Thursday, January 12, 2012

Birthday Tribute: Ray Collins

I have made my fourth epic fail while trying to keep track of important dates. And this is only my third attempt to try to rectify it. I wanted to make tribute posts for each main cast member’s birth dates and, where applicable, death dates, as well as a post for the day our show debuted. I made belated posts for both Raymond Burr’s and Wesley Lau’s death dates, but I never did get around to making a post to honor the debut of the show. And now I’ve flubbed enough to have not checked birth dates in time to make a post for Ray Collins’ birthday. This is over a month late!

Ray Collins was born on December 10th, 1889. He was a seasoned and beloved actor, appearing on the stage as well as in many movies and TV series throughout the years of his long career. He passed away before Perry finished its run, and even after he could no longer be on the show he remained listed in the credits throughout the end of the 8th season.

(He must have been very well-loved on the Perry set. He was also the only actor playing a policeman who sat next to William Talman in court. When Ray wasn’t around, neither Wesley Lau nor Richard Anderson ever sat next to William Talman. They always sat behind him, in the gallery. I can’t help but think their reasoning must have been that they did not want to take anything away from Ray.)

I can’t remember when I first made his acquaintance via the screen. I can only say for certain that I’ve been aware of his roles at least since I was about 10, when I started watching the Ma & Pa Kettle films. Ray appears in two of them as the father of the Kettles’ oldest son’s wife. His character is quite laid-back and enjoys the Kettles’ approach to life, in contrast to his stuffy wife (although she loosens up eventually). It’s very possible that I saw Ray in movies long before this, but just did not remember. I used to be terrible at identifying people.

I believe my most favorite role of his other than Lieutenant Tragg is General Birabeau from The Desert Song. I was familiar with Perry Mason by the time I saw that film and found the General an interesting alter ego for the man who brought Tragg to life. General Birabeau is stern but compassionate, and all too easily swayed by his daughter Margot. (Yes, for those familiar with The Desert Song, several plot points were changed for the 1953 movie, including making the Margot character the General’s kid. I’ve read the original script for the play, and I honestly prefer the way the movie did things.)

Last year I saw him in the movie Commandos Strike at Dawn, in which he plays a man defiant to his town being taken over by the enemy during World War II. His character is captured and tortured, but I want to say he survives the events of the film—unlike some other unfortunate characters. I can’t remember for certain on that point. As always, he turns out a brilliant performance.

Another film I saw him in last year was The Racket, which is particularly unique. William Talman, who is also present, plays a police officer. Ray plays a district attorney—and a crooked one, no less! Hamilton Burger would have thrown a fit.

After an extensive career in the movies, Ray moved almost exclusively to TV by the late fifties. I’ve been told that Tragg in the books is younger than the TV show character. That’s interesting, but difficult for me to picture. To me, Tragg is Ray Collins’ character. No one else could play Tragg, or any of Ray’s characters, for that matter, the way he did. Tragg is such an intriguing, amusing enigma. He’s almost always smiling, but half the time his friendliness seems to be a fa├žade. It’s difficult to tell when it’s completely genuine. His epilogue visits are among those occasions; in many of the early episodes, Tragg appears in the epilogue to visit with Perry and company and tie up loose ends. Hamilton rarely accompanies him (or comes alone, for that matter) until later on in the series.

Tragg is scarcely visibly angry. At times he gets stern with Perry or Paul, warning them that their law-bending actions could lead to disaster. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen him angrier, however, than in The Moth-Eaten Mink when he rescues Perry from a dirty cop. Tragg is utterly disgusted and repulsed by the bad apple and remarks on how a policeman works hard for years trying to protect the people and then one bad cop comes along to ruin things. He finishes his speech by telling Perry not to hurry when he calls the ambulance for the dirty cop, whom Tragg wounded in the arm before he could shoot Perry.

By season 5 Ray’s health was beginning to decline. They brought in Wesley Lau to ease the strain. Sometimes Wesley’s Andy character appears alone. Sometimes he and Tragg work together. They’re more than comrades on the police force; they’re friends, as evidenced by both the ease which they work together and short, serious scenes such as when Tragg has to tell Andy of Andy’s friend’s death in The Hateful Hero. I love Andy dearly, but when Tragg’s character had to be phased out completely by mid-season 7, it never was the same. There was always a sense of something missing. You can’t replace a good character, ever, and Tragg is a good one. Ray Collins had a great deal to do with that.

It’s interesting how times have changed. A few months ago, my dad was watching Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I was walking past in another room and did a double-take. I was sure I’d seen a familiar face. And I was right. These days, I recognize Ray Collins on sight and by voice.

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