Hamilton Burger is the fictional Los Angeles County District Attorney (D.A.) in the long-running series of novels, films, and radio and television programs featuring Perry Mason, the fictional defense attorney created by Erle Stanley Gardner.
Hamilton Burger first appears in chapter 10 of Gardner's 1935 novel, The Case of the Counterfeit Eye, in which he is described as "a broad-shouldered, thick-necked individual with a close-cropped moustache". Gardner describes Burger in the cast of characters of that novel as an "honest but stubborn" D.A. In chapter 15 of The Case of the Caretaker's Cat (1935), we learn that Burger's residential address is 3297 West Lakeside, and his phone number is EXposition 9-6949.
Burger is one of literature's least successful district attorneys, and critics have suggested that he must have been the most incompetent lawyer in history, although his record against defense attorneys other than Mason is unknown. Burger's cases inevitably involved prosecuting the wrong person, who was defended by Mason, who, in the end, revealed the true criminal through a series of tactics that Burger characterized as courtroom tricks. Burger's bag of tricks was comparatively empty, chiefly comprising indignant exclamations of, "Incompetent, irrelevant, and immaterial!" Once Mason had exposed the true perpetrator, Burger often joined in Mason's motion to the judge to dismiss the charges against Mason's client so that Burger could then charge the actual wrongdoer. A scene from the television series in which Mason consoles Burger after such a dismissal inspired a young Sonia Sotomayor to become a prosecutor.
Burger was portrayed by William Talman in the long-running CBS-TV series Perry Mason (1957–66). Asked about how he felt about Burger losing to Mason week after week, Talman said, "Burger doesn't lose. How can a district attorney lose when he fails to convict an innocent person? Unlike a fist or gun fight, in court you can have a winner without having a loser. As a matter of fact Burger in a good many instances has joined Mason in action against unethical attorneys, lying witnesses, or any one else obstructing justice. Like any real-life district attorney, justice is Burger's main interest."
Burger did defeat Mason twice on the television series: in "The Case of the Terrified Typist" (episode 1-38), and in "The Case of the Deadly Verdict" (episode 7-4), a much-publicized episode that begins with Mason's client being sentenced to death.
The character of Hamilton Burger temporarily disappeared from the TV series during the series' third season. Talman was fired by CBS March 18, 1960, hours after he entered a not-guilty plea to misdemeanor charges related to his presence at a party that was raided by police. The schedule was immediately juggled to minimize Talman's presence on the show. "The Case of the Crying Cherub" (episode 3-20) debuts a pared-down title sequence that omits Talman; he is credited only in the four episodes he filmed before he was fired. Talman was defended by the show's executive producer Gail Patrick Jackson, Raymond Burr and others, but even dismissal of the charges in June did not soften the network's position. Patrick said that the role of Burger would not be recast, but that various actors would play assistant district attorneys. CBS reinstated Talman only after Gardner himself spoke out, together with millions of viewers. Talman went back to work in December 1960, and Burger returned in "The Case of the Fickle Fortune" (episode 4-15).
In the short-lived CBS-TV series, The New Perry Mason (1973–74), Burger was played by Harry Guardino.
In her confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee in July 2009, Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor prefaced her remarks on the role of the prosecutor by saying that she was inspired by watching Perry Mason as a child. "I was influenced so greatly by a television show in igniting the passion that I had as being a prosecutor, and it was Perry Mason", Sotomayor said.
In her 2013 memoir the Supreme Court justice wrote of the show's influence on her while she was growing up in a Bronx housing project. Sotomayor granted that the defense attorney was the show's hero, "but my sympathies were not entirely monopolized by Perry Mason. I was fond of Burger, the prosecutor, too. I liked that he was a good loser, that he was more committed to finding the truth than to winning his case. If the defendant was truly innocent, he once explained, and the case was dismissed, then he had done his job because justice had been served."