Not just another pretty face


While I was sick last fall and then over the holiday break I caught up on old TV shows. Well, “catching up” is the nice way to put it. I was glued to the set. One of my all-time favorites: Perry Mason. This show has run seemingly continuously with different actors from the 1930s (in movies back then, starring first Warren William and then Ricardo Cortez and Donald Woods), and then in the 1960s TV series with Raymond Burr playing Perry, and then the 1970s, with Monte Markham, then back to Raymond Burr in the 1980s and 1990s again.

The show often featured well-known guest stars (Bette Davis, Jackie Coogan, Dick Clarke, Cloris Leachman, Fay Wray, and many others), which is always fun. Another thing I like about the show is that although all the lead actors are attractive, most of the supporting cast is…not necessarily. Maybe the casting falls into stereotypes sometimes. You’ve got a Rancher, an Insurance Agent, a Shopkeeper, a Businessman, a Housewife. They all look like people you might know. Usually none of them is anything remarkable in the looks department.

Only when the plot calls for a “pretty girl” (you can practically hear them call Central Casting: “Hey, Joe! We need a looker on the set!”) do you actually get a conventionally attractive young woman on the screen. And she might be a Good Girl or a Bad Girl, but her looks often have something to do with the plot. The character’s looks often helped propel her into the action for one reason or another, good or bad.

This is also true for another show I watched: Police Story, which originally ran for six years from 1973 through 1978 and starred at least briefly at least every working actor in Hollywood. In the case of Police Story, it’s less about pretty girls than good-looking guys: some of them are, but plenty of them–maybe most of them–aren’t. The show is gritty. Watching these tough, tired guys at work, you feel like you’re watching real cops, which is not something I think when I watch the current batch of police shows.

Perry Mason was a character that the lawyer and crime writer Erle Stanley Gardner created. Gardner wrote many books before the movies or TV ever beckoned. Police Story was created by Joseph Wambaugh, a 14-year veteran of the Los Angeles police department, who wrote crime fiction and nonfiction before he became involved with television and wrote 95 episodes for the show and consulted on its development.

Perhaps it was a consequence of my feverish flu, but I’ve been wondering why these old shows didn’t employ more drop-dead handsome actors. Hollywood certainly had plenty of them. Today, you can’t turn on the tube without finding zillions of shows full of people who, despite their many professional acting talents, could also win beauty pageants by the score. Some of these new shows I like to watch, because the writing is good and the acting is fun. But many times I find these shows really depressing. Whose lives look like that? Who knows these people? It seems like the producers look for two or five pretty faces and think, Let’s put on a show! And the story can come afterwards.

Maybe I like Perry Mason and Police Story so much because with these shows, the writing came first. The writers created those characters, and those characters didn’t have to be gorgeous to get you to watch. They just had to be interesting.

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