Ray Collins was born December 10, 1889, in Sacramento, California, to Lillie Bidwell and William Calderwood Collins. His father was a newspaper reporter and dramatic editor on The Sacramento Bee. His mother was the niece of John Bidwell, pioneer, statesman and founder of society in the Sacramento Valley area of California in the 19th century. Collins was inspired as a young boy to become an actor after seeing a stage performance by his uncle, Ulric Collins, who had performed the role of Dave Bartlett in the Broadway production of Way Down East. He began putting on plays with neighborhood children in Sacramento. Collins made his professional stage debut at age 13, at the Liberty Playhouse in Oakland, California. In July 1914 he and his first wife and their young son moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, where Collins worked as an actor. In 1922 he was part of a stock company called Vancouver’s Popular Players which enacted plays at the original Orpheum Theatre. He operated his own stock company for five years at his own theatre, the Empress Theatre in Vancouver. Collins toured in vaudeville and made his way to New York. Ray Collins worked prodigiously in his youth. It is said that between the ages of 17 and 30 he was out of work as an actor for a total of five weeks. In 1924, after he opened in Conscience, he was almost continually featured in Broadway plays and other theatrical productions until the Great Depression began. At that point, Collins turned his attention to radio, where he was involved in 18 broadcasts a week, sometimes working as much as 16 hours a day. He also played parts in short films starting in 1930, notably in a Vitaphone Varieties series based on Booth Tarkington’s Penrod stories.
In 1934, Ray Collins began a long association with Orson Welles that led to some of his most memorable roles. They met when Welles joined the repertory cast of The American School of the Air, his first job on the radio. In 1935, Welles won a place in the prestigious company that presented the news dramatization series The March of Time—an elite corps of actors that included Collins, Agnes Moorehead, Everett Sloane, Paul Stewart and others who would soon form the core of Welles’s Mercury Theatre. On radio, Collins was in the distinguished repertory cast of the weekly historical drama Cavalcade of America for six years. Collins and Welles worked together on that series and others, including Welles’s serial adaptation of Les Misérables (1937) and the popular series The Shadow (1937–38). Ray Collins became a member of the repertory company of Welles’s CBS Radio series The Mercury Theatre on the Air (1938) and its sponsored continuation, The Campbell Playhouse (1938–40). Through the run of the series, Collins played many roles in literary adaptations, from Squire Livesey in “Treasure Island”, to Dr. Watson in “Sherlock Holmes”, to Mr. Pickwick in “The Pickwick Papers”. Collins’ best known (albeit uncredited) work on this series, however, was in “The War of the Worlds”, the celebrated broadcast in which he played three roles, most notably the rooftop newscaster who describes the destruction of New York. Along with other Mercury Theatre players, Collins made his feature film debut in Citizen Kane (1941), in which he portrayed ruthless political boss Jim W. Gettys. He appeared in Welles’s original Broadway production of Native Son (1941) and also played a principal role in Welles’s second film, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). His ongoing radio work included Welles’s wartime series, Ceiling Unlimited and Hello Americans (1942), and the variety show, The Orson Welles Almanac (1944).
Having returned to his native California, Ray Collins appeared in more than 75 major motion pictures, including Leave Her to Heaven (1945), The Best Years of Our Lives and Crack-Up (1946), A Double Life (1947), two entries in the Ma and Pa Kettle series, and the 1953 version of The Desert Song, in which he played the non-singing role of Kathryn Grayson’s father. He displayed comic ability in The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947), and The Man from Colorado (1948), and played a supporting role in Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958). On television, Collins was a regular in The Halls of Ivy (1954–55), starring Ronald Colman. He appeared as Judge Harper in a 1955 TV adaptation of the holiday classic, Miracle on 34th Street, starring Thomas Mitchell, Teresa Wright and MacDonald Carey. In 1957 Collins joined the cast of the CBS-TV series Perry Mason and gained fame as Los Angeles police homicide detective Lieutenant Arthur Tragg. By 1960, Collins found his physical health declining and his memory waning, problems which in the next few years brought an end to his career. On the difficulty he was beginning to encounter in remembering his lines, he commented, “Years ago, when I was on the Broadway stage, I could memorize 80 pages in eight hours. I had a photographic memory. When I got out on the stage, I could actually — in my mind — see the lines written on top of the page, the middle or the bottom. But then radio came along, and we read most of our lines, and I got out of the habit of memorizing. I lost my natural gift. Today it’s hard for me. My wife works as hard as I do, cueing me at home.”
In October 1963 Ray Collins filmed his last Perry Mason episode, “The Case of the Capering Camera”, broadcast January 16, 1964. Although it was clear Collins would not return to work on the series, his name appeared in the opening title sequence through the eighth season, which ended in May 1965. Executive producer Gail Patrick Jackson was aware that Collins watched the show every week and did not wish to discourage him. On July 11, 1965, Ray Collins died of emphysema at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, California, at age 75. Masonic services were held at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Hollywood Hills.
- December, 10, 1889
- Sacramento, California
- July, 11, 1965
- Santa Monica, California
Cause of Death
- Forest Lawn Memorial Park (Hollywood Hills)
- Los Angeles, California