This may seem perhaps a surprising subject to approach, but it's really rather interesting. And it opens a seeming mystery that I would like solved. Those who have already read this post, please scroll down for an update on said mystery.
Today I am discussing the opening sequences from the various seasons. The opening is the very first thing old and new viewers alike will see concerning the series and the characters, no matter which episode they are watching. Sometimes, whether a newcomer continues watching an episode of any series depends on the quality of the opening. Therefore, I find it quite significant.
The great majority of the openings only feature Perry Mason; however, the original two openings (used for seasons 1-2 and most of 3) feature all five principal cast members.
The first opening was used only for season 1. It features the title in a unique font that I don’t believe was used again. Perry picks up some information of his that he was showing to the judge. (Or is it that week’s script? That would be amusing.) He takes it to a table where the other four main characters are seated. He hands it to Della and Paul, who examine it while Hamilton Burger and Lieutenant Tragg look on. Paul then passes it to Hamilton, who looks it over and hands it to Tragg. The Lieutenant only gives it a cursory look and hands it to Perry.
It’s the same format used for the second opening, but there are key differences. For instance, everyone is at the same table. Why? To save on money and filming time? It’s a fun image, but it doesn’t make much sense for a court of law. Also, the names of the four at the table are superimposed over the center of the picture, largely blocking the people from view. This is annoying and frustrating. We would certainly like to actually see the persons whose names we are being told!
The second opening improves on this scenario. Perry still delivers some information to be examined, but he hands it to Della and Paul at the table for the defense. They look it over, then Perry takes it to the table for the prosecution. Hamilton looks at it, is surprised, and passes it to Tragg, who still gives it just a cursory glance. Throughout, the names of the people and the characters they play are placed at the bottom of the screen, underneath each person. At last we can see!
This opening was used in season 2 and until the last third of season 3, when the disaster happened that resulted in William Talman’s suspension/firing. The next episode aired after that (The Crying Cherub) opened the same way, but then froze on the image of the information in Perry’s possession before showing anyone else. The episode title and the cast were superimposed on top of that image, with one glaring exception.
Season 4 gave us a spanking new opening, which was used for season 5 as well. I confess that the second opening is my favorite, but I believe the one used in seasons 4 and 5 is the most epic.
It opens on an aerial view of the courtroom, depicting Perry approaching the judge’s bench. The scene appears to be made with some sort of figures; all is in shades of gray, as though statues or models. Then a shot is shown of Raymond Burr as Perry, taking up a pad of paper. He looks at it and the image freezes. As the camera pans back, Perry is depicted on the sword held by Lady Justice. The episode title and the cast list appear, sometimes to the side, sometimes in three or four spaces across the screen, with two on top and two on the bottom.
The opening for season 6 abolishes the almost surreal and symbolic nature of the previous theme. It returns us to the courtroom, but still Perry is the only character around. He is shown in an empty courtroom, studying the information he will be presenting when everyone arrives for the day’s case.
Season 7 keeps the same basic idea, but features Perry entering the empty courtroom, thoughtfully looking around, and taking his seat. The themes for seasons 8 and 9 are variations on that of season 6.
Obviously the original change in the opening’s format came about because of the problem concerning William Talman. CBS wanted to be rid of him, so the opening featuring him could no longer be shown. But they had no replacement, so it could not be reshot. They finished season 3 with the chopped-up version of the second opening and then likely opted for the new season 4 theme with only Raymond Burr present because that would solve the issue of not being able to show William.
What I fail to understand is, why didn’t they return to the idea of having all the cast members present in the opening once William Talman was reinstated as a regular by season 5? Did they prefer to keep promoting the show with only Perry at the helm, effectively reducing everyone else to supporting roles? Of course Perry was always the main character, but in the early seasons there were frequent visits to Hamilton’s office and other unique scenes featuring him and the other characters. There were regrettably less of these scenes as the seasons went on—although there are some absolutely wonderful scenes in the later episodes too. The Fatal Fetish, for one, is filled with them.
Could the decision to have Perry-only openings have instead been caused due to further problems with the cast? It was in season 5 when Ray Collins’ health began to seriously deteriorate and they first brought in Wesley Lau to play Lieutenant Andy Anderson. Of course, things never were quite the same after that; Ray began to appear less and less until the latter part of season 7, when he made his final episode.
Also, it seems that even though William Talman was once again a regular cast member, his status among the other regulars had been permanently altered. During the latter part of season 4, when CBS finally allowed him to make occasional appearances, his name appeared only in the episodes in which he appeared. Of course, all the other regulars’ names continued to be listed for every episode, even ones in which one or more of them were not present. This was, and is, standard procedure for all regular cast members in any television series. It should have been the case for William in season 5, as it had been in the first seasons. Instead, for at least most of the rest of the series’ run, his name only appeared when he was actually in an episode. Again, why? The problems had been fixed. As far as I know, there was no danger of him being dropped from the show a second time. So why on earth didn’t he receive on-screen credit for every episode of the series from season 5 through season 9, just as he did in seasons 1, 2, and most of 3?
Whoever designed the openings certainly treated Ray Collins well. He remained in the credits until the end of season 8, although I believe he passed away in the middle of the season and hadn’t even appeared in any season 8 episodes. But he was well-honored, remembered, and loved. Even though Andy was listed under Ray’s name in the ending credits, neither Wesley Lau’s nor Richard Anderson’s names ever appeared in the opening credits, either under or in place of Ray’s name. It was, I believe, the show’s way of saying that Ray could never be replaced. It’s a moving and deserving tribute.
Nevertheless, I can’t help wondering why William Talman didn’t receive that level of consideration and again be credited for every episode once he was restored to his rightful place as a regular. There are others who have voiced their confusion on this matter too, but there seem to be no answers. We are left to our bewilderment and, at least in my case, indignation. To me it feels a grave injustice to a beloved cast member.
EDIT: From what I have since seen following the original publishing of this post, it appears to be only, possibly in season 9 when William was finally restored to full regular cast member status. I stumbled across an episode late in the series' run, The Misguided Model, in which William was credited but did not apparently appear (unless his scenes were cut out during syndication). I wonder if it was when they sadly had to remove Ray Collins from the cast list at the beginning of season 9 that they decided to restore William's privilege of always being listed whether or not he was in an episode. I will continue to look into this. It is certainly good if he finally regained that well-deserved honor, but I am still unhappy if it took them until the final season to set things right.
But there was one thing that thankfully never changed throughout the series’ run. Some shows gain new theme songs with each season or after several seasons. Others always keep their original theme music. Perhaps they would recut the song a few times, but the song would basically remain the same. The strains of Park Avenue Beat, that perfectly ominous, intense, and exciting jazz tune, will forever be associated with the Perry Mason television series. Whenever I hear those first bars, no matter where I am in the house, I know Perry is coming. And, as I often say when I am particularly impressed by something, the person who came up with that concept (in the case of this song, Fred Steiner) was a genius.
Just as it should be.