Why William Hopper's Turn As Paul Drake On Perry Mason Remains One Of His Best Performances

William Hopper, the actor who played the stalwart private detective Paul Drake on the hit 1957 legal drama "Perry Mason," was a notoriously prolific smoker, often seen with a cigarette hanging from his lips on camera. In 1970, Hopper suffered a stroke and succumbed to smoking-related health issues a month later. He was 55 years old

As Paul Drake, Hopper was a cynic, a more grizzled presence built to balance Perry Mason's serious intellect. He was the Dr. McCoy to Perry Mason's Spock. For those unfamiliar with the series, "Perry Mason" was about a Los Angeles defense lawyer, played brilliantly by Raymond Burr, who was always careful to investigate the clients he was hired to defend. Typically, innocent people came to Mason, and he was always curious about the details of their case. Mason would always face off against the L.A. District Attorney Hamilton Burger (William Talman), who never won a case against him. 

When he needed a deep dive into the fineries of a case, Mason had two hired hands. There was Della Street (Barbara Hale), his secretary and researcher, and there was Paul Drake, the P.I. who could take care of street-level, police-adjacent criminal matters. The most notable feature of "Perry Mason" was its seriousness. It wasn't a quippy show, and only occasionally winked at the audience. Without fail, each episode would end with Mason calling a witness to the stand in court, grilling them intensely, and watching them break down in confession. 

It was a great show, and William Hopper was excellent in it.

The many Paul Drakes

Of course, Hopper hasn't been the only actor to play Paul Drake, and "Perry Mason" has had a long life throughout several media.

Author Erle Stanley Gardner wrote the first "Perry Mason" novel, "The Case of the Velvet Claws," in 1933. In the original books, Drake was described as being lanky and fish-like, often complaining to Mason about the toughness of the cases. Because the books were massive hits, Warner Bros. immediately optioned them for adaptation to film, and from 1934 to 1937, the studio put out six "Perry Mason" feature films, starring Warren William as the title character in the first five and Donald Woods in the sixth. There was a rotating bevy of actors playing Paul Drake in these films, including Allen Jenkins, Eddie Acuff, Garry Owen, and Joseph Crehan.

Defying the description from the novels, Hopper was a broad-shouldered, heroic type of actor who took the role in the 1957 TV version. He was still a gambler, a smoker, and a cad; the only woman in town he never dated was Della Street, but he wasn't the sniveling, lanky dude described by Gardner. Regardless, he became popular enough to stay with "Perry Mason" through his death. Hopper was once quoted as being flattered that Gardner — who continued to write Mason mysteries while the 1957 show was on the air — started to alter the Paul Drake character on the page to more closely resemble him.

Very Perry

Hopper began his acting career at age one, and appeared in dozens of supporting roles throughout the 1930s. In the 1950s, he showed up in notable genre flicks like "The Deadly Mantis," "Conquest of Space," and "20 Million Miles to Earth." He also played Natalie Wood's dad in "Rebel Without a Cause." Despite a long career, Hopper was always ambivalent about acting, and never really wanted it to be his whole career. Various biographies declare that it was his mother, famed actress-turned-gossip-columnist Hedda Hopper, who pushed him into acting, and William's heart was never in the game. Paul Drake was his niche. His one role. The one he could dedicate himself to. It's no wonder he emerged as well as he did.

Even though the hit TV series was canceled in 1966, the franchise continued.

In 1973, CBS launched "The New Perry Mason" which featured an all-new cast. Albert Stratton played Paul Drake in that show. That version only lasted 15 episodes. In 1985, however, Raymond Burr returned to the role in the first of many, many TV movies based on Gardner's books. There were 30 additional "Perry Mason" movies produced between 1985 and 1995. In those, Paul Drake was replaced by his younger son, Paul Jr., played by William Katt (incidentally the son of Barbara Hale). When Burr died in 1993, he was replaced by Paul Sorvino, then Hal Holbrook. 

The new Perry Mason

In 2020, HBO began production on a hard-edged reboot of "Perry Mason," set in 1932. Matthew Rhys plays Mason and Chris Chalk ("12 Years a Slave," "Godzilla vs. Kong") plays Paul Drake. Chalk, a Black actor, more closely resembles Drake on the page, but finds himself having to face the systemic racism of 1930s America. The first season of the new series ran from June to August of 2020. Its second season debuted in March of 2023 and will conclude on April 24.

While "Perry Mason" may not hold the cultural clout of, say, "I Love Lucy," one can see that the adventures of a stalwart defense attorney, a determined researcher, and a slovenly P.I. can only remain untapped for so long. Gardner's hard-boiled legal drama, and the 1957 TV show it inspired, came to define the very genre. Just as every modern sitcom owes a debt to "I Love Lucy," so too does every courtroom series owe a debt to "Perry Mason." 

Raymond Burr, Barbara Hale, and William Hopper became the face of the legal system at its best. And a determined and forthright legal system is a fantasy we all wish would come true.

William Hopper may not have been entirely on board with acting, but he helped create a role that will remain in the pop consciousness in perpetuity.