Obituary: Barbara Hale

Role as Perry Mason’s secretary, Della Street earned her an Emmy Award

Barbara Hale: April 18th, 1922-January 26th,  2017. Above,  at a stamp dedication ceremony held at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in Hollywood, California in 2009. Photograph:  Alberto E Rodriguez/Getty Images

Barbara Hale: April 18th, 1922-January 26th, 2017. Above, at a stamp dedication ceremony held at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in Hollywood, California in 2009. Photograph: Alberto E Rodriguez/Getty Images

 

Barbara Hale, the Emmy Award-winning actor who typified the ideal mid-20th-century secretary as the beautiful, loyal, confident but soft-spoken Della Street on the television series Perry Mason, has died, aged 94.

Hale had been working in Hollywood for well over a decade when she was offered the supporting role on Perry Mason, the courtroom series starring Raymond Burr as an unbeatable criminal lawyer. The show ran from 1957 to 1966, with Della (Hale) in classic businesslike fashions and her trademark short, dark hair – as a steadying and infinitely reliable presence, if not a constant one.

“Della wasn’t really a very big role,” Hale told the New Jersey newspaper the Record in 1986. “I had six days, six lines and six wardrobe changes a show. When I changed clothes, it signified another day had gone by in the script.”

It was important enough, however, for Hale to receive the Emmy Award for best supporting actress in a dramatic series in 1959. In 1985 she and Burr were reunited for a television movie, Perry Mason Returns, which won such high ratings that it led to 29 more TV movies starring the same characters.

Some viewers speculated about a possible romance between Perry and Della. Off-screen, Hale and Burr were close friends. An avid gardener, he even named an orchid for her.

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Barbara Hale was born in DeKalb, Illinois, the younger of two daughters of Luther Ezra Hale, a horticulturist, and the former Willa Calvin. Two years later the family moved to nearby Rockford.

After graduating from Rockford High School, Hale went to Chicago to study commercial art at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. At 19 she was spotted on a street corner by a models’ agent, who found her work locally and was so impressed with his discovery that he sent her photographs to RKO Studios.

RKO offered her a train ticket to Hollywood and a six-month contract. Arriving in 1942, she made her film debut as “girl at party” in a 1943 courtroom comedy, Gildersleeve’s Bad Day. Her first credited role came later that year, in Higher and Higher, a musical comedy with a cast that included Frank Sinatra.

Over the next 15 years, Hale made more than three dozen mostly forgettable movies (The Boy with Green Hair, in 1948, was an exception) and a score of guest appearances on television series. Then Perry Mason came into her life.

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Hale married Bill Williams (whose real surname was Katt), a fellow RKO actor, in 1946, and they had three children.

Her husband died in 1992. She is survived by her son William, her two daughters, Jody and Juanita Katt; six grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; and two half-brothers.