'Perry Mason' actor to appear at Michigan event Feb. 23-24


By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

Acting is in William Katt’s DNA.

The son of the late Bill Williams and the late Barbara Hale, Katt was exposed to showbiz at a very early age. He hung out with his dad on the set of “The Adventures of Kit Carson,” which ran from 1951-55; and with his mom on the set of the courtroom drama “Perry Mason,” which ran from 1957-66. The latter was based on Erle Stanley Gardner’s best-selling series of novels about a criminal defense attorney.

“It was wonderful to get out of school and hang out. I grew up on those sets,” recalled Katt, of Los Angeles, who will appear as the headline guest at the Great Lakes Comic-Con this weekend – Friday, Feb. 23, and Saturday, Feb. 24 – at Macomb Community College in Warren.

So it was no surprise that Katt became an actor himself, starting out on the stage. His first big break was playing Tommy Ross in 1976’s “Carrie,” which was based on Stephen King’s first novel and directed by Brian De Palma (“Scarface”). The movie starred Oscar winner Sissy Spacek (“Coal Miner’s Daughter”), Oscar nominee John Travolta (“Pulp Fiction”), Golden Globe nominee Nancy Allen (“Robocop”), Detroit native/Oscar nominee Piper Laurie (“The Hustler”), and Oscar nominee Amy Irving (“Yentl”).

“For two weeks, we worked at (De Palma’s) apartment in Hollywood. I remember (Travolta, Allen, Irving, Spacek, and myself) would all go there and work. At the time, we were using a reel-to-reel tape-recorder because video had not yet come about,” said Katt. “Brian’s entire apartment was filled with these 3 x 5 cards with all the scenes on them. He would get up periodically and move cards around for his shot list and what not. It was a fun experience. He really sculpted those scenes to fit the actors he was working with. By the time we’d got to the set… he was really all about the camera and the components of filmmaking. I just thought he was a terrific director.”

Around that time, Katt also auditioned for the role of Luke Skywalker for 1977’s “Star Wars,” which eventually went to Mark Hamill.

“(De Palma) and George Lucas were holding casting calls together in order to save time. I think they saw every up-and-coming young actor in Hollywood and maybe even outside of Hollywood. It was a who’s who of young actors who paraded through their doors to meet them,” explained Katt. “I was lucky enough to get the screen-tests for both projects. I famously did a great screen-test with Kurt Russell for ‘Star Wars.’ I screen-tested for ‘Carrie’ with Sissy. I felt very blessed to get the part of Tommy Ross in what I thought was one of Brian’s seminal films that made him a big director.”

From 1981-83, he played Ralph Hinkley, a school teacher who becomes a reluctant super-hero on “The Greatest American Hero,” created by the late Stephen J. Cannell, who was known for such hit TV series as “The Rockford Files,” “The Commish,” and “Hardcastle and McCormick.” This is Katt’s best-known role.

“It was a very funny, funny script. I read (the pilot script) and laughed out loud,” said Katt. “I found (Cannell) to be one of the most gracious and kind individuals that I’d ever met. And that’s beside the fact that he was remarkably talented and had written a wonderful script.”

On “Hero,” aliens give Ralph a suit granting him super-powers to fight injustice, but he loses his instruction manual and must learn to use his newfound abilities through trial and error. His allies include FBI agent Bill Maxwell (the late Robert Culp, “The Pelican Brief”) and attorney/love interest Pam Davidson (Connie Selleca, “Hotel”).

“You have to remember at the time – this was the early 1980s – you didn’t have these huge franchises. It was a stigma (to play a super-hero),” explained Katt. “I had a very thriving career at the time doing legitimate theater, and it was very difficult for me for a long time… At the time I was doing ‘Hero,’ it wasn’t something people thought of as a good thing. It wasn’t until many years later when the Trekkies started having all these conventions and then they branched out into those famous cons we have today. (They) didn’t exist at the time. Nowadays, you have all these actors who’d give their left foot to play a Marvel or a DC character – they would just love that.”

In 1985, Katt was cast as Paul Drake Jr. – the son of Paul Drake played by the late William Hopper in the original “Perry Mason” TV series – in “Perry Mason Returns.” This telefilm reunited Raymond Burr and Hale from the original TV series as Perry and Della Street, respectively. In fact, Burr stated he would not star in the movie if Hale wasn’t cast. The plot has Perry, now a judge, leaving the bench to defend Della, his former secretary, of murder. Like his father, Paul was Perry’s investigator.

“I bore some similarities looks-wise to Hopper, although he was about six inches taller than me,” said Katt. “I had a wonderful time working with my mom and with Ray – it was terrific. It was like being right at home with all those folks.”

A typical “Perry Mason” story involved him defending a client of murder. Perry would then maintain his client’s innocence by implicating another character, forcing him or her to confess – usually in the courtroom.

“The novels still sell quite well. I think there’s comfort in the structure – they have all the same structure: crime, courtroom, reveal. People love the characters. In today’s upsetting world, they are very comfortable,” said Robin Agnew, co-owner of Aunt Agatha’s in Ann Arbor.

Between 1985-93, there were a total of 30 “Perry Mason” telefilms. Hale starred in all of them. Burr starred in 26 up until his death in 1993 with either Paul Sorvino (“Law & Order”) and Hal Holbrook (“All the President’s Men”) starring in the remaining four as colleagues of Perry filling in for him while he was “out of town.” Although several actors have played Perry, Burr is considered the definitive actor to portray him.

“(Burr was a) lovely man. Very philanthropic, he always gave me the benefit of the doubt. He was great to the cast and crew. He was every bit as lovely as people say he was,” said Katt. “There’s been some talk about Robert Downey Jr. playing a new incarnation of Perry Mason in a feature film, but I don’t know if that’s come to pass.”

Katt starred in nine of the “Perry Mason” telefilms. He left the series after 1988’s “Perry Mason: The Case of the Lady in the Lake” to reunite with Cannell on the 1989 short-lived political drama “Top of the Hill” that aired on CBS. He played U.S. Rep. Thomas Bell Jr., the son of a long-time Congressman (Dick O’Neill, “Cagney & Lacey”) who resigned his seat due to health problems. The younger Bell saw everything in black and white, but – unfortunately and inevitably – runs into many gray areas, forcing himself to compromise his principles to get what he needs to get done. The elder Bell served as an adviser, which often led to tension between father and son. The show touched on some fairly contentious issues, such as labor union corruption, adoptee rights, pollution, abortion, and military procurement.

“It was a very politically-oriented show. It was ahead of its time,” said Katt. “It was one of my favorite things that I ever did; I loved that show. It was a great disappointment to me it didn’t survive.”

Katt’s looking forward to attending the GLCC this weekend. This marks his first time in Michigan in almost 25 years.

“The fans are the best part. Everybody is so wonderful,” said Katt. “I love to take the time to shake hands, take photos, and visit, and make them feel as special as they’ve made me feel. I’m looking forward to being there and spending time with everybody.”


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