Family & Companions
To her fans, Barbara Hale seemed born to play the role of Della Street, savvy and streetwise secretary of Raymond Burr's indefatigable public defender "Perry Mason" (CBS, 1957-1966), but she nearly walked away from the opportunity. Having arrived in Hollywood during World War II, the Illinois native was put to work in bit parts and as a pin-up for home studio RKO. Just as she began to merit better roles - in Joseph Losey's pacifist parable "The Boy with the Green Hair" (1947) and the nifty noir "The Window" (1949) - her contract expired. Floating to Columbia, Hale matured as a leading lady opposite Jimmy Stewart in "The Jackpot" (1951) and James Cagney in "A Lion is in the Streets" (1953) but marriage and motherhood prompted the actress to seek out short-term television work, which kept her closer to home. A shot as a regular on "Perry Mason" failed to spark Hale's interest until she learned her co-star would be Raymond Burr, an old friend from her days at RKO. Burr and Hale weathered nine seasons of the highly-rated courtroom drama and remained lifelong friends, reuniting 20 years after the cancellation of the original series for a run of successful telefilm follow-ups, which found Perry and Della slowed by age but unwavering in their shared devotion to the law. Widowed in 1992 and mourning the loss of Burr the following year, Hale retired in 1995, content in her legacy as a consummate character actress and the definitive Della Street. Barbara Hale died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease on January 26, 2017. She was 94.
Barbara Hale was born in DeKalb, IL on April 18, 1922. The younger of two daughters of Luther Hale, a horticulturist, and the former Wilma Colvin, Hale relocated as a child with her family to nearby Rockford, where she ultimately attended Rockford High School and was voted May Queen prior to her graduation in 1940. Encouraged by her mother, Hale initially pursued a career as an artist and studied painting at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. To offset her tuition, Hale did some modeling on the side, including a stint working for the creators of the comic strip Ramblin' Bill. It was her work as a fashion model that attracted the attention of Hollywood talent scouts. Offered a tryout for RKO Radio Pictures, Hale traveled to Los Angeles by train, where she was immediately pressed into service on the set of Gordon Douglas' "Gildersleeves' Bad Day" (1943), replacing an extra for a cocktail party scene. An initial six-month tryout led to a long-term contract with the studio, which groomed Hale and other starlets with a roster of voice, singing, dance, and horseback riding lessons.
On the RKO payroll, Hale appeared in eight more features in 1943 alone. Often little more than an attractive extra, she popped up in "Mexican Spitfire's Blessed Event" (1943), "Gildersleeve on Broadway" (1943) and "The Seventh Victim" (1943) before bigger and better parts were offered her. She played her first significant film role, a debutante, in the musical "Higher and Higher" (1943), which featured crooner Frank Sinatra in his motion picture debut. While working on "West of the Pecos" (1944), Hale met fellow contract player Bill Williams, and the two were married in 1946. Hale went on to star with Tom Neal in "The First Yank in Tokyo" (1945), playing an army nurse killed in World War II whose grieving lover undergoes plastic surgery to make him appear Asian so that he may extract war secrets from Japanese prisoners of war. Hale had a prominent role as a school teacher whose classroom anxiously admits a war orphan with a distinctive grooming problem in Joseph Losey's pacifist parable "The Boy with the Green Hair" (1948), opposite Robert Ryan and Dean Stockwell.
Hale's final films under her RKO contract were a pair of crime thrillers. "The Clay Pigeon" (1949) paired the actress with off-screen husband Williams in the tale of a war widow who helps to exonerate an amnesiac soldier of a murder charge while "The Window" (1949) cast Hale and Arthur Kennedy as the disbelieving parents of underage homicide witness Bobby Driscoll. Finished at her home studio, Hale answered the call of Columbia Pictures, where producer Sidney Buchman was seeking a fresh face to appear opposite Larry Parks in "The Jolson Story" (1946) sequel, "Jolson Sings Again" (1949). Signing a seven-year contract with Columbia, Hale settled into a comfortable Hollywood lifestyle, raising three children with Williams in the affluent community of Bel Air. While never attaining the status of an A-list actress, Hale was the star of dozens of magazine advertisements, where she hawked such needful consumer items as Lux soap flakes, Sunnybrook margarine and Chesterfield cigarettes. Hale did top-bill Columbia's "Emergency Wedding" (1950), as a divorcée who learns en route to her second marriage that she is pregnant by her ex-husband.
Seconded to Jimmy Stewart in 20th Century Fox's tax comedy "The Jackpot" (1950) and to James Cagney in the Warner Brothers political drama "A Lion is in the Streets" (1953), Hale again received top billing as "Lorna Doone" (1951), Phil Karlson's adaptation of the R. D. Blackmore novel released by Columbia. With a peroxide makeover, she was a mob chanteuse who falls for racket-busting hero Gene Barry in William Castle's "The Houston Story" (1956). Preferring home life to limelight, Hale sought work in television, with its shorter commute and tighter shooting schedules. When she was offered a recurring role in a weekly courtroom drama based on the novels of mystery writer Erle Stanley Gardner, Hale nearly turned it down. until the star of the show proved to be Raymond Burr, an old friend from RKO. Initially, "Perry Mason" (CBS, 1957-1966) was to run just 18 episodes, but the popularity of the series, in which Hale played public defender Mason's loyal secretary Della Street, kept the show afloat for a decade. Though the plots were standard, the mutual affection of Burr and Hale was the lure for loyal viewers.
After the cancelation of "Perry Mason," Hale limited her schedule to projects with her actor husband, though she flew solo for a bit in Universal's all-star "Airport" (1969) and a 1971 episode of Raymond Burr's "Ironside" (NBC, 1967-1975), in which she played a murder suspect in a case set at an improv comedy club. Nostalgia was the impetus for the 50-ish Hale's casting as the mature heroine of "The Giant Spider Invasion" (1975), a grade-Z monster romp that also featured Williams, Alan Hale, Jr., and former Hollywood heavy Steve Brodie. Hale played the mother of real-life son William Katt in John Milius' "Big Wednesday" (1978) and guested in a 1982 episode of Katt's superhero series, "The Greatest American Hero" (ABC, 1981-83). Despite a broken hip, she reunited with Burr for the reunion telefilm "Perry Mason Returns" (1985) and reprised the role of Della Street for 28 follow-ups, three made after Burr's death in 1993. After completing her work on "A Perry Mason Mystery: The Case of the Jealous Jokester" (1995), opposite Burr surrogate Hal Holbrook, the widowed, 73-year-old Hale slipped back into a well-earned retirement. Barbara Hale died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease on January 26, 2017. She was 94.
by Richard Harland Smith
Cast (Feature Film)
Feature debut, "Higher and Higher"
First starring role in a feature, "The Falcon in Hollywood"
TV debut as a guest performer, "Schlitz Playhouse of Stars"
Appeared in the special, "Meet the Governor"
Featured in the long-running series, "Perry Mason," as his secretary, Della Street
Last appearance in a feature, "Big Wednesday"
Credited as a song performer (hymns), in the feature, "My Brother's Wedding"
Final on screen credit as Della in "A Perry Mason Mystery: The Case of the Jealous Jokester"