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.
Read to Me
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?