We’ve all heard it said that there are only so many basic plots in the world and every story today is a reinvention of one or more of them. Sometimes, however, it occurs more times than at others, and hits closer to home than plots borrowed from ancient mythologies or fables. Some television shows recycle plots from other television shows. Some recycle their own plots. In any case, they change names, details, and various outcomes, while still keeping enough of the basic backbone that the similarities are recognizable.
Simon’s first Perry Mason episode, The Case of the Frantic Flyer, was a remake of an episode from the first season, The Case of the Fugitive Nurse. His character, Howard Walters, is a crooked employee of a corporation who is also guilty of infidelity. He plans to fake his own death and disappear with his mistress and a bundle of stolen money. To further ensure that people won’t look for him, he kills the company president’s son and leaves him in his airplane to crash and burn with it while he secretly bails out. The plan works, for a while; people believe that Walters was killed instead. But Walters broke his leg during the landing, forcing him to take cover at a cabin to heal. Later he returns, seeking the mistress with whom he has not yet reunited, and almost promptly is killed for real.
What are the differences between that plot and the plot of the earlier episode, The Fugitive Nurse? The answers are quite surprising.
In The Fugitive Nurse, the Howard Walters character is a doctor named Charles Morris. The titular nurse is the mistress. They still plan to run away together, with Charles allowing himself to disappear entirely. There is still an airplane, which crashes with another body in it, a body that is mistaken for Morris’s.
The similarities end there. While Morris is an adulterer, he is not actually a criminal. He did not steal any money, nor did he kill someone and place the body in his airplane. He had no involvement with the murder at all. All he really wants is to go to Mexico and get the divorce his wife won’t give him so he can marry his nurse. The nurse cares about him too, unlike Howard Walters’ mistress, who was hoping to get him out of the way. By the end of the episode their fate is not clear, but it is assumed they will live in Mexico, where their marriage is valid. Hence, another huge difference is observed: Morris is still alive at the end.
There are other major differences, mainly involving the poor man who was murdered. In The Fugitive Nurse, he was a trusted friend of Morris’s and is in several scenes. Compare that with The Frantic Flyer, where the deceased is barely, if ever, seen and did not appear to be especially close to Howard Walters. In The Fugitive Nurse, the decedent’s personal life is highly important to the plot. His family life is still important to the plot in The Frantic Flyer, as his widow is the murder suspect, but that is quite different from The Fugitive Nurse, where the widow is actually the murderer and never was a suspect (until Perry picked up on her big mistake).
In the end, Morris’s plan to disappear quite succeeded. Perhaps Walters’ would have too, had he not suffered that accident that required him to stay in a cabin and recover for seven weeks. Or vice versa: Maybe Morris’s would have failed drastically if his attempt had culminated the same way as Walters’.
Heaven knows why the writers chose to make the particular changes they did when working on The Frantic Flyer. I must confess that I would have preferred the Howard Walters’ character’s personality and eventual fate have been more like that of his prototype, Charles Morris. But the dark twists of the later episode are certainly intriguing and intense. And Simon displays his wonderful abilities to play a wretched villain and yet still make there be something about him that is sympathetic. I felt sorry for Howard Walters that he honestly cared about that woman when she wanted him gone. And I shall never forget my disappointment and devastation when he turned up dead—although I still believe my feelings were more because of Simon himself and not the character he was playing.