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Monday 18 December 2017

Obituary: Barbara Hale

US actress, best known as Perry Mason's super-efficient secretary Della Street, struck an early blow for feminism

PERRY AIDE: Barbara Hale
PERRY AIDE: Barbara Hale

Barbara Hale, the actress, who has died aged 94, was best known as Della Street, the super-reliable secretary of Perry Mason (Raymond Burr), the criminal defence attorney in the popular CBS television series (1957-66), a role for which she won a best supporting actress Emmy.

Two decades later, the pair reunited to make more than two dozen television movies for NBC.

When Mary Tyler Moore was stay-at-home mum Laura Petrie, before she played career girl Mary Richards, Barbara Hale was one of the first actresses to play a single working woman on television, and to that extent she could be said to have struck a blow for feminism. But her character, a marvel of efficiency, femininity and neatness, was always subordinate to the boss.

"Della was sort of a delicate beginning of the feminist movement," Barbara Hale claimed.

"She never stood up to Perry, but she wasn't intimidated by him either."

Although publicists tried to promote the idea of a romance between the two, in reality Burr lived with a man, although the actors, who had first met as RKO Studio stock players in the 1940s, became good friends. They shared a love of horticulture - Burr bred orchids and named one after his co-star - and a sense of humour.

He often sent her boxes of flowers, but she learnt to approach them with caution as they sometimes contained surprises such as live baby alligators or white mice.

Barbara Hale recalled that she received letters from secretaries asking advice on how to become as efficient as Della.

But she admitted that not only did she not take shorthand, she could only type 33 words a minute.

Barbara Hale was born on April 18, 1922, at DeKalb, Illinois, and studied commercial art at the Chicago Academy Of Fine Arts in the early 1940s.

Spotted by an agent, she became a fashion model and then joined RKO as one of a stable of young actresses that included Lucille Ball, Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Joan Fontaine and Jane Russell.

She got her first screen credit in the Frank Sinatra vehicle Higher and Higher (1943).

Her first starring role came in the comedy, Lady Luck (1946).

The same year she married Bill Williams (real name William Katt), with whom she worked in West of the Pecos (1945).

In 1947 they played newly-weds in A Likely Story.

After her marriage she devoted much of her time to bringing up their son and two daughters - and when she was approached to play the part of Della Street, she was at first reluctant to commit, agreeing only when the producers promised that CBS was only going to shoot 18 episodes. The series ended up lasting 271 episodes.

While Raymond Burr went on to play Ironside in the television series, over the next two decades Barbara Hale made just five films.

She was Dean Martin's wife in the disaster movie Airport (1970) and appeared with her son, Bill Katt, in the 1978 surfing film Big Wednesday and on his short-lived 1981 television series, The Greatest American Hero.

Then in 1985 she was invited to reunite with Burr for a television film. Perry Mason Returns, in which her son Bill was cast as detective Paul Drake Jr and in which Mason (now a judge) left the bench to defend his former secretary after she had been framed for murder, was so successful that NBC went on to produce 25 more Perry Mason movies before Burr's death in 1993, and three more starring Hal Holbrook.

Barbara Hale's husband died in 1992. Survived by her son and two daughters, she died on January 26.



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