Without Gail Patrick, the Perry Mason TV series would never have been made
America's first hour-long courtroom drama nearly wasn't… until she stepped in.
Image: Wikimedia Commons / RKO Radio Pictures
Perry Mason, the show that we know and love, was almost non-existent. Erle Stanley Gardner, the series’ creator and original author, was originally opposed to producing the television show based around his pulp magazine character.
That is, until his literary agent, Cornwell Jackson, introduced Gardner to wife, business owner and retired actress Gail Patrick Jackson.
Patrick, who shared in Gardner’s love of the law and its many intimacies, also empathized with the experience that Gardner had been through in trying to achieve any form of onscreen success with his Perry Mason series. Patrick quickly bonded with Gardner and realized the disservice that had been done to his treasured tales of justice, both in unsatisfactory movies and radio adaptations.
Fueled by loyalty and friendship, Patrick encouraged her husband and newfound friend to form their own production company, Paisano Productions. This would give them creative control over the project and allow them to build a media representation that accurately depicted the grace, intelligence and intricacy of Mason's world. As president, Patrick devoted herself to the development of the project, now set to be a television series. With over 80 novels to pull material from, Patrick was able to craft a finely-tuned story that suited the booming television industry.
A fresh pitch in hand and a contract under her arm, Patrick approached CBS with the renovated series and made her demands clear. She would oversee the project personally, and she would have a seat at the executive table. Longtime friend and CBS executive Anne Nelson handled this negotiation, bewildered that the network agreed to work under a document that so heavily favored the interest of Paisano Productions.
"Women today won't believe that things were that tough," Nelson is documented as saying, "but Gail was alone in her bailiwick, and I was the only female executive not in personnel at CBS at the time."
Patrick became the first female executive producer with a spot in primetime television, making her title of Executive Producer all the more impressive and historic in the expanding Hollywood industry. She ensured the show was cast correctly, filmed thoughtfully, and even made sure that the cost of the pilot was covered by Paisano Productions instead of CBS. Determined to give Gardener the production he deserved, Patrick worked with a ferocity few had seen.
This attention to detail and demand for excellence paid off when on November 30, 1956, Gardner wrote his friend an unfiltered reaction to the pilot as he watched it come together. "I can't get over the feeling that I had sitting there watching that pilot film… As I saw the manner in which your ideas, your tact and persistence had gradually changed the approach and resulted in a highly polished, finished product I was tremendously proud of you and of my association with you…."
Perry Mason himself could not object to such a review, and Gail Patrick was "guilty" of pioneering America’s first long-running courtroom drama series. With an enthusiastic author and a production team backing her, there was no stopping her from making sure justice was served (and televised).