When it comes to TV lawyers, Perry Mason is venerated.
For more than 270 episodes from 1957 to 1966, the cool, calm and collected defence lawyer, played by an unflappable Raymond Burr, through logic and a rigid formula, would somehow persuade the guilty party to confess on the stand.
There was certainty and comfort to a Perry Mason episode: Justice would be served, chaos reined in and order restored. And we can all go to bed without any moral quandaries or ethical indigestion.
The 2020 Perry Mason? Not on your life.
The 1932-set prequel HBO miniseries, starting on Foxtel* on Monday, starring Matthew Rhys as Mason, Tatiana Maslany and John Lithgow couldn’t be more different to Burr’s iteration. It’s gritty, dark and veers towards nihilism at times.
Fans of Burr’s version and the Erle Stanley Gardner books that previous radio and screen adaptations have been based on, may be shocked. This is not the Perry Mason you thought you knew. It is not your grandparents’ Perry Mason.
The titular character is messed-up, violent and gripped by neuroses, self-doubt and PTSD. He’s emblematic of the US of that era, still reeling from the effects of the Great War and the Great Depression while striving to find a purpose.
It’s an origin story of how Perry Mason transforms from a barely hanging on private detective to the defence lawyer he’s better remembered as.
“What drew me to this character was that it was the redefining of an iconic character,” Rhys says. “Mason, to me, is an incredibly flawed character and that makes him an infinitely more human character.
“My hope is people will relate to him and feel he’s accessible because when I watch superheroes or perfect people, I find it hard to relate to them or find a way in. What I liked about his flaws is that they’re very justified.
“You can see how the cracks have opened in him and the key moments in his life have affected him and are affecting him.
“The journey is going to be pretty big and interesting. Mason starts out as one thing on this very traumatising case and then ends up something completely different, something he didn’t think he was capable of or wanted to do. But he always has this incredible sense of justice.”
The Welsh-born Rhys, who is best known to international TV audiences for his long-running roles on The Americans and Brothers & Sisters, wasn’t originally meant to play this revamped version of Perry Mason.
That was to be Robert Downey Jr, who was approached a decade ago along with his wife and producing partner Susan Downey to make a Perry Mason movie set in contemporary times.
The pair, who produced Perry Mason through their Team Downey production company, weren’t interested in making a modern version – they wanted to go back to Gardner’s novels, the first of which was published in 1933 and decided TV was the better medium to tell a fuller story.
“We couldn’t tell the story that we wanted to explore (with a feature),” Susan Downey says. “Even if it is a single case, there were so many facets and worlds that we wanted to dive into that we decided the best way to do that is on television.”
Downey Jr’s film schedule was also too demanding for him to take on the role as intended, so the challenge fell to Rhys.
Rhys was delighted. “As we all know, (Downey Jr) is a very busy man so his diary is booked for many, many, many years. So I was very lucky about that fact. But he was incredibly gracious as well. There was no direction from him – he said to me, ‘You’ve got to make it your own now, here’s the hat.’
“He popped by a couple of times and brought very nice food and drink, and he left us alone.”
Gardner wrote more than 80 Perry Mason novels and short stories from 1933 and 1973, which has sold millions and millions of copies around the world.
One of the distinct things about Gardner’s work is that he didn’t give backstories to his core characters – we don’t really know much about Perry Mason, secretary Della Street or investigator Paul Drake.
Ron Fitzgerald and Rolin Jones were the writers and showrunners hired to steer the ship, and they were clear about what they did and didn’t want Perry Mason to be.
“Perry Mason was flesh and blood, and so was Paul and Della. They weren’t a delivery system to solve a crime and to give you a satisfying piece of pie at the end of 51 minutes,” Fitzgerald says.
“We weren’t interested in approaching this in a ‘crime of the week’ manner. That kind of formula has been done and done very well, and on a bunch of shows, so we didn’t feel like there was really much room to add anything to it.
“For us, it became really exciting when we were able to go back to the original stories and look at those books and go, ‘Wait, this guy’s not in court, he’s doing a bunch of private investigating’ and then we asked ourselves, ‘What must his background have been to have been able to beat the cops to the solution of all these crimes?’”
Executive producer and director Tim Van Patten contends that modern audience expectations are for more “fully formed characters, and that means having backstory”.
Fitzgerald said the first thing they did was be firm that they weren’t locked into what the 1950s TV show was even though it’s “an icon, it’s very sacred among everybody who loved and watched it”.
“With HBO, you know that you have the freedom to get closer to a true depiction of life as we know it, and that includes some language, some sex and adult situations and stuff like that,” he says.
There is indeed a lot of sex and violence in the series – including some graphic shots.
One person who would not have been happy with the more “lurid” aspects of the revamped series is Gardner’s now-deceased widow Agnes who gave an interview in 1990 that her late husband would never have approved of sex and violence in his Perry Mason stories.
Fitzgerald and Jones laugh at this.
“I think his widow was telling a version of his life. If you do a little digging into Erle Stanley Gardner, he might’ve had some, you know…” Jones trails off before adding, “The estate has been really generous and lovely working with us so there’s no reason to air some dirty laundry or something.
“But I take that source as what that source is. Or read the novels and there are all sorts of clues to what Erle Stanley Gardner’s life experience was.”
Rhys isn’t the second actor to take up the role of Perry Mason, he’s not even the third or fourth. Between the radio plays, the TV show and some movies, Rhys is the 10th actor to play the famous lawyer.
It’s a character that you could easily call iconic.
“There have been a couple of moments in my life when I’ve played relatively iconic people,” Rhys says, recalling famous real-life figures he’s portrayed on screen including Welsh poet Dylan Thomas and Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg.
“The experiences have opened me up to seeing that people, and I include myself in this, have an idea or a definition of who that character should be without necessarily having the real history to back it up.
“They said, ‘Oh, we’re going to remake Perry Mason,’ and even though the show was very big in Britain and I had this idea of who Perry Mason was – this real virtuous, justice-at-all-costs kind of martyr that gets everyone to confess on the stand.
“But I couldn’t really recall watching it. I thought I knew who he was but then I thought ‘Hang on, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an episode.’ In my experience, that’s what people tend to do, they have a firm idea of who Perry Mason but can’t recall the previous versions succinctly.”
Rhys says he was able to let go, which in itself was intimidating to a point.
“The older I get, the less I care, which I think has helped me a lot.
“What was really liberating was at the beginning, the team said, ‘Look, this is our Perry Mason, this will be your Perry Mason, this is the redefining of him. They stripped away that intimidating aspect (of playing an icon).”
Co-star Maslany, who plays a charismatic evangelical preacher modelled after real-life woman Aimee Semple McPherson, describes this version of Perry Mason as “completely fresh and new”.
“He feels so contemporary – he definitely lives in a grey area, which is very compelling to watch,” she said.
Even with all the tonal, thematic and character changes, Fitzgerald believes the team can mount a case that Perry Mason is still true to the spirit of the novels.
Downey says: “Erle Stanley Gardner was a lawyer before he was a writer, and at that time everybody was a little corrupt, as it is said in our show – everybody’s a little guilty of something, it’s just how you play in the grey areas for the greater good.
“And that is absolutely the spirit of the stories he tells in the books. (If Gardner was still around) I hope he sees that we are trying to be to true to it and deliver it in a way that’s going to get as broad an audience as possible so people can really appreciate what he created so many years ago.”
Perry Mason starts on Fox Showcase and Foxtel Now on Monday, June 22 at 8.30pm
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*Foxtel is majority-owned by News Corp, the publisher of news.com.au
Originally published as Fans of beloved icon are in for real shock