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From the Archives: Fay Wray, 96; Actress, Object of Ape's Desire in 'King Kong'

From the Archives: Fay Wray, 96; Actress, Object of Ape's Desire in 'King Kong'
Fay Wray and Bruce Cabot in "King King." (UCLA Film and Television Archive)

Fay Wray, who screamed her way into movie history as the apple of King Kong's eye, has died. She was 96.

Wray died of natural causes Sunday night at her home in New York City, said Rick McKay, a close friend.

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"She was fairly active up until the end," said McKay, who directed the documentary "Broadway: The Golden Age," which included an interview with Wray. Her last public appearance was at the New York premiere of the film in June.

Wray was already a star of silent films and talkies when, at age 25, she was cast by director Merian C. Cooper as Ann Darrow — a.k.a. "the girl" — in the 1933 film "King Kong."

Although she made about 80 movies, her fame as a co-star to an ape — she referred to her unrequited lover simply as Kong — far outlasted the celebrity she enjoyed from movies she made with the pantheon of Hollywood's leading men, including Ronald Colman, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, William Powell and Spencer Tracy.

For many years, Wray resisted the attention that came to her for donning a blond wig to play the role opposite her "tallest, darkest leading man."

But Wray eventually embraced "King Kong" with good humor. "I'm liking it better now than I did in the beginning, when it seemed to me that it was not Shakespeare," she told an interviewer in 1994.

She called the movie "my greeting card," and said that everyone — even Shakespearean actor Laurence Olivier — grilled her about how the seminal special-effects film was made.

Well into her later years, Wray continued to travel to film events here and abroad where she was feted as the "scream queen," although she remained surprised by the public accolades she got for a performance that she hardly considered acting.

"I yelled every time they said, 'Yell,' " she said of the role for which she was paid $10,000 for 10 weeks' work — good pay for Hollywood during the Depression.

RKO got more than its money's worth — the film grossed nearly $90,000 in its first four days, a fortune at a time when movie tickets were 15 cents. What's more, Wray recorded some of her sensuous moans and shrieks for the studio, which were later used in other horror films.

After "King Kong" found a new generation of fans when it became regular fare on black-and-white TV in the 1950s, Wray cheerily succumbed to her fate and even made a tribute to the lovesick gorilla in her 1989 biography "On the Other Hand: A Life Story" — the title is a playful tribute to the film in which Kong clenches her in his fist. In an open letter to Kong, she said, "To speak of me is to think of you. To speak to me is often a prelude to questions about you."

The book party for her autobiography was held at the Empire State Building, which the hairy beast scaled in the film in order to rescue his writhing beauty from the flashbulb-popping crowd of journalists who were chasing him. His great power weakened by love, unable to swat away the pesky airplanes that were attacking him, Kong falls to his death.

"The final scene is really moving, where Kong is shot as he stands on the Empire State Building, and clutches his breast, but then stretches out his hand to where I am," Wray told an interviewer in 1998. "A great piece of acting from that little fellow."

And Wray did mean little — although King Kong was several stories high in the film, he was in reality just 18 inches of cloth, metal and rubber brought to life by special-effects genius Willis H. O'Brien.

The only part of the beast that was true to scale was the 6-foot arm and hand that cradled her in many scenes. (The limb was on display for a time at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles.)

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"I'd jump on board and be towed up and pretend to be screaming at this 40-foot monster," Wray told an interviewer.

One of the last remaining of the screen stars from Hollywood's golden era, Wray began in films as an extra in the silents as a young teenager, playing in "two-reeler" westerns that ran 20 or 25 minutes and were shown with a feature film. Soon she was doing five-reelers.

She was first distinguished from the pack of young starlets then in Hollywood when she was named a "baby star" by the Western Assn. of Motion Picture Advertisers, a list that included her friend Janet Gaynor, as well as Joan Crawford and Dolores Del Rio.

Wray made her mark during the studio era. "Every fourth Monday, we started a new picture," she once told Associated Press.

In 1933 alone, when "King Kong" was released, Wray had to her credit 10 other movies, including "Shanghai Madness" with Spencer Tracy and "The Bowery" with George Raft and Wallace Beery.

Few are remembered today.

"I was known as the queen of the Bs," she said in 1990. "If only I'd been a little more selective."

Fay Wray and Erich von Stroheim in "The Wedding March."
Fay Wray and Erich von Stroheim in "The Wedding March." (Courtesy of American Cinematheque)

Her first big role, in the monumental silent film by Erich von Stroheim, "The Wedding March," launched Wray into stardom.

The 1928 melodrama starred Von Stroheim as a Viennese prince unable to choose the woman he loved — Wray in the role of Mitzi — over a rich woman who could secure his future.

"I never did get another director as great as Stroheim," she told the Guardian of London in 1998.

"His genius was an infinite capacity for taking care of detail. In the beer-garden scene, which was the first I shot with him, he had had thousands of blossoms made by hand, some in wax and some in paper, so that they would flutter down on where we sat. And even though it was a silent film, he insisted that the actors should speak precise lines."

Wray first met Von Stroheim when she was just 19, so she tried to look as grown-up as possible, "piling my hair high on my head, wearing my best blue-chiffon dress and my high-heeled, patent-leather slippers."

But she had dark hair — Von Stroheim wanted a blond -- and was too tall — Von Stroheim was shorter and didn't want a co-star he had to look up to. It took some convincing and a few tears, but finally Von Stroheim chose Wray for Mitzi.

Although the shoot was difficult and long, it was this role of which Wray was the most proud and which would make her famous throughout her life among more artsy film buffs around the world.

Vina Fay Wray — always known as Fay — was born Sept. 15, 1907, in Alberta, Canada. When her father, a rancher, hit hard times, the family moved to Arizona and then to Utah. Her parents later divorced, and her mother, worried about her daughter's health after another daughter had died of influenza, allowed a family friend, a photographer, to escort the 14-year-old Fay to Los Angeles. Her mother soon followed.

Wray attended Hollywood High School, where she became interested in drama. Her first motion picture role was in "Gasoline Love" (1923) at the old Century Pictures studio at Sunset Boulevard and Gower Street.

Wray's 1928 marriage to John Monk Saunders, who wrote the first film to win an Academy Award, the silent "Wings," ended shortly before he committed suicide.

In 1942, she left acting to embark on an idyllic marriage to another writer, Robert Riskin, the Academy Award-winning writer of Frank Capra comedies, including "It Happened One Night" and "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town."

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Riskin died in 1955 after a long illness, years that pressed Wray, by then the mother of three children, out of retirement for several years. Her third husband, physician Sanford Rothenberg, died in 1991.

Wray is survived by a son, Robert Riskin Jr., a longtime owner of McCabe's Guitar Shop in Santa Monica; two daughters, Susan Riskin of New York — her daughter by Saunders and adopted by Riskin — and Victoria Riskin Rintels, former president of the Writers Guild of America-West; and two grandchildren. Services are pending.

Although Wray came to terms with and finally greatly enjoyed her fame as the woman who put the light of love into King Kong's dark eyes, she did draw the line at playing a small role in the 1976 remake, which starred Jessica Lange in her role.

The original "King Kong" "was so extraordinary, so full of imagination and special effects that it will never be equaled," she told columnist Roderick Mann in 1987. "They shouldn't have tried."

She later told another interviewer, "Every time I'm in New York, I say a little prayer when passing the Empire State Building. A good friend of mine died up there."

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