’s son, Wil­liam, played the pri­va­te­eye 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 Ms. 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!”

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

Bar­bara Hale was born April 18, 1922, in De Kalb, Ill., and grew up in Rockford, Ill., where her fa­ther was a land­scape gar­dener. She won a beauty con­test 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 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. Ms. 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 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 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.

Ms. 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, Ms. 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.

Ms. 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; six grand­chil­dren; and three great­grand­chil­dren.

In 1993, Ms. 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.’ ”


Bar­bara Hale was a Hol­ly­wood lead­ing lady in the 1940s and 1950s who ap­peared with Frank Si­na­tra in his first big film role.

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