Fay Wray

Active - 1919 - 2003  |   Born - Sep 15, 1907 in Cardston, Alberta, Canada  |   Died - Aug 8, 2004   |   Genres - Drama, Adventure, Comedy, Action, Crime

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Biography by Hal Erickson

The daughter of a Canadian rancher, Fay Wray was raised in California. While attending Hollywood High School, Wray appeared in the annual Pilgrimage Play. Exhilarated by this brush with show business, she decided to try her luck as a film actress, and spent the next few months leaving her pictures and resumé with various studio casting agencies. She managed to land a few western ingenue roles and a handful of bit parts in Hal Roach's 2-reel comedies, but full stardom didn't come her way until 1928, when she was selected by Erich Von Stroheim to play the main female lead in The Wedding March. This led to a contract with Paramount Pictures, where she was briefly groomed as one-half of a romantic screen team with Gary Cooper. Surviving the talkie explosion, she continued working steadily into the early 1930s, appealingly conveying what one biographer would describe as "the contradictory qualities of virtue and sex appeal."

Beginning in 1932, Wray developed into the talkie era's first "scream queen," playing the imperiled heroine in five back-to-back horror/fantasy classics. In Doctor X (1932), Vampire Bat (1933) and Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), she was cast opposite the satanic-featured Lionel Atwill, playing his daughter in the first-named film and his intended victim in the remaining two. In The Most Dangerous Game, Wray and Joel McCrea were hunted down like animals by demented sportsman Leslie Banks. And then came Fay's opportunity to play opposite "the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood"--King Kong (1933). It was in this film that the auburn-haired Wray donned a blonde wig to portray Ann Darrow, the wide-eyed, writhing, screaming object of the Mighty Kong's affections. While King Kong is the film for which Wray will always be remembered (as late as 1996, she was still making annual pilgrimages to the Empire State Building to commemorate the anniversary of the film's premiere), it must be noted that she was certainly capable of playing roles with more depth and dimension than Ann Darrow. She was excellent as Gary Cooper's bitchy ex-flame in One Sunday Afternoon (1933) and as a dim-witted, voracious artist's model in The Affairs of Cellini (1934). Still, she felt typecast after King Kong, and in 1935 headed for England, hoping to find better film opportunities; instead, it was back to damsels in distress, most notably in the 1935 seriocomic thriller Bulldog Jack.

During her Hollywood heyday, Wray was married to screenwriter John Monk Saunders, but their marriage ended in 1937. After a lengthy romance with playwright Clifford Odets, Wray married again, this time to another screenwriter, Robert Riskin. When Riskin became seriously ill in the late 1940s, Wray retired from acting to care for her invalid husband. She returned before the cameras in 1953, co-starring with Paul Hartman and Natalie Wood in the TV sitcom Pride of the Family. After Riskin's death in 1955, she made a film comeback in character roles, most memorably as philandering psychiatrist Charles Boyer's long-suffering wife in The Cobweb (1955). Throughout her acting career, she also kept busy as a writer and musician, and at one point co-wrote a play with no less than Sinclair Lewis. Curtailing her professional activities after her third marriage to a Los Angeles physician, Wray retired after portraying Henry Fonda's sister in the 1980 TV movie Gideon's Trumpet. In 1989, Fay Wray published her long-awaited autobiography, an endearingly overwritten tome titled On the Other Hand.

Movie Highlights

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  • Once known as the "Queen of Scream" for her roles in horror films, and "Queen of the Bs" for the many B-list films she made.
  • Many of the screams and shrieks recorded for her career-changing role in 1933's King Kong were later used in other horror films.
  • Published her autobiography, On the Other Hand: A Life Story, in 1989.
  • Turned down the role of the older Rose in 1997's Titanic
  • Two days after her death in 2004, the lights of the Empire State Building were dimmed for 15 minutes in her honor, as King Kong had made unforgettable use of the building.
  • Has a fountain named after her in the town of her birth in Canada.
  • In 2006, her likeness (along with that of, naturally, the Empire State Building) made its appearance on a Canadian postage stamp.