Virginia Arness, wife of James Arness, made her final acting appearance on Perry Mason
She later shunned Malibu life to run a roadside motel.
Read to Me
It is always worthwhile to pay close attention to the details in Perry Mason. Plotwise, those twisty mysteries always sprinkle clues through the episodes. From a behind-the-scenes perspective, Perry Mason cases also pack plenty of nifty Hollywood trivia. You can spot all kinds of vintage cars, bygone Los Angeles locations, recycled props, etc.
Oh, and the series cast all kinds of fascinating actors.
Take "The Case of the Gallant Grafter," for example. The 1960 episode begins with a wealthy woman named Sylvia Nelson demanding a divorce from her CEO husband. Playing Sylvia is Virginia Arness, née Chapman, who was, at the time, married to James Arness, the towering star of Gunsmoke.
However, dark clouds hung over the relationship, which was nearing its end. The two had been married since 1948. Arness adopted Chapman's son at the time. The couple had two children, Jenny Lee and Rolf, in the early 1950s. A few years later, Virginia had the chance to work with her husband, popping up in two episodes of Gunsmoke, "Reed Survives" and "The Killer." Both times, she played a gypsy. The actress also had small roles on the action shows Highway Patrol and Whirlybirds.
But a life of fame was not all it seemed. At the end of the decade, Virginia struggled deeply with mental health issues. Perry Mason's "The Case of the Gallant Grafter" would be her final screen role. The Arnesses split shortly thereafter.
Virginia walked away from her career in Hollywood and life in Malibu. She did have another moment in the spotlight, though.
In October 1967, Virginia, still using the byline Virginia Arness, wrote a lengthy, impassioned essay in the pages of Ebony magazine. The piece, titled "From the Oasis," explained her decision to leave behind the glitz and glamor so that she could run the Oasis Motel in San Bernadino, California. The roadside motor inn still sits on N. Mount Vernon Avenue, a.k.a. the famed Route 66.
But Virginia's main motivation for running the joint was not tourism and hospitality. She yearned to live and work in a multicultural environment. "I have found a haven in this inter-racial community because — for one thing — humanitarian values are, to me, virtually non-existent in the white power structure," she writes in the rousing, somewhat conflicted commentary, which is an interesting glimpse at the Civil Rights politics of the late Sixties. She goes to great length to explain and defend her decision to live in a largely African-American neighborhood.
"My faith in mankind has been returned to me by living in this community," Arness wrote. "I am a refugee from white status society." Earlier in the article, she said, "I had to be exposed to the so-called upper echelons of… society to discover the emptiness, the hollowness, the shallowness, the desperate loneliness."
She also dishes on her marriage to James Arness.
"Twenty years ago I married a young beach comber, James Arness, who became an actor and who pulled himself up into the stardom of the indomitable television show, Gunsmoke," she said. "As his career sky-rocketed, I gradually realized I was tied to a star that had turned into a comet shooting into outer space, leaving me earth-bound and terribly alone."
Knowing all that, it's hard not to watch her final screen role in Perry Mason and search for some of those emotions boiling under the performance.
"Why is it every husband seems to think there's always another man when his wife wants a divorce?" her character says with a roll of her eyes in "Gallant Grafter." It's a roll of the eyes that seems well-practiced.