One of the most memorable parts of the classic Mercury Theatre on the Air “War of the Worlds” episode is listening to the chilling description of the gradual destruction of Manhattan. Now, Mercury players were not unlike the players at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre; you’d routinely get people who played multiple roles. And indeed, it was one of three roles played that night by Ray Collins, a fine actor who even Welles clearly respected. Give it a listen, if you never have. He’s amazing. And then watch Perry Mason and realize it’s the same guy.
Don’t get me wrong; Lietuenant Tragg is a fine character, and one Collins himself would be proud of. Apparently, seeing his name in the credits in his last days gave him hope. It made him feel still part of things. It also, sigh, kept his health insurance going as he was dying of emphysema, something I’ve mentioned a few times before because how depressing is that? But he did really like seeing his name every week, and he kept watching at home in part just to see it. And also because, you know, he thought it was a good show.
But okay, before that, he got his start in vaudeville. He’d been acting since age 13. Eventually, yes, he moved to radio and got involved with Welles, which was fortunate for him. Welles said Collins was the greatest actor he knew, and that’s high praise. (Though part of me wonders if Welles was included in that.) When most of the Mercury people moved to Hollywood to make Citizen Kane, Collins went with them and played the vital role of Boss Jim Gettys, Kane’s political rival. It was his first movie, as was true of many of the others in it.
It really did launch quite the career. 79 movies—the penultimate of which was Touch of Evil, back with Welles. Oh, sure, there were plenty of turkeys. And admittedly having a Kane alumnus turn up in The Magnificent Ambersons was hardly shocking. He also did plenty of things that weren’t memorable enough to be turkeys. It’s a little surprising, though, that he turned up in Summer Stock. The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, sure, but would you have pegged Tragg as someone to pair up with Gene Kelly?
As Tragg, he was pleasant and determined. He could be rough, admittedly, especially to Perry’s always-innocent clients. After all, he was an LA cop, and you can see certain Supreme Court decisions in the show based on how he responds at times. Tragg never had to read anyone their Miranda rights, as that decision was after his death, but Perry was increasingly able to insist on staying with his client through the whole thing. Still, Tragg had no interest in framing anyone, and if Perry gave him information, he didn’t assume Perry was lying. And so far as I know, he never shot anyone.