Perry Mason actor Raymond Burr had deep connections to McGeorge

A painting of American actor Raymond Burr as iconic fictional lawyer Perry Mason hangs outside the University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law’s courtroom in a trophy case filled with advocacy awards and Burr-Mason memorabilia.

Perry Mason actor Raymond Burr had deep connections to McGeorge

A painting of actor Raymond Burr as iconic fictional lawyer Perry Mason of TV and literature hangs outside University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law’s courtroom in a trophy case filled with advocacy awards and Burr-Mason memorabilia. It is a constant reminder to future attorneys of their obligation to advocate on behalf of their clients.

The painting is also a symbol of a special connection Burr and Erle Stanley Gardner, the author of the Perry Mason mysteries, had with McGeorge. It is a connection no other law school can claim. Gardner, himself a lawyer, was friends with John Harold Swan, McGeorge’s fifth dean, and received an honorary doctor of laws degree in 1956 for his contribution to the law profession.

“It is uncommon for a law school to have such close ties with two icons of the legal community, one real and one fictional,” said Michael Colatrella Jr., McGeorge’s interim dean. “Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy is McGeorge’s longest serving faculty member, who will be remembered as one the most important post-WWII jurists. And through our relationship with actor and long-time patron Raymond Burr, we have a close association with Perry Mason, who is among the best known and most admired fictional lawyers in America. Perry Mason was brilliant, tough, diligent and ethical. It’s a great image for our students to see every day outside our courtroom.”

Advocacy is a lesson well learned at McGeorge even if today’s law students may not be aware of the most popular courtroom drama in TV history. U.S. News and World Report ranked McGeorge No. 7 for trial advocacy in its 2019 Best Graduate Schools Guide, the law school will send two teams to the National Trial Competition Finals in Fort Worth, Texas, and McGeorge’s ABA Negotiation team recently placed No. 3 in the country in the 2020 ABA Negotiation Competition. Only two years ago, McGeorge’s ABA Negotiation Team won the National ABA Negotiation Competition and went on to win the International Competition in Wales, taking the title as the best law school negotiation team in the world.

The connections of Burr, Gardner and McGeorge are intertwined. Gardner was to give the 1960 commencement address, but he became ill and couldn’t make it. He arranged for Burr, starring as Perry Mason at the time, to take his place as the speaker. Burr also received an honorary degree.

“Having watched Perry Mason as a kid and then later seeing many episodes again in reruns, I thought it was an astounding connection for the school,” said Mike Curran, McGeorge’s media relations/publications manager from 1992 to 2013, who wrote of the relationships for the fall 2004 Pacific Law magazine. “That a famous star came as a substitute speaker for the lesser-known creator of the book character is an excellent example of the word serendipity.”

Afterward, Burr became friends with McGeorge Dean Gordon Schaber and a supporter of McGeorge programs, holding fundraisers and giving gifts of art, books and a large antique globe. Among the gifts were Perry Mason scripts and volumes autographed by Gardner. Some of the items are in the trophy case with the painting and advocacy awards. An auction raised several hundreds of thousands of dollars toward the construction of McGeorge’s Courthouse Building that serves students to this day. Demonstrating Burr’s devotion to the law school and his generosity, when the original Perry Mason scripts failed to garner the minimum bid at the auction, Burr purchased the scripts himself and donated them to the law school, where they are on display today.

Curran believes the connections and painting, memorabilia and trophy case have meaning for today’s law students, because they hammer home that McGeorge is well established and is highly regarded by many people inside and outside the legal arena.   

Gardner was able to inject realism in the novels and TV series since he had studied law on his own and was admitted to the bar in 1911 at the age of 21. By the 1920s, he was practicing law by day and drawing on his knowledge of law to write pulp fiction by night. He published the first Perry Mason novel, “The Case of the Velvet Claws,” in 1933. In the final courtroom scene of each story, Mason typically proved his client not guilty by using a stunning legal maneuver. In the more than 80 Perry Mason novels, there was only one legal error found, Curran wrote in 2004.

The Perry Mason novels were adapted for TV in 1957, gaining popularity and making Burr a household name around the world. He earned Emmys in 1959 and 1960 for his portrayal of Mason during the nine years and 271 episodes the initial TV series ran. Burr return in 1985 to reprise the role in one of several TV movies.

“When I first came to McGeorge, I ran into an occasional alumnus who was inspired to go into the law by watching Perry Mason in their youth,” Curran said. “The show made the courtroom characters — judge, prosecutor, defense attorney — seem so professional, so polished, so astute. It showed a generation of young people that the legal field is an exciting arena.”