William Talman— Perry Mason's Hamilton Burger— was in a landmark anti-smoking commercial

Talman was a pioneer who never got the recognition he deserved.

The Everett Collection

One of the most significant generational divides is the differences in tobacco consumption. As attitudes around nicotine have evolved, separate age ranges have either embraced or spurned cigarettes and other delivery methods. Whether we all heed the Surgeon General's warnings or not, it's clear that each peer group has its hangups and choices. 

While Big Tobacco finds new ways to market to fresh-faced consumers, an opposing force continues its attempt to educate and prevent over-use. For decades, television users have been subject to anti-tobacco advertising, just as they were once the targets of cigarette commercials. The Food & Drug Administration has carefully monitored where and how tobacco can be advertised, and a lot of that space is now filled by public service campaigns aimed at teaching younger people the ills of smoking. Whether those commercials are effective or not is up for debate. However, one can't argue that they've been a big part of American life since the Sixties.

The first-ever anti-smoking commercial to feature a celebrity was broadcast in 1968. The ad included a posthumous performance from Perry Mason's William Talman, famous for portraying Mason's adversary District Attorney Hamilton Burger. Talman died from lung cancer that same year before the campaign could air. 

Talman was already fatally sick when he agreed to appear in the ad series. According to producer Donald Hillman, The American Cancer Society "decided to do this film because it presented a unique opportunity for the society to dramatically and realistically portray to the American TV audience the beliefs and feelings of a man soon to be a victim of his own smoking habits."

Talman, according to Hillman was "all the more effective because he had previously been established as a loser."

While Talman's Hamilton Burger might've lost a lot of court battles onscreen, in real life, Talman should be remembered as a hero for his place in anti-smoking history. He used his fame to teach everyone a lesson he wasn't lucky enough to learn until it was too late.

"We're just that way," Talman's son Tim told Hour Detroit Magazine. "We don't do anything unless there's an effect. What my dad was telling the world was, 'When you see this, I'll be gone.' It doesn't get any more dramatic than that."

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22 Comments

BradBeall 6 days ago
I can't believe people still smoke & use other tobacco products such as "vapes" and chewing tobacco. I FINALLY quit after more than 50 years of smoking, simply because of the ever-increasing price of cigarettes. When I first started smoking - in 6th grade - a pack of smokes was less than 50 cents in most places. Then, the government found out they could create an ever-expanding pile of income simply by placing huge taxes on tobacco products. It took a few attempts, over a few years, but I finally got the determination and will-power to walk away from smoking when the price hit $10.00 a pack (for maybe 20-cents worth of tobacco). And that's almost entirely taxes, not profit for the tobacco companies, as the government would have you believe. I was never really concerned about my health, just the wasted money, and the fact that it was just more of my money that was going to a government that had long ago overgrown and overstepped it's boundaries. It's been over 5 years now, and I've saved many thousands of dollars. And I feel a little better, too!
Neen 17 days ago
Wasn’t he also arrested for lewd acts or something like that , also?
WGH Neen 16 days ago
Probably seen kissing another man or something like that. That's why they don't talk about it in the Me-TV articles.
cinamac Neen 16 days ago
He was involved in a drug raid…the participants were actually just smoking marijuana and were in various stages of undress!
MeFanFromSavan Neen 15 days ago
Something in the way of, naked people at a pot party.
George58 17 days ago
I can't believe how many scenes I've seen in Perry Mason episodes where the characters are smoking. Unbelievable!! Especially William Hopper's character Paul Drake. It seems like Paul always had a cigarette in his hand. Not only for show but also he took puffs from it so you can see he was actually smoking.
WGH George58 16 days ago
Hollywood was paid by the cigarette companies to do just that.

Same reason you see so many people drinking coffee in the westerns.
Avie 17 days ago
You'd think the people who run this site would have the common sense to include a link to the ad, but they didn't, so here it is:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=caZCx_j6tko

But this is arguably a better and more famous commercial about the same thing, with an even bigger celebrity, seventeen years later:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sdHcIxbLzWE
Bill55705 17 days ago
Seeing him on perry mason. I remembered watching that commercial that he did before this article. I picture in my mind how scary it was seeing it. Knowing he had already passed away.
MaryMitch 17 days ago
I was about 10 years old. I didn't watch Perry Mason - had no idea who Talman was - but I remember his voice and his words: "I've got lung cancer." Great PSA.
jmworacle 17 days ago
At that era on television every adult seemed to smoke. In fact I remember a Winston commercial where the Flintstones and the Rubbles were lighting up to enjoy a smoke. I remember Mr. Talman's commercial vividly. Heck of an impact.
logicgrrl 17 days ago
Too bad MeTV didn't post the commercial or a link to it.
Wiseguy70005 logicgrrl 17 days ago
It wasn't a commercial or an ad, it was a public service announcement (PSA). It's included on the 50th anniversary Perry Mason DVD set along with actor screen tests including William Hopper as Perry Mason and Raymond Burr as Hamilton Burger.
sjbang88 17 days ago
I actually remember that ad. It was very low key and depressing
cinamac 17 days ago
I just recently saw the ad on YouTube! When I saw how many children he had(and their vast differences in age), I figured he was Roman Catholic, but then I realized they were from 3 different marriages!
spence2054 17 days ago
Yul Brynner was a chain smoker who also did a public service announcement about smoking. I can't believe that people still smoke here in 2024 and that tobacco companies are not held liable for the millions of deaths they have caused.
sjbang88 spence2054 17 days ago
It is amazing people still smoke, especially young people
bfrank13 spence2054 17 days ago
People have free will.Tobbaco companies are not the cause.Its up to smokers.Should food companies be suit by fat people?where does it end
Wiseguy70005 bfrank13 17 days ago
That's silly. People have to eat. They don't have to smoke at all.
Runeshaper 20 days ago
That as very brave of William Talman. I give him a lot of credit for this act.
teire 20 days ago
I remember the commercials — effective and sad.
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