Chances are, you’ve never thought about Raymond Burr’s close screen relationship with William Shatner. In fact, as Perry Mason, the Los Angeles criminal defense attorney, Burr never appeared onstage with Shatner’s Captain Kirk, commander of the 24th century starship Enterprise. Neither did Burr’s later character, the handicapped San Francisco detective Robert T. Ironside.
Perry and Kirk were not even contemporary. But Burr’s murder mysteries gave many of Shatner’s crewmates an early chance to let their talents shine in the world of television drama. Every week on TV’s most successful and longest-running lawyer series, aspiring and skilled young actors performed in “guest star” roles. On a lesser scale, Ironside followed suit.
Here’s the Perry Mason formula: at the beginning of each show, guest characters appear, usually one by one. It quickly becomes obvious that several of them have strong motives to murder the same annoying person. The murder occurs, an innocent person is apprehended, and Mason steps in to take the case. As evidence mounts against his client, Mason reaches into his formidable bag of lawyerly tricks. He exonerates his client, in the process revealing the true malefactor(s). Courtroom confessions are a staple of the show, as wheelchair confrontations characterized Burr’s successor series, Ironside.
Raymond Burr’s mystery programs nurtured rising unknowns like Leonard Nimoy, Walter Koenig, Steve Ihnat, and George Takei. Each of these actors later appeared in multiple episodes of Star Trek, with Nimoy a worthy co-star to Captain Kirk. Oddly, all four budding actors played either patsies or villains on Burr’s tv shows. (It is fortunate for Gene Roddenberry that the wicked nature of these early parts was forgotten by the time Star Trek came on the screen.)
In The Case of the Shoplifter’s Shoe, Nimoy, who starred in Trek as Spock, Kirk’s straightforward, logical, and pointy-eared first officer, portrayed an emotionally volatile and theatening young hood named Pete Channery. Pete’s bluster and wife-battering raised suspicions from the beginning. Questioned on the witness stand by the ever-striving and largely unsuccessful district attorney, Hamilton Burger (William Talman), Nimoy’s character nonetheless put on a very reasonable and credible front.
But later, during a rare hallway discussion between Mason and Burger while the trial was in recess, Channery stopped for a drink at a water fountain outside the courtroom. The two lawyers teamed up to question him ad hoc. Paul Drake (William Hopper), Perry’s charming, dogged private detective, and the sinister but secretly amiable homicide Lieutenant Tragg (Ray Collins) looked on as the quiet, brooding Mason turned into a merciless accuser.
Hamilton Burger followed Mason’s lead. Channery foundered but quickly recovered himself and began to threaten the lawmen. He accused the other characters of making him play the fall guy. Channery struggled fruitlessly as the cops closed in to take him away, loudly protesting “Quit shovin’, I didn’t do it.” Definitely not the logical, emotionless Vulcan so many Trekkies came to admire.
Walter Koenig (later Ensign Chekhov) played a handsome young Monkee-haired would-be murderer in Ironside (1971). During “The Summer Soldier” episode of the show, Koenig wielded a hidden weapon during a life-threatening conflict with his enemies. He was ashamed to use it against his opponents, however. The scene in which he dropped the knife is unforgettable.
As Garth of Izar, one of the Federation’s strangest commanders-turned-revolutionaries, Steve Ihnat had an important role in the original Star Trek’s “Whom Gods Destroy.” Ihnat played the legendary Fleet Captain Garth of Izar.
In “The Case of the Duplicate Case,” young Steve Ihnat got a hand up in his acting career by playing a runaway bit part in Perry Mason. Ihnat performed more than credibly as Herbie, the nervous junior salesman of arch supports. But poor Herbie lost, as his thieving wife two-timed him with, and then was murdered by, his conniving and corrupt sales manager.
Another Mason episode gave early airtime to George Takei, who later took on the role of helmsman of the starship Enterprise. His first stint on Perry Mason was only Takei’s second television appearance. The actor played the beetle-browed Toma Sakai in The Case of the Blushing Pearls, a story of theft, frame-up, and murder in the Japanese community. Years later, Takei appeared in the second pilot of Star Trek, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” which was shot before the series officially started. In over 50 subsequent episodes of Trek, Takei enlarged and greatly expanded the originally minor role of Hikaru Sulu.
It’s quite a stretch, going from studied courtroom bad guy to toting a phaser amid with outrageously made-up and costumed villains of the 24th-century, and the far-out tribbles and other noncorporeal entities dispatched by the Enterprise crew. But it’s likely that the metamorphosis helped those guys sleep better at night.
Sources: Years of watching courtroom drama and sci fi on the Boob Tube. Also–