Wesley Lau was the unheralded supporting star of Perry Mason
…but he was not a big fan of wearing a hat.
Perry Mason had its quartet of characters at its core. There was Perry, of course, with his trusty aide Della Street. Private eye Paul Drake gathered the evidence that helped Perry keep his winning streak — a winning streak against District Attorney Hamilton Burger.
Raymond Burr, Barbara Hale and William Hopper were in all 271 episodes as the good guys. William Talman appeared in more than 200 as the adversarial D.A. (He was briefly fired.) But they were not the only recurring regulars. Between the stars and hundreds of guests who played victims, suspects, witnesses and judges were a few crucial characters — the cops. Ray Collins as Lt. Arthur Tragg is likely the most familiar. But by the fourth season, the veteran actor, then in his 70s, saw his health fading. He would film his last episode in 1963 (though the show would keep his name in the credits to honor his contribution).
So, the producers found themselves in need of a supporting police lieutenant. Enter Wesley Lau as Lt. Andy Anderson.
Wisconsin native Lau was a hero to his hometown of Sheboygan. The local paper constantly covered his career for decades. He may have been a celebrity in the Dairy State, but elsewhere he was, well, "overlooked."
In 1965, a syndicated newspaper piece titled "Challenge to Mason and Cast" covered the crime series' move to a new time slot. CBS dubbed its new schedule position as "the graveyard," as it was the time that NBC aired its juggernaut Bonanza, a Western that slew the competition. But the article focused, rarely, on Wesley Lau.
"Lau has been on the series for a number of seasons and his face is familiar," the writer noted with faint praise. "Otherwise he is overlooked, which is right and reasonable."
Lau's motto was "be patient." He may not have been a star, but he knew that acclaim would eventually come. He had just one complaint — he wanted to "stretch his acting muscles more." He hoped to "inject humor" into the role. Alas, the scripts typically called for him to give "suspicious looks."
He also had to wear a hat. He was playing a detective in the midcentury, after all. However, the actor, and more importantly his wife, were not fans of the hat.
"My wife, Mary Louise, objects to the fact that I wear a hat as Lieutenant Anderson," Lau admitted. "And I don't look very good in a hat so I try to slip it off as much as possible." Keep a lookout for Lau removing his hat when you watch Perry Mason. Know that it wasn't due to heat, but rather vanity.
The public may have overlooked Lau, but the producers appreciated the actor. In fact, producer Gail Patrick Jackson "expressed interest in Lau as a possible lead for a future Erle Stanley Gardner series." Yep, Lau almost got his own crime series. Alas, it never came to be.
Ironically, Lt. Anderson was not a character created by Gardner for his Perry Mason novels. Lau believed that, at least initially, his lines were simply leftovers intended for Lt. Tragg. But the character slowly developed his own persona. He made his final appearance in "The Case of the Mischievous Doll," the eighth-season finale, as seen above.
Following Perry Mason, Lau grew a mustache and landed another recurring supporting role in The Time Tunnel, playing Master Sergeant Jiggs. Yep, his character often had to wear a hat.