Barbara Hale dies at 94; played Street

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Barbara Hale, a Hollywood leading lady of the 1940s and 1950s who had a long television career as the devoted secretary Della Street to Raymond Burr’s tireless defense lawyer Perry Mason, died Jan. 26 at her home in Sherman Oaks, Calif.. She was 94.

Hale was the matriarch of a show business family that included her late husband, actor Bill Williams, who starred in the 1950s western series “The Adventures of Kit Carson,” and their son, William Katt, who played the title role in the early 1980s TV series “The Greatest American Hero,” confirmed the death and said the cause was complications from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Although Hale had a flourishing career in movies — often in wholesome roles opposite stars such as James Stewart, James Cagney and Robert Mitchum — she found her big-screen career overshadowed by her work on CBS’s “Perry Mason.”

The series aired from 1957 to 1966, making it one of the longest-airing courtroom shows in history, and Hale earned an Emmy Award for her role as Street. Two decades later, she reprised her role in more than two dozen made-for-TV movies for NBC.

Hale, who won a 1959 Emmy for best supporting actress in a dramatic series, stayed with the show until it folded. Burr once called her “a remarkably intuitive actress. She has an instinct for doing exactly the right thing when it is needed.” The actor, who cultivated orchids in his spare time, named one after her.

She later appeared in movies such as the all-star disaster film “Airport” (1970) – as the wife of a pilot played by Dean Martin – and had a long sideline as a commercial pitchwoman for Amana kitchen appliances.

Hale and Burr, the surviving members of the old principal cast, reunited in 1985 for “Perry Mason Returns,” in which Mason takes leave from a judgeship to exonerate his former secretary from a murder charge. Hale’s son, William, played the private eye role.

RKO studios in Hollywood took notice of her striking looks and put her under contract for movie work. In a small role, she sang with Sinatra in “Higher and Higher” (1943). “I never had been so scared in my life,” she later told the Los Angeles Times, “but he’s been a very dear friend ever since.”

Hale wed Bill Williams, whose real name was Herman Katt, in 1946. He died in 1992. Besides their son, of Woodland Hills, Calif., survivors include two daughters, Johanna Katt and Juanita King, both of Van Nuys, Calif.; two half-brothers; and six grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

In 1993, Hale told the Chicago Tribune that playing Della Street for so long was appealing for many reasons — among them, the character did not threaten to throw off her family life when she was a young mother.

“When we started, it was the beginning of women not working at home,” she said. “I liked that she was not married. My husband didn’t have to see me every week married to another man, and our children didn’t have to see me mothering other children.

“When my son, Billy, was in the first grade, we went to school for the first parent meeting, and on his desk were little projects he’d made — pictures of Daddy and Mommy and his sister and his animals. And underneath my picture … he’d written in inch-high block letters, ‘This is my mom. I love her. She is a secretary.’ “