It doesn't really matter whether the portrait of America's courts depicted in the classic TV series "Perry Mason" conformed to reality. What is important is that millions of Americans who tuned in the show during its heyday in the 1950s believed that it did. If "Perry Mason" presented an ideal of a legal system that dispensed justice fairly and impartially, then Raymond Burr, the gravel-voiced actor who played the title role, came to personify Americans' idea of what a lawyer should be.
When Mr. Burr died last week at age 76 he was still Perry Mason to millions of fans around the world. The show never really died; it has aired regularly in reruns for more than 20 years and survived in several made-for-TV movies starring Mr. Burr and the other members of the original 1950s cast. Though Mr. Burr had a successful acting career in television and films before and after "Perry Mason," which ran from 1957 to 1966, he came to accept that his identification with the lawyer was indelible in the public mind.
"A lot of people in this country didn't know what their legal system was all about," Mr. Burr once told an interviewer. "I'm sure just from the people who have watched the show over the years, particularly the minorities, they found out the system of justice was for them." That Mr. Burr suspected minorities might have been particularly influenced by "Perry Mason" raises intriguing questions regarding television's role in social change. The show's most popular years, for example, coincided almost exactly with the rise of the nonviolent civil rights movement, with its emphasis on legal demonstrations and court challenges.
That may be a coincidence but it is at least arguable that the movement never could have held the commitment of its followers nor won the sympathy of the American people without the reminder of the ideal of impartial justice beamed into the nation's living rooms each week on "Perry Mason." In any case, many Americans' faith in the legal system began to erode soon after the show went off the air. The disciplined protest of the late 1950s and early '60s gave way to riots. Then came the Pentagon papers, Watergate and a celebration of free market greed. By the time "L.A. Law" updated TV's portrait of lawyers in the 1980s, the prevailing stereotype of the profession had descended to a band of unscrupulous shysters out to make a buck.
"Perry Mason" didn't cause these changes, of course. But the legal portrait it presented did implicitly challenge Americans to live up to an ideal of justice at a crucial time in their history. That may be Raymond Burr's most enduring legacy.