Barbara Hale, who played the title lawyer’s secretary Della Street on every episode of Perry Mason and appeared on the big screen opposite many of Hollywood’s top leading men, died Thursday at her home in Sherman Oaks, CA. She was 94. Her son, The Greatest American Hero star William Katt, confirmed Hale’s death on Facebook.
She was gracious and kind and silly and always fun to be with,” Katt wrote. “A wonderful actress and smart business woman, she was most of all a treasure as a friend and mother.”
Before landing her Emmy-winning signature role in the long-running CBS legal drama, Hale had a star attraction in feature films during the 1940s and early ’50s. A contract player with RKO Radio Pictures through the late ’40s, she starred with such legends as Frank Sinatra (Higher and Higher, 1943), Robert Mitchum (West of the Pecos, 1945), Robert Young (Lady Luck, 1946 & And Baby Makes Three, 1949), James Stewart (The Jackpot, 1950), Rock Hudson and Anthony Quinn (Seminole, 1953), James Cagney (A Lion Is in the Streets, 1953), and Joel McCrea (The Lone Hand, 1953 & The Oklahoman, 1957), Charlton Heston and Fred MacMurray (The Far Horizons, 1955), Randolph Scott (7th Cavalry, 1956) and Brian Keith (Desert Hell, 1958). She also played the title role in the 1951 literary adaptation of Lorna Doone.
Like many screen stars of the era, she dipped a toe in the burgeoning TV medium by the mid-1950s, guesting on such popular series as Studio 57, The Loretta Young Show, Playhouse 90 and Damon Runyon Theater. But everything changed in 1957.
Hale landed the role of Della Street in Perry Mason, which starred Raymond Burr as an unflappable L.A. attorney who would solve killings from the courtroom — and never lost a case. After a sluggish start in the 1957-58 season, the series would finish in the primetime top 25 for the next five season, peaking as the No. 5 series of 1961-62. Perry Mason ended up airing 271 episodes through 1966, and Hale earned supporting actress Emmy in 1959 and scored another nom in 1961.
Hale continued to work in films and TV through the 1970s and early ’80s, showing up in such memorable pics as the seminal all-star disaster film Airport (1970) and cult surfing drama Big Wednesday (1978). During that time she also appeared in episodes of Adam-12,, Marcus Welby, M.D. — reuniting with Young — Lassie, with son Katt in The Greatest American Hero and even in Burr’s next drama Ironside, though not as Della Street.
But Hale and Burr weren’t through. They teamed for a 1985 movie called Perry Mason Returns for NBC, which was such a success it spawned more than two dozen more Perry Mason telefilms — two or three a year until Burr died in 1993. After that, Hal Holbrook stepped into the male lead role as Wild Bill McKenzie for five Perry Mason Mystery movies from 1993-95. Hale played Della Street in all of them. The final one, A Perry Mason Mystery: The Case of the Jealous Jokester, would be her final screen credit.
Hale received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960 on Vine Street near Hollywood Boulevard.