Watch: Cool and Lam tried to create a spin-off of Perry Mason starring a horse racing jockey
Art Carney also played this private detective.
Erle Stanley Gardner churned out 82 Perry Mason novels, at an astonishing pace of about two per year, from 1933 to 1973. The Perry Mason book series has moved more than 300 million units, making it the third best selling literary series of all time, trailing only Harry Potter and Goosebumps.
The ace criminal defense lawyer was equally successful on the screen, as Raymond Burr starred in 271 episodes of the TV show and 26 subsequent TV movies. In short, Perry Mason is one of the most popular fictional characters of the 20th century. But he was not the only crime solver to come from Gardner's fertile brain. The author also penned 30 novels featuring private detectives Cool and Lam, as well as nine books centering around district attorney Doug Selby.
You may be asking, why didn't Hollywood jump on those properties? Well, it did. Despite the massive popularity of Perry Mason, both Cool and Lam and David Selby bombed as TV pilots. But the stories behind them is rather interesting.
Bertha Cool and Donald Lam made for one of the coolest named duos in detective fiction. But Cool and Lam bucked the hard-boiled conventions of the time. The aging widow Cool was more akin to Jessica Fletcher of Murder, She Wrote. The thin and brainy Lam did not carry a gun and often found himself on the losing end of a fistfight. In later books, Cool works alone, as Lam enlists in the Navy during World War II. He eventually returns from the South Pacific to crack cases, though suffering from malaria.
The first attempt to bring these unlikely partnered P.I.s to the small screen came in 1955. Climax!, an anthology mystery series, adapted the first book, The Bigger They Come, into an episose of the same name in season one. Art Carney starred as Lam. This was just months before he would explode to comedic fame as Ed Norton on The Honeymooners. A year earlier, Climax! had introduced Ian Fleming's James Bond to the screen — as an American named "Jimmy Bond." Sadly, the Lam and Cool episode remains lost to time, like so much live-broadcast television of that era.
Three years later, as Perry Mason was catching on with the public heading into its second season, a more concerted effort was put into a Cool and Lam pilot. This time, Erle Stanley Gardner himself would introduce the series, from the office of Perry Mason. After a brief introduction to Donald Lam, the 30-minute episode opens with Gardner sitting at Perry's desk on the Perry Mason set. He stands and optimistically proclaims, "There's going to be a new client coming in every week…. My name is Erle Stanley Gardner. I'm the author of the Lam and Cool books on which this television series will be based."
"I have written many murder mysteries," he says with pride. "But two of my favorite characters have always been Donald Lam, the little thinking machine, and Bertha Cool, his big, penny-pinching partner."
The series may have not been directly tied to Perry Mason, but it was clear that the creators wanted audiences to understand this was the same world as Perry Mason, the Erle Stanley Gardner Television Universe, if you will.
A much more unexpected choice was made when casting Lam. Art Carney would have been too widely known as Norton by that point. Instead, the studio looked to the world of horse racing.
Billy Pearson had won more approximately 800 races as a jockey in the 1940s and 1950s. After a riding injury, he left the sport to become an art dealer and trivia master. Not only would he become an expert in pre-Columbian art, he raked in more than $170,000 on the television game shows The $64,000 Question and The $64,000 Challenge in the mid-'50s. That attention spurred an acting career.
In 1958, perhaps to help build his name, Pearson also appeared on Perry Mason, using his expertise to play a jockey in "The Case of the Jilted Jockey." That's him at the top of the page, on the right.
While Cool and Lam never made it to air, it is kicking around on the internet. Take a look.