Barbara Hale was born in DeKalb, Illinois, a daughter of Wilma (née Colvin) and Luther Ezra Hale, a landscape gardener. She had one sister, Juanita, for whom Hale's younger daughter was named. The family was of Scots-Irish ancestry. In 1940, Hale graduated from Rockford High School in Rockford, Illinois, then attended the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, planning to be an artist. Her performing career began in Chicago, when she started modeling to pay for her education.
Hale moved to Hollywood in 1943, and made her first screen appearances playing small parts (often uncredited). Her first role was in Gildersleeve's Bad Day. She was under contract to RKO Radio Pictures through the late 1940s. She appeared in Higher and Higher (1943) with Frank Sinatra and sang with the crooner; played leading lady to Robert Mitchum in West of the Pecos (1945); enjoyed top billing in both Lady Luck (1946) opposite Robert Young, her first "full stardom" and "her fifth A picture", and The Window (1949) with Arthur Kennedy, and co-starred in Jolson Sings Again (1949), with Larry Parks playing Al Jolson and Hale as Jolson's wife, Ellen Clark.
She played the top-billed title role in Lorna Doone (1951), co-starred with James Stewart in The Jackpot (1951), with James Cagney in A Lion Is in the Streets (1953) and opposite Rock Hudson in Seminole (1953). She appeared in 1955's The Far Horizons with Fred MacMurray and Charlton Heston.
Hale's last leading role in motion pictures was with Joel McCrea as co-star in the 1957 western The Oklahoman. However, she did have a featured role in the 1970 ensemble film Airport, playing the wife of a jetliner pilot (Dean Martin). Her final film appearances were in The Giant Spider Invasion (1975) and Big Wednesday (1978).
Hale was considering retirement from acting when she accepted her best known role as legal secretary Della Street in the television series Perry Mason starring Raymond Burr as the titular character. The show ran from 1957 to 1966, and she reprised the role in 30 Perry Mason television films (1985–95).
Hale's career became inextricably linked with that of Perry Mason co-star Burr, including her 1971 guest-starring role on his next series, Ironside, in an episode titled "Murder Impromptu," followed by their 1980s and early '90s TV movies together.
Her last onscreen appearance was a TV biographical documentary about Burr that aired in 2000.
Hale's activity in radio was more limited. She appeared in five episodes of Family Theater (1950–1954) and in one episode each of Lux Radio Theatre (1950), Voice of the Army (1947), and Proudly We Hail (syndicated).
Hale also is remembered as a spokesperson for Amana, makers of Radarange microwave ovens, memorably intoning, "If it doesn't say Amana, it's not a Radarange."
In 1945 during the filming of West of the Pecos, Hale met actor Bill Williams (birth name Herman August Wilhelm Katt). They married June 22, 1946, and were the parents of two daughters, Jodi and Juanita, and a son, actor William Katt. Williams guested on 4 episodes of Perry Mason in the 1960s.
Katt played detective Paul Drake, Jr., with Hale in several of the made-for-television Perry Mason movies. Hale guest-starred on Katt's series, The Greatest American Hero in which Katt played the title role, aka Ralph Hinkley; Hale played Hinkley's mother in the 1982 episode, Episode 29, "Who's Woo in America". She also played his mother in the 1978 movie Big Wednesday.
Bill Williams died of cancer in 1992, after 46 years of marriage. Hale, a bladder cancer survivor, became a follower of the Bahá'í Faith.
Barbara Hale died at her home in Sherman Oaks, California, on January 26, 2017, of complications from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. She was 94 years old. She is interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park (Hollywood Hills) next to her husband.
Hale was recognized as a Star of Television (with a marker at 1628 Vine Street) on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on February 8, 1960. She won the Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actress (Continuing Character) in a Dramatic Series in 1959 and was nominated for the Emmy for Outstanding Performance in a Supporting Role by an Actor or Actress in a Series in 1961.
She was presented one of the Golden Boot Awards in 2001 for her contributions to western cinema.