Left: Direct brush sketch (using a mix of red and blue gouache) of actor William Hopper who played Paul Drake on "Perry Mason." (8.5 x 11 inches; Richeson Recycled Watercolor paper.)
Yes Paul Drake is the hardest working P.I. (private investigator) on TV.
Compared to Drake Thomas Magnum is a complete layabout. Chaotic and frenetic come to mind, when considering the approach Magnum takes (and the appropriations he makes of friends' skills and resources—he must have saved a lot of lives in Vietnam because he's called in a lot of chips). Even my beloved Jim Rockford who just wants to live in the present moment and stay out of prison so he can fish a little seems not hardworking so much as free falling through the violent antagonism of those around him (Jim's one of those people always letting people call in a favor).
But really, how did I come to the conclusion that Paul Drake is the hardest working P.I. on TV?
For over 3 weeks in January and February my world shrank to the couch. I was too weak to move from it. The body-jerking spasmodic coughs which shook my frame, flashed through my eyes, and exploded out of the back of my head made it impossible to read or draw. I did what any sensible person would do I watched my own mini (major) marathon of "Perry Mason" episodes.
No case was too small, no case was too involved (and believe me some cases are so convoluted that I should have kept a venn diagram on how all the characters were interrelated). I kept watching, sometimes falling in and out of consciousness. (I just had a garden variety cold which brought along a secondary bronchial infection.)
At first Drake irritated me—blonds tend to do that to me. There is a visual value contrast I find annoying. At times I couldn't take my eyes off that platinum blond hair, expertly coifed. In some episodes the forelock is so tightly curled into a whirling spiral I thought it must have lodged in the subconscious of Bill Watterson and been the model of Calvin's Crisco experimentation.
Still ill, I started thinking about Drake's clothing—when I was a child watching reruns of the show in Australia I always thought of Drake as "that peacock"—too flashy for a p.i. Even at age eleven I already knew the best ways to disappear in a crowd and follow someone without being observed.
Thanks to my sojourn in Australia where out-of-date U.S. TV shows from before my "age of reason" were run continually, as well as Samurai shows galore, I'm expert in trivia facts about a lot of age-inappropriate TV shows I never would have seen otherwise until the advent of DVD sets. Come to think of it, if I hadn't lived in Australia I might not love TV as much as I do…TV and birds…but that's another story.
I thought his Glen plaids and linen twill weaves were a bit much—and that hair, well enough said on that eddy of a 'do. Surely his appearance screamed attention.
Then it occurred to me one day while I was polishing my father's many pairs of shoes (it was one of my allowance tasks and he was always a snappy dresser—it was the one job I really loved, knowing I was contributing to the final effect) that Drake was a California boy and his clothes and hair were what made him blend in with the "California casual" of the day. It was Perry, dressed mostly in somber jackets sometimes enlivened by tone on tone stripes and usually scowling like a Jesuit at the Inquisition, who would stand out.
So on recent viewing what really stuck out for me was simply, that hair, that Dairy-Queen-Ice-Cream-Cone curl of blond. But then I did have a temperature. (OK, so I couldn't leave it alone.)
Yet he blends in, because that's what one peacock does in a flock of peacocks (though two peacocks probably don't want to be in a flock because of territorial issues but I'm not an expert on peacocks and I'm rather an expert on Drake by this time).
Here's a guy who can smile at the ladies and cajole—ladies of all types if you get my drift—without a creep factor. He can flirt with Della (Perry's secretary, who by the way can flirt right back) without a harassment angle. He can hold his own against a gang of punks. He can tackle a fleeing felon.
But wait for it: he can track down ANYONE with sometimes nothing more than a first name and no internet! And he can do it on a time crunch. He's a clutch player.
Drake operated before people could "google" stuff, or check street addresses on Google Maps, or even look up movie titles for actors on IMDB to keep a lunchtime conversation going.
Of course we know he has minions, oops, they are called operatives in the private detection arena. Lots of operatives. So many in fact that he every once in awhile will refer to one as "my best man." (By my math that means he has at least 5 operatives in L.A.: a couple trainees or unpaid interns, a good guy, a better guy, and his best man.)
He has satellite offices. Besides working in the same building as Perry, Drake has a San Diego office. The need for p.i.s in Southern California is great. (Don't we learn this from Raymond Chandler?)
The fact that Drake has operatives tells us that business is good and that he can support them, his wardrobe, his hairstylist, and offices in the same pricey building as Perry's offices. The fact that he has operatives also tells us he has people to tail other people and still other people to sort through stacks of old records.
Yet time and time again what we see, because Perry is his best client (and probably has the most interesting cases), is Drake doing things for Perry—staying up and reading those records, executing a skip trace, or flying across the country in search of some artifact.
He is a success because he is the least ADHD of any TV detective. He takes a direction and sticks.
Lying there on the couch as January melded into February it suddenly became crystal clear to me—
1. I really needed to get well,
2. Detection techiques have changed considerably since Drake's day becoming both less labor intensive and impacting the way dramatic action forms,
3. Drake's surface demeanor is calm, but his actual energy level is exhausting, and
4. Perry can sit in court having epiphanies and weaving narrative threads together, but it is Paul Drake, P.I. who is the real hero of "Perry Mason." Drake's efforts make manifest the machinations of Perry's brain.
That's worth paying a retainer for.