Day 15 of Noirvember: The Trials of William Talman
To modern audiences, William Talman may be best known as the luckless district attorney Hamilton Burger, who never won a case against TV’s popular defense attorney, Perry Mason. He also appeared in 19 feature films over a span of 18 years, including memorable performances in several noirs: Armored Car Robbery (1950), The Racket (1951), City That Never Sleeps (1953), and The Hitch-Hiker (1953).
But in the midst of his stint on Perry Mason, Talman faced a real-life legal battle that eclipsed any drama he faced on the small screen. In the early morning hours of March 13, 1960, the actor was arrested in a Hollywood party raid, along with seven others, by officers who charged that the revelers were “high on marijuana.” According to authorities, an undercover officer had been invited to the party and arrived to find everyone “in the nude.” Police also said they found one marijuana cigarette stub, several “prepared marijuana smokes,” and a quantity of loose marijuana in bedroom closets, the bathroom medicine chest, and in other locations throughout the apartment. Talman denied any knowledge of the presence of the drug and insisted that he had only stopped at the apartment to “have a social drink.”
Deputy District Attorney John Loucks decided against charging the actor with possession of marijuana, asking, “How could a person have marijuana in his possession when he didn’t have a strip of clothes on his body?” Loucks chose, instead, to charge Talman and the seven others with lewdness and vagrancy. After his arrest, Talman told reporters that the incident “is going to ruin me” – and he was relatively accurate in his gloomy prediction. Just four days later, the actor was summarily fired from the cast of Perry Mason by CBS-TV officials, who announced that the character would be recast. (They later reversed this stance, claiming that Talman had not been fired, but that the option on his contract had simply not been renewed because the show’s format had changed and would no longer depict the role of the district attorney.) And although the actor’s June 1960 trial was halted after just three days (the presiding judge proclaimed that “it isn’t against the law to go around a house without clothes on”), CBS refused to rehire the actor.
After being dropped from Perry Mason, Talman made ends meet by writing several teleplays under an assumed name, but even after being vindicated by the court, he was unable to find work on CBS or any other network. Shortly after the end of the trial, the actor was offered a role on NBC’s Bonanza, but Talman claimed that the offer was rescinded after pressure from the top brass at CBS.
“I don’t want to be the center of a controversy,” Talman told Los Angeles Examiner reporter Charles Denton in August 1960. “But what in the name of heaven can I do now except point a finger at these people and say ‘Look what they’re doing to me?’ I thought that when a man had a fair hearing in court and was cleared, he could at least go back to where he started. But it hasn’t worked that way. To me, that’s the main issue in this whole mess. . . . What does it mean for a man to be acquitted in court if everyone treats him as if he were guilty?”
During the next several months, letters poured in from fans demanding the actor’s return. CBS officials were urged to rehire Talman by Raymond Burr and the show’s producer, Gail Patrick Jackson, and numerous newspaper columns were written in Talman’s defense. In a typical piece, Los Angeles Mirror Television and Radio Editor Hal Humphrey passionately declared that “Hollywood has sentenced [Talman] to an indefinite period of unemployment for a crime he didn’t commit. Talman isn’t in jail. . . . He might be better off in jail, though, because he can’t find any work.”
Finally in December 1960, nine months after his arrest, Talman was quietly rehired as Hamilton Burger on Perry Mason. The actor later claimed to harbor no bitterness about the experience, and he remained with the show until the series ended in 1966.
And how was YOUR week?
Join me tomorrow for Day 16 of Noirvember!