HBO’s prestige legal drama Perry Mason is, of course, a work of fiction based on the character Raymond Burr immortalized on the ’50s and ’60s TV show. However, the first season included nods to famous real-life Angelenos and incidents like radio evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson and the horrific kidnapping and murder of Marion Parker. The second season, which premiered on March 6, is no different. Michael Begler, who along with his writing partner, Jack Amiel, serves as the new showrunner for the series, broke down some of the historical influences for Vulture.
Perry Mason’s sophomore season tells a “have and have nots” story through the guise of a murder mystery: It revolves around the death of a wealthy and well-known white man and the brothers Mateo Gallardo (Peter Mendoza) and Rafael Gallardo (Fabrizio Guido) — Chicano men from a completely different area of Los Angeles — who are charged with the crime. This season looks at the power of not just wealth but access: to the media, to housing and, yes, to decent legal representation.
Vulture did the gumshoe investigating, speaking with Begler and historians, to reveal some of the season’s real-life inspirations. Want to sound like you know the difference between the truth and Hollywood spin? Study this list and no jury in the world would convict you.
This murder victim at the center of season two is Brooks McCutcheon (Tommy Dewey), the Icarian son of the prosperous (and nefarious) oilman Lydell McCutcheon (Paul Raci). When we meet him in the premiere, Brooks desperately wants to step out of his dad’s shadow and make a name for himself. He does; just not the way he expected. The town will be buzzing when they learn his body was found in his yellow convertible with a bullet hole in his head, as happens at the end of the episode
Begler says the murder is inspired by a real-life killing, the 1929 shooting deaths of 35-year-old Edward Laurence “Ned” Doheny Jr. and his assistant, 32-year-old Hugh Plunkett. Rather than in a beachside car, the pair died in Doheny’s illustrious home, known as Greystone Mansion, and the shootings occurred after Doheny Sr. was implicated in the Teapot Dome scandal that brought down President Warren Harding’s administration. It was the society killing to gossip about among the still-forming Los Angeles nouveau riche.
“Here was one of the wealthiest families in the city, and the scion of that family gets murdered,” Begler says. “This was a beloved young man and the prince of the city, and how did that affect people? At his funeral, they’re spreading out into the streets; they couldn’t hold them in the church.”
Although commonly talked about as a murder-suicide, Dohney and Plunkett’s deaths have officially never been solved, and theories range from a lovers’ quarrel gone wrong to fallout from the Teapot Dome scandal. Intriguingly, as Begler notes, Dohney’s extremely powerful and corrupt dad brought in his own security force to “take over” the investigation — which may have had something to do with the case’s lack of resolution.
Photo: Left: HBO Max, Right: Los Angeles Examiner/USC Libraries/Corbis via Getty Images
Prior to his death in the Perry Mason premiere, Brooks’s big swing was to build a baseball stadium in the hopes of luring a national team out to what most still considered a dust bowl. He bragged to his dad about all the advertising he’d lined up, and his last order of business was a failed attempt at sweet-talking a noted ballplayer into spreading the word.
Even if it’s set decades before the Dodgers’ opening game, Perry Mason’s showrunners know that racism was still rampant in the city at that time. Begler references a government-sponsored program in the ’30s that deported Mexicans — and even native-born Americans of Mexican descent — so that they wouldn’t compete with white workers during the Depression. The show doesn’t directly feature these deportations, but it does, Begler says, explore “the sense that you can be stepped on and pushed about.”