Barbara Hale, an Emmy Award-winning actress who typified the ideal mid-20th-century secretary as the beautiful, loyal, confident but soft-spoken Della Street on the television series “Perry Mason,” died Thursday at home in Los Angeles. She was 94.
Her death was confirmed by Jacqueline Stander, the agent for actor William Katt, Ms. Hale’s son.
Ms. Hale had been working in Hollywood for well over a decade when she was offered the supporting role on “Perry Mason,” the CBS courtroom series starring Raymond Burr as an unbeatable criminal lawyer. The show ran from 1957 to 1966, with Della — Ms. Hale in classic businesslike fashions and her trademark short, dark hair — as a steadying and infinitely reliable presence, if not a constant one.
“Della wasn’t really a very big role,” Ms. Hale told the New Jersey newspaper The Record in 1986. “I had six days, six lines and six wardrobe changes a show. When I changed clothes, it signified another day had gone by in the script.”
It was important enough, however, for her to win the Emmy Award for best supporting actress in a dramatic series in 1959. In 1985, she and Burr were reunited for a television movie, “Perry Mason Returns,” which won such high ratings that it led to 29 more TV movies starring the same characters.
Some viewers speculated about a possible romance between Perry and Della. Off-screen, Ms. Hale and Burr were close friends. An avid gardener, he even named an orchid for her.
After Burr died in 1993, three more films in the series were made, starring other actors. (They were known as “Perry Mason Mysteries,” but the role of Perry Mason was not recast.) The last was “A Perry Mason Mystery: The Case of the Jealous Jokester” (1995), with Hal Holbrook and Ms. Hale. It was her last screen appearance.
Barbara Hale was born on April 18, 1922, in DeKalb, Ill., the younger of two daughters of Luther Ezra Hale, a horticulturist, and the former Willa Calvin. Two years later the family moved to nearby Rockford.
After graduating from Rockford High School, where she was May queen, Ms. Hale went to Chicago to study commercial art at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. Her dream job, she said years later, was to be an animator for the Disney studio. But at 19 she was spotted on a street corner by a models’ agent, who found her work locally (one early job was posing for a comic strip) and was so impressed with his discovery that he sent her photographs to RKO Studios.
RKO offered her a train ticket to Hollywood and a six-month contract. Arriving in 1942, she made her film debut as “girl at party” in a 1943 courtroom comedy, “Gildersleeve’s Bad Day,” the second in a series of movies based on the popular radio series “The Great Gildersleeve.” Her first credited role came later that year, in “Higher and Higher,” a musical comedy with a cast that also included Frank Sinatra.
Over the next 15 years, Ms. Hale made more than three dozen mostly forgettable movies (“The Boy With Green Hair,” in 1948, was an exception) and a score of guest appearances on television series. Then Perry Mason came into her life.
During the almost two decades between the end of the series and the beginning of the Perry Mason television movies, she did commercials for Amana appliances, made five films and appeared on a dozen or so television shows. She was Dean Martin’s wife in “Airport” and appeared with Katt, her son, in the 1978 surfer film “Big Wednesday” and on his 1980s TV series, “The Greatest American Hero.” (Katt also appeared in nine of the Perry Mason television movies.)
Ms. Hale married Bill Williams, a fellow RKO actor, in 1946, and they had three children. Williams, whose real surname was Katt, died in 1992. In addition to Katt, she is survived by two daughters, Jody and Juanita Katt; six grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; and two half-brothers.
She never seemed unhappy about being identified with one character throughout her career. In 1993 she told The Chicago Tribune that Della Street was “a woman who knew what everybody was thinking.”
“She was informed and very observant of everything that went on,” she continued. “That was my challenge as an actress, to be a necessary part of the office without being too aggressive.”
Ms. Hale also confessed that she had never learned shorthand and could type only 33 words a minute.