The original Perry Mason pilot changed Hamilton Burger's name and Perry Mason's drink of choice

Gail Patrick protected her neighbor Erle Stanley Gardner's characters.

Putting Perry Mason on TV was a deceptively difficult task back in the 1950s. According to the writer who eventually penned the test pilot "The Case of the Moth-Eaten Mink," Ben Starr, after producer Gail Patrick secured the rights from her neighbor Erle Stanley Gardner, she went through adaptations of 16 different books of his, never finding the right fit to bring the star of his popular novels to life on TV, as they had already done so well for radio.

But when Starr got nominated for a prestigious Edgar award for his thrilling episode of the dramatic anthology series Climax!, called "Thin Air," that's when he got put on a shortlist of writers to consider for the Perry Mason pilot. According to Starr in an interview with the Archive of American Television, they called him in to ask him to adapt one of Gardner's books, and his first question was, "Which one?"

That's when he was directed to a shelf full of all of Gardner's Perry Mason novels. He'd never read a single one of them. "I reached up and just grabbed a book," Starr admitted. 

The book Starr happened to grab was called The Case of the Moth-Eaten Mink, and eager to prove himself, he dove right into his reading, then came back with a screenplay. That's when things really started happening, Starr said, "They had had like 16 attempts with different books. What do you know, they call me and everybody likes it, and they’re going to shoot it as the pilot."

Or so it seemed. Starr continued, "Then I get a call that Gail Patrick wants to see me." Starr went on in the interview to decribe how intimidating he found Patrick to be, a beautiful former actor whom Starr remembered for her "big round hats" and unapproachable cool that meant "she never got the guy in any movie." Despite his nerves, he agreed to meet.

Walking into the meeting, Starr paints a picture of Patrick surrounded by her team at one end of a big conference table and him smack dab in the middle. According to Starr, Patrick wasted no time picking apart his pilot and their tense exchange attacked changes that Starr had made to Gardner's source material, starting with what Perry Mason drinks:

Gail Patrick: "Mr. Starr, on page 2, you have Perry Mason ordering a martini."
Ben Starr: "Yes, I did."
GP: "Everybody knows that Perry Mason drinks only daiquiris."
BS: "I didn’t know that. I’d never read it before."

This did not bode well for Patrick's next note, which had to do with an even bigger change Starr had made to evolve the show away from Gardner's stories:

Gail Patrick: "Mr. Starr, you changed Hamilton Burger’s name. From Hamilton to George."
Ben Starr: "I did."
GP: "Why did you do that? He’s Hamilton Burger, the district attorney!"
BS: "I think Erle Stanley Gardner was enjoying a little inside joke so you can call the district attorney Ham Burger. TV’s growing up. It doesn’t rate that. So I changed it to George."

To that, Patrick had only one response, "Mr. Starr, are you aware that Erle Stanley Gardner has sold more books than anyone in the world?" Starr said at this point it became clear they did not agree on how to tell Perry Mason stories, so having sold the script, he walked out of the meeting and never wrote for Perry Mason again. His test pilot episode was eventually filmed and it did air, as the 13th episode of Perry Mason, and, yes, it featured a district attorney, but he was definitely called Hamilton Burger. Looking back, Starr said he's sure he would've been made head writer if he had agreed with Patrick on these key Perry Mason details.

What do you think? Would you have seen Hamilton Burger in the same light if he'd gone by the name George?

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ChuckJohnson 48 months ago
What's wrong with screenplay writers that they THINK they can improve on perfection?
I'm a Tom Clancy fan. Screen writers screwed up the plot on EVERY one of the books that have been turned into movies. They must not have read any of the other novels either. If they had, they'd know better than to kill off characters that are CRUCIAL to the plot in later books.
MyNameIsErle 58 months ago
I had a favorite Uncle we visited for several weeks during the summer each year, and if we disagreed with any of his house rules, he would announce that he found our arguments "incompetent, irrelevant and immaterial" and the situation would resolve into laughter.

He also did crossword puzzles in the newspapers each day, and he said that the puzzles loved to use "mystery writer" as the clue to a 4-letter slot and it was always "E R L E"
Wiseguy 61 months ago
His name wasn't always "Hamilton Burger" in the novels. In some of the earlier appearances of the character his name was spelled "Berger." It's hard to tell exactly which novels because some have had the spelling changed to "Burger" in more recent reprintings.
EeffBee11 61 months ago
Yeah. What’s wrong with George?
As long as his last name was Whopper!
Cpucoder 61 months ago
Should have called him Hamilton Bone, so on TV Perry could call him "You Ham Bone!". Lol
cperrynaples 61 months ago
In the end, things didn't work out too badly for Starr. He continued to write until the 80's and created 2 future classic sitcoms, Facts of Life and Silver Spoons!
cperrynaples cperrynaples 61 months ago
PS He also gave us Bobby Brady's "pork chops and applesauce" and Gary Coleman's "What chu talkin' about, Willis?"
MyNameIsErle cperrynaples 58 months ago
His eventual successes were kinda cheesy for someone who thought that "TV had grown up" and that "Hamilton Burger" was too cheesy.
61 months ago
All these years later, I still love Perry Mason. What a cast! And the photography was amazing. Lots of close ups of those interesting faces. Some of the storylines and actors were not up to par, but it's still "much watch TV!"
jholton30062 61 months ago
A different producer would have allowed Starr's changes, and the show would have been canceled after one season. People who were most likely to tune in would be those who had read the books and listened to the series on radio, and when they heard Perry order a martini, they would have said "Perry doesn't drink martinis!" and tuned out. Those who were still watching would have tuned out when George Burger introduced himself. Sure, the show would have gotten some viewers, but it would have alienated the ones that really counted, the people who read the books and listened to the show on radio. Details do matter.
cperrynaples jholton30062 61 months ago
Yes, and isn't it interesting that if the writer had said Hamilton should be his middle name, Perry's arch rival would have been George Hamilton Burger! Sounds like a great name for a celebrity restaurant...after all, he was the Crispy Cournel!
MyNameIsErle cperrynaples 58 months ago
Or tried to change his first name to "Chase". It would have sounded like the old John Belushi SNL skit in the diner: "Chaseburger, chaseburger, chaseburger"
Anish 61 months ago
I have been reading and rereading the books for so many years now, and never read the name as Ham Burger though. As you said, what's in a name.! I'd be happy if they removed the slightly racist and sexist (probably because of the time it was written) connotations in the books though.
jholton30062 Anish 61 months ago
You're right, the books were a product of their time. Race relations were much different in the 1930's and 1940's when the books were written.
MrsPhilHarris jholton30062 61 months ago
I'm reading one now. Perry keeps calling the defendant Sister.
CharlesKnox Anish 61 months ago
That would be censorship! So 👎. Every book ever wrote (left /right), will be found offensive by someone. So we can't go back and erase the past to appease those who find themselves always so easily offended.
cperrynaples MrsPhilHarris 61 months ago
When you say Sister, I assume you don't mean an nun...LOL!! Fun Facts: Perry defended a nun in the second TV movie and the new series features the "Orphan Black" actress [can't remember her name] as a nun as well!
Beta6 CharlesKnox 61 months ago
I think revisionism is something we see nowadays in the re-boots of popular shows we loved back in the day. I tried watching 2 of them, and I could not get interested as the character of the original was gone. To me, anyway.
Mockschnel 61 months ago
Yeah - good way to get a job. Change the particulars in a well-established book franchise and then argue with the supervising producer that your way is better. Brilliant.
DeborahRoberts 61 months ago
The author created the character, and while some changes are inevitable in adapting a work for the screen, randomly changing character names is disrespectful to the original work. Glad Gail Patrick Jackson was there to rein in Starr's ego then, and wish she were here now to prevent HBO producers from making the changes to Mason's origin story they're reportedly considering for the newest adaptation.
Erle Stanley Gardner would spin in his grave. The soap opera "The Secret Storm" was originally intended as a daytime version of "Perry Mason," but when Gardner saw the changes they intended to make (which included a wife for Mason), he refused to let his character be used.
cperrynaples jholton30062 61 months ago
In the words of Alex Trebek, "Oooh sorry, you're wrong!" It wasn't Secret Storm, it was [dramatic cresendo]...The Edge of Night!! John Larkin [sp?] was both radio Mason and the first Mike Karr, a sorta Mason clone devoloped by P&G!
cperrynaples jholton30062 61 months ago
PS Would you believe Lori Laughlin [again sp?] got her first acting break on Edge? Looks like Aunt Becky could use a lawyer like Perry Mason now...LOL!
jholton30062 cperrynaples 61 months ago
Duly noted. Always get those two confused...
Wiseguy MrsPhilHarris 61 months ago
Where, where? (or did you mean "Hear, hear"?)
Mike cperrynaples 16 months ago
For the record:
Pronounced Lock-lin.
Just so you know ...
JeffTanner 61 months ago
One of my sister's had and read a lot of Earl Stanley Gardner's ''Perry Mason'' books, and watched the TV show regularly. So she would know more about it than I do.
Wiseguy JeffTanner 61 months ago
Like how to spell Erle? (and sisters not sister's-plural not possessive).
stephaniestavropoulos 61 months ago
What's in a name? He'd still be a ham even if his name wasn't Hamilton. I have found his Thespian Persona, his Theatrics to be a bit on the hammy side in the courtroom. But I realize sometimes lawyers have to give into doing theatrics, in order to plead their case, {that of their client, I mean.}
Who would eat a George-burger?
Folks named George?!?!
His theatrics weren't accidental. He didn't have a whole lot to do in the series. Once in awhile show up in Perry's office, or out on a location viewing evidence. But mostly he was in the courtroom walking back from the witness stand to his table. In doing that he always gives a little flourish with his arm. In reality, a confident actor like RB (and tell me which actors aren't) need something to play off of. You can't react to nothing, so Talman gives it all he's got! (Smugness) It's those little looks between them in the courtroom which makes re-watching the episodes interesting!
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