Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Birthday Tribute: Karl Held


I’ve been waiting a long time to do this post. Today’s date made for a perfect opportunity, so I’ve been planning to do it now for weeks.

Karl Held was born September 19th, 1931. He’s one of the few cast members still alive today. Awesome. Happy birthday, Karl!

As previously noted, he may very well have been the Perry actor I was first aware of, as he had a small part as an FBI agent in the classic Disney comedy That Darn Cat! It was that movie that started me on a journey to find other old, live-action comedies by Disney and others, and it certainly played a part, to some extent, in sparking an interest in old television shows too.

Aside from that, and observing Karl in various guest-spots—such as on Sea HuntPerry is the main thing I’ve seen him in. He had a well-known role on the soap opera Falcon Crest for three seasons, but as I don’t tend to watch soaps, I doubt I’ve ever seen him there. I’m sure he did an excellent job, however!

I still really wish I could find Ready for the People. Karl Held’s character works for the prosecution in that, an intriguing switch. And Simon Oakland is the prosecutor!

I don’t know whether the ill feelings many Perry fans hold towards Karl’s main Perry character extend to the actor as well. I would hope not. And honestly, I feel that the harsh and negative views on David Gideon are unfair and his character’s faults exaggerated.

I can’t quite tell whether David is really disliked by the majority of the fanbase or if it’s just that his haters are among the most vocal fans. And naturally if someone is merely rubbed the wrong way by the character for a legitimate reason, that’s different. Some personalities don’t mix well. But when things become blown out of proportion, I do have to scratch my head and wonder.

I specifically studied David’s scenes as my local station went through season 5 again, looking for all of the evidence that the haters claim is there. To some extent, yes, it is. But some I couldn’t find much trace of. And most of it really doesn’t seem like grounds to detest him, even if true.

One charge against David is that he’s a virtually useless character who doesn’t do much. There’s no place for him in the series. True?

Admittedly, he doesn’t really do much. The great majority of the time, he’s along for the ride and his part could likely easily by filled by Paul (who is sometimes also there). But as for hating him because of it, well, it’s not even his fault. The writers are to blame for not using the character as well as they could have.

EDIT: There was at least one occasion where they tried to be more inventive, in The Posthumous Painter. David is aware of the device they can use to test the paintings and see how old they are, which becomes a key plot point. I suppose they could have had Paul or Perry mention it, especially since at least Perry is also aware of the device's existence, but it was nice to give that bit to David. I knew about this episode, and had seen it prior to writing this, but of course only belatedly remembered. Hmm, I think it works better when I write an entry over a couple of days instead of all at once....

It’s been mentioned to me that William Talman commented on how Gardner’s original characters took up the somewhat stereotypical roles in legal dramas—the defense attorney, the loyal secretary, the private detective, the district attorney, and the policeman. And it was further pointed out to me that David doesn’t occupy one of these roles and therefore, doesn’t fit into the formula.

Of course, my usual attitude is To heck with the formula! I think some elements of it could have, and probably should have, been played down or eliminated over time. But, objectively, examining things in that way doesn’t leave much room for David, it’s true. The stereotypical sidekick role, which could be taken by a young law student, is filled on Perry Mason by Paul as well as Della. And when David attempts to actively help with a case anyway, he ends up taking scenes away from Paul by investigating things instead of Paul. Which, I imagine, invokes the ire of Paul fans and fangirls. Perhaps not unreasonably, but still.

Then comes the issue of claiming that David is always screwing up. And here’s where I really get confused. I did believe the haters’ words on this at first, but after reviewing the episodes, I found hardly any of it. Unless, of course, some such scenes have been cut, which is always possible.

Discounting his first appearance, where he was tricked by a femme fatale and met his idol Perry for the first time, I could really only cite The Renegade Refugee as an instance where David made a glaring mistake. While trying to help Harlan Merrill, who is panic-stricken and wants to get his affairs settled as soon as possible, David suggests various options for his situation and at last hits upon the idea of giving Perry the power of attorney. He forgets to add that Harlan also needs to write a letter with specific instructions for Perry, so that his desires can’t be contested as mere hearsay later.

Honestly, I’m more than willing to give the guy a break. He was just trying to help, after Harlan specifically asked him for help when Perry wasn’t there. He didn’t for one minute pretend to be a practicing attorney, either; he made sure to tell Harlan he wasn’t one, yet. And he tried to rectify the damage after Perry pointed it out to him. It wasn’t his fault he couldn’t get Harlan to hold still and come back when he found him again.

I suppose some people might say David also screwed up in The Malicious Mariner, where he fails to learn much from a suspect and ends up rather drunk for his efforts. But Paul doesn’t always succeed in getting information, either. Some suspects are stubborn. Who knows whether he would have done any better in that affair?

I think some of David’s haters dislike him merely because they feel he’s an intruder or because they don’t like some young kid hopping into the cast. This may even really be the main reason, and also be why they sometimes magnify David’s faults beyond the truth. I’ve seen it before, time and again. Scrappy-Doo, anyone? And, for anyone aware of Japanese anime, Chibiusa/Sailor Chibi Moon? The exact same arguments are levied against those characters.

You know, the ironic thing about Scrappy-Doo is that, back in the late 1970s when he was first added to the Scooby-Doo cast, he saved the show. The formula was wearing thin and they needed to try something a bit different. Hence, in came Scooby’s nephew Scrappy. And that garnered enough new interest to keep it going. Nothing else changed.

Of course, some would say that the addition of the sixth cast member did entirely alter the show. I disagree. They still solved mysteries. The ghosts were still fake. Scooby and Shaggy were still terrified. The only real differences were that Scrappy was eager to charge ahead and could never believe that Scooby was really a big coward. Actually, I think Scrappy’s presence added a whole new dimension to Scooby. It’s intriguing, seeing him try to look out for his nephew and keep him out of trouble despite his own fears.

That all being said, I don’t necessarily prefer the episodes with Scrappy. I just feel that the hatred against him is blown way out of proportion and is quite ridiculous.

And I feel the same for David. There was some character potential there. It wasn’t ever quite tapped—again, because of the writers, not David himself. I like the idea of Perry mentoring a young law student who idolizes him. That could have been very interesting and character-developing for Perry. One of my favorite scenes between them is when David rants about Hamilton in The Renegade Refugee and Perry tries to help him see that Hamilton isn’t the bad guy. Oh, why does this scene so often have to be cut for commercials? Sigh.

The problem was, the writers were trying to keep the standard formula rolling while trying to figure out what to do with this new character, and they couldn’t quite make it all fit. Good or bad, people don’t like seeing formulas get changed, much of the time. If David had stayed with the show, and/or if the writers had tried to change the formula to get him to better fit, would he have cost them viewer interest?

I honestly have no idea. And I don’t think there’s any way to know for sure. I only know that some viewers, at least, didn’t like the formula of always having Perry win, but that’s a rant for some other time. The point is, maybe some tweaks in the formula, even with David, wouldn’t have rattled most of them up too much. Some viewers would have no doubt been lost, as probably happened whenever any real casting change was made, but others would have stayed. And new ones would have come aboard.

Anyway, in the end, David is only there for what, nine episodes? It kind of boggles my mind that people can hate on a character so much who was there so seldom.

An ironic note: Karl Held played a different character in his first Perry appearance, one who seems far more aggravating and obnoxious than poor David ever was. That fellow, in The Angry Dead Man, is very disrespectful and unkind to his stepmother in some of his scenes, and I can't recall if he ever actually shows his good side.

David may have gotten off on a bad path in The Grumbling Grandfather, but he tries to turn his life around and make something of himself. He’s basically a good kid. He’s young and he’s still trying. Yes, he’ll make some mistakes. And maybe he’ll be a bit over-confident. But that doesn’t make him horrible, only human. And he doesn’t give up. I like to think that he makes it through law school and becomes a good attorney in his own right.

Karl did an excellent job portraying two extremely different characters.

I wish there could have been an actual send-off for the character, even so much as a mention, instead of having him fade into obscurity after The Shapely Shadow. He is a part of the Perry cast, like it or not, and he deserved better than he got. But alas, it was common in those days for characters to quietly slip away. Tragg and Andy both did as well.

Next week, weekday posts should resume their spot on Thursdays. This weekend post will be a celebration of the series overall, in commemoration of the anniversary of the premiere on September 21st, 1957. I’m undecided on whether that entry will go up ahead of time. I may try to slip it in halfway, on the 22nd.

16 comments:

  1. I agree with you. While David isn't my MOST favorite character, I still liked him. He was kind of like the kid brother that the main cast teased and mentored. And also, it would have been good for them to give some kind of reason for him leaving. The first time I saw Andy on there as police I was a bit confused, but then I got to love him and at the end of season 8 he was gone with no explanation. Oh well, that gives us fans freedom to make up our own stories to satisfy our needs. :)

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    1. I'm glad to see someone else who doesn't just despise David! That's a nice way to put it, him being like a kid brother to the others.

      Oh yes, dear Andy. I refuse to believe either he or Tragg left; it's much more fun to have all three main police there. :) So I think of it as they're still there; we just don't happen to see any more "onscreen" cases where they're involved.

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  2. Nice tribute to an actor just doing his job (or trying to.)

    However, I have to state that I think Mr. Held is/was just not a very good actor. He brought dry reading to his part, no personality. Before he became a semi-regular, he had a major part in an episode, and I think he was just as dry and uninteresting in that part as he was the part as Perry's underling. I imagine the producers liked him in that role and that is why they hired him down the road, but I think history shows they were wrong about the audience's reaction to Held/David Gideon.

    He just wasn't interesting, lacked that spark, whatever it is that makes a character, an actor "interesting" from the audience's perspective. I remember seeing him in other shows and felt the same way about him--good looking and all, but the world is loaded with nice-looking people. That doesn't translate into an intriguing or likeable character.

    Even though I am not a huge fan of William Katt, I do think he demonstrated in some of his parts throughout his career that he could give life to his characters. For contrast's purposes, imagine what he might have done in the role of David Gideon compared to what Held did.

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    1. The audience must have definitely shown a preference for him to not be around, but since opinions on acting ability are relative and personal, I don't know that I could say all of their feelings were based on any ability or lack thereof. But yes, that's definitely a consideration too.

      I can't imagine the contrast, though, since I don't think I've ever seen William Katt in anything. ;) (Yes, one of these days I'll break down and watch the TV movies. At least the first one, perhaps.)

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    2. Well, Katt portrayed Drake, Jr. in a way that his character could play off of and be a foil to Perry (and to his dad). He was cocky, laid-back (to a fault as far as Perry was concerned), good humored and desirous of proving to Perry he could do the job. In short, he was very much like his father in temperament, but those good qualities were taken to extremes (his mellowness, for example, resulted in what Perry took as disorganization) and so the characterization was believeable--he was his father's son, to be sure, but Perry had to prod him, anger him, mold him into the professional his father was.

      In this way, I think Katt did a very fine job. He--or someone else--had obviously given thought to what Paul Drake's son might be like and he--or someone else--had obviously given thought to how they could establish some dramatic tension between him and Perry, especially in the first movie.

      I surmise that Held or the writer or director or the producer who created the character were striving to show a kind of young Perry or a mini-Perry, so to speak, but they failed to provide any conflict and you have to have some kind of conflict, even if it's handled with humor.

      It and he fell flat. I agree that there simply wasn't much for him to do, but I think a good actor can give even a small role some teeth and make the most of his lines. The show had been losing its time slot, I think, or at least its ratings had fallen, and adding some youth was their attempt to make their aging cast appear less staid, but Perry Mason was not a show that appealed to a young audience, and Karl Held's youth relative to the rest of the cast didn't add any punch.

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    3. Haha. That does sound interesting! Poor Perry.

      I don't know if I necessarily agree that there always has to be conflict involving such characters, but it does make for some interesting plotlines, it's true.

      There was some appeal among certain young people even back then, according to some fans I've talked to, but I suppose the show's main appeal was always to adults. It would be interesting to actually find out how many who watched it back then were kids or teens versus adults.

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  3. Having only just started watching PM two months ago, I've reached season 5 and these episodes. I do find David annoying, but blame the writing not the actor.
    To me, he feels a little shoe-horned in. The wonder child who knows more than everyone else and just happens to be hanging round the office. I'm not a "hater", but I must confess to an inner groan when he appears. However, his presence doesn't stop me enjoying the episodes.

    Amy

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    1. Ahh, there we go. Blaming the writers definitely seems more logical to me. David could have gone in a different direction if the writers had been a bit more imaginative about him.

      I was thinking the only time David seemed to know more than any of the others was in The Posthumous Painter, though. Usually I thought Perry had to explain things to him or prompt him to remember parts of the law he'd forgotten.

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    2. Elizabeth Morgan (Gabber.)December 2, 2014 at 1:49 AM

      I think Karl Held great actor!!

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    3. Nice to see a fan. :) Yes, I don't think there was anything wrong with his acting!

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  4. It seems like the character was a desperate ploy to bring in younger viewers. It's not that the actor was so bad, but he really didn't do anything that the core group couldn't do. I do wonder what the reaction was to his character at the time. Probably not great since he just faded away.

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    1. Yes, I would definitely be curious to know what the reaction was at the time!

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  5. As with episodic television shows in general,they are always doing the attracting younger audience bit. As we all know shows that gear to younger audiences stink. They are all about the clique mentality. I am under 50 and don't care for current TV programs for this reason. Personally,I don't see Karl Held as a problem. I am not a fan of his nor the show. This show does make for good TV watching. Older people back then had an authority complex. Meaning as young people,you stayed in your place. I just started watching at the tail end of the first season on Memorable Television this year.

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    1. I have to admit, I'm slightly amused that you're taking time to read a Perry Mason blog if you're not even a fan of the show. Perhaps if you continue watching, you will eventually become a fan. I personally feel the show gets much better in later seasons. Also, the DVD version can't be beat. MeTV unfortunately airs cut-up prints that often eliminate important plot points and render the show bewildering.

      But regardless, thank you for your interest and your comments! It's always interesting to find people who are not bothered by Karl Held's presence.

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  6. I love p.m.I agree the Karl Held character puzzled me. I assumed he was there fora possible spin off,a younger audience, or to replace R.Burr in an episode in case he became ill.Remember, Bette Davis and a few other actors did some of the P.M.episodes either for possible spin offs or because R.B. was ill or on vacation. Karl Held was bland It would be nice if a writer or someone was still alive who knows why his character was added.He is listed as being on Facebook maybe someone could ask him directly.

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    1. Oh wow, thanks for the tip! I'll have to check that out. If he would be willing to answer a few questions, that could be very valuable for more reasons than one. He's the only cast member alive now, after the sad passings of Barbara Hale and Richard Anderson this year.

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