At the Performing Garage (1979-81). Photograph by Gary Schoichet
June 5, 1941|
Providence, Rhode Island, U.S.
|Died||ca. January 11, 2004
New York, New York, U.S.
|Spouse(s)||Renée Shafransky (1991–1993)
Kathleen Russo (1994–2004) (his death)
Spalding Rockwell Gray (June 5, 1941 – ca. January 11, 2004) was an American actor and writer. He was known for the autobiographical monologues that he wrote and performed for the theater in the 1980s and '90s. Theater critics John Willis and Ben Hodges described his monologue work as "trenchant, personal narratives delivered on sparse, unadorned sets with a dry, WASP, quiet mania".:316 Gray achieved celebrity status for his monologue Swimming to Cambodia, which was adapted into a film in 1987 by filmmaker Jonathan Demme. Other one-man shows by Gray that were captured on film include Monster in a Box and Gray's Anatomy.
Gray was born in Providence, Rhode Island, to Rockwell Gray, Sr., the treasurer of Brown & Sharpe, and Margaret Elizabeth "Betty" Horton, a homemaker. He was the middle-born of three sons: Rockwell, Jr., Spalding, and Channing. He was raised in the Christian Scientist faith and grew up in Barrington, Rhode Island, spending summers at his grandmother's house in Newport.
In 1965, Gray moved to San Francisco and became a speaker and teacher of poetry at the Esalen Institute. In 1967 while Gray was vacationing in Mexico City, his mother committed suicide at age 52. After his mother's death, Gray moved away from the West Coast and permanently settled in New York City. Gray's books Impossible Vacation and Sex and Death to the Age 14 are largely based on his childhood and early adulthood.
He began his theater career in New York in late 1960s. In 1970 he joined Richard Schechner's experimental troupe, The Performance Group. With actors from The Performance Group, including Willem Dafoe and Elizabeth LeCompte, Gray helped to co-found the influential theater company the Wooster Group from 1975 to 1980 before leaving the company to focus on his own monologue work.
Gray first achieved prominence in the US with his monologue Swimming to Cambodia, which he wrote in 1985 and was adapted into a film in 1987. This work was based particularly on his experience in a small role in the 1984 movie The Killing Fields, which was filmed principally in Thailand. For his monologue, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and the National Book Award in 1985. He continued to produce monologues until his death. Up through 1993, these works often incorporated his relationship to his girlfriend who eventually became his wife and collaborator, Renée Shafransky.
His success with his monologues led to various supporting movie roles, and he also played the lead role of the Stage Manager in a high-profile revival of Thornton Wilder's Our Town by the Lincoln Center Theater in 1988.
In 1992, Gray published his only novel, Impossible Vacation. The novel is strongly based upon Gray's own life experiences, including his Christian Scientist upbringing, his WASP background, and his mother's suicide. True to form, Gray wrote a monologue about his experiences with the book entitled Monster in a Box.
During an interview in 1997 with film author Edward Vilga, Gray was asked whether the movie industry was "confused" by his writings and roles and this was his answer:
- I would say that my major problem with Hollywood is this—I sometimes paraphrase Bob Dylan—Bob Dylan says "I may look like Robert Ford, but I feel just like Jesse James." I say "I may look like a gynecologist, an American ambassador's aide, or a lawyer, but I feel like Woody Allen.". . . My insides are not what my outsides are. I'm not who I appear to be. I appear to be a Wasp Brahmin, but I'm really a sort of neurotic, perverse New York Jew. When I was performing one year ago at this time in Israel, a review came out in Hebrew about Monster in a Box and it read, "Spalding Gray is funny, sometimes hilarious, wonderfully neurotic for a non-Jew". Only the Jews can say something like "wonderfully neurotic".:111
Theatre historian Don Wilmeth noted Gray's contribution to a unique style of writing and acting: "The 1980s saw the rise of the autobiographical monologue, its leading practitioner Spalding Gray, the WASP from Rhode Island who portrays himself as an innocent abroad in a crazy contemporary world. . . others, like Mike Feder, who grew up in Queens and began telling his life on New York radio, pride themselves on their theatrical minimalism, and simply sit and talk. Audiences come to autobiography for direct connection and great stories, both sometimes hard to find in today's theatre.":293
Describing the uniqueness of the film-play monologue, theatre director Mark Russell wrote:
- "He broke it all down to a table, a glass of water, a spiral notebook and a mic. Poor theatre—a man and an audience and a story. Spalding sitting at that table, speaking into the mic, calling forth the script of his life from his memory and those notebooks. A simple ritual: part news report, part confessional, part American raconteur. One man piecing his life back together, one memory, one true thing at a time. Like all genius things, it was a simple idea turned on its axis to become absolutely fresh and radical."
Journalist and author Roger Rosenblatt, describing Gray, called him "Spalding the storyteller... Spalding the mystical. Spalding the hilarious. Spalding the self-exposed, the professionally puzzled, the scared, the brave. Spalding the supporting actor. That's what he was in the movies. But as a writer and a stage performer, he changed the idea of what a supporting actor is. He supported us... He played our part...
- "We tacitly elect a few to be the chief tellers of our tales. Spalding was one of the elected. The specialty of his storytelling was the search for a sorrow that could be alchemized into a myth. He went for the misery sufficiently deep to create a story that makes us laugh...
- "In so doing, he invented a form, a very rare thing among artists. Some called it the 'epic monologue' because first it was spoken and then it was written, like the old epics, and because it consisted of great and important themes drawn from the hero's life...And the one true heroic element in his makeup was the willingness to be open, rapidly open, about his confusions, his frailties." :Intro
Director Jonathan Demme said of Gray, "Spalding's unfailing ability to ignite universal emotions and laughter in all of us while gloriously wallowing in his own exquisite uniqueness will remain forever one of the great joys of American performance and literature".
"He took the anarchy and illogic of life and molded it into something we could grab a hold of," said actor and novelist Eric Bogosian. "It took courage to do what Spalding did, courage to make theatre so naked and unadorned, to expose himself in this way and to fight his demons in public."
Health problems and death
In June 2001, he suffered severe injuries in a car crash while on vacation in Ireland. In the crash, Gray, who battled depression and bipolar tendencies, suffered a broken hip, leaving his right leg almost immobilized, and a fracture in his skull that left a jagged scar on his forehead, leaving him with depression and a brain injury. During surgery in which a titanium plate was placed over the break in his skull, surgeons removed dozens of bone fragments from his frontal cortex. Suffering both from physical impairment and ongoing depression, he spent months experimenting with a variety of different therapies.
Among those from whom Gray sought treatment was Oliver Sacks, a neurologist. Sacks began treating Gray in August 2003 and continued to do so until almost the time of Gray's death. In an article by Gaby Wood published on the first anniversary of Gray's disappearance, Sacks proposed that Gray perceived the taking of his own life as part of what he had to say: "On several occasions he talked about what he called 'a creative suicide.' On one occasion, when he was being interviewed, he thought that the interview might be culminated with a 'dramatic and creative suicide.'" Sacks added, "I was at pains to say that he would be much more creative alive than dead."
On January 9, 2004, Gray undertook his final interview, the subject of which was Ron Vawter, a deceased friend and colleague whom Gray met in the winter of 1972-73. Gray and Vawter worked closely together throughout the 1970s, first with The Performance Group (founded by Richard Schechner), then as core members of The Wooster Group (founded by Gray and Elizabeth LeCompte). The edited transcript of "Spalding Gray's Last Interview" was published by the New England Theatre Journal.
On January 11, 2004, Gray was declared missing. The night before his disappearance, he had seen Tim Burton's film Big Fish, which ends with the line, "A man tells a story over and over so many times he becomes the story. In that way, he is immortal". Gray's widow, Kathie Russo, has said, "You know, Spalding cried after he saw that movie. I just think it gave him permission. I think it gave him permission to die."
On March 7, 2004, the Office of Chief Medical Examiner of the City of New York reported that Gray's body was discovered by two men and pulled from the East River. One of the men gave an interview providing details of the accidental discovery. It is believed that Gray jumped off the side of the Staten Island Ferry. In light of a suicide attempt in 2002, and that his mother had killed herself in 1967, suicide was suspected. It was reported that Gray was working on a new monologue at the time of his death, and that the subject matter of the piece—the Ireland car crash and his subsequent attempts to recover from his injuries—might have triggered a final bout of depression.
Gray was buried at Oakland Cemetery in Sag Harbor, New York. He was survived by his wife Kathie Russo, stepdaughter Marissa, two sons, Forrest Dylan Gray (a.k.a. "Forrest Fire Gray"), and Theo Spalding Gray, and brothers Channing and Rockwell Gray.
Posthumously released works
In 2005, Gray's unfinished final monologue was published in a hardcover edition entitled Life Interrupted: The Unfinished Monologue. The monologue, which Gray had performed in one of his last public appearances, is augmented by two additional pieces he also performed at the time; a short remembrance called "The Anniversary" and an open letter to New York City written in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Also included in the book is an extensive collection of remembrances and tributes from fellow performers and friends.
His journal entries were used in the 2007 play Spalding Gray: Stories Left to Tell at the Minetta Lane Theatre in New York City. The concept for the play was derived by Gray's widow. The show includes a cast of four actors as well as one revolving cast member. As of 2010 the show still tours on a limited basis in the United States. In January 2010, Steven Soderbergh's documentary, And Everything Is Going Fine, was released at Utah's Slamdance Film Festival. The film was compiled from film and video clips of Gray's early life and career. His widow said that Soderbergh "wanted Spalding to tell the story, as if it was his last monologue, and I think he accomplished that".
Movies written and performed by Spalding Gray
- Swimming to Cambodia (1987)
- Spalding Gray: Terrors of Pleasure (1988)
- Monster in a Box (1991)
- Gray's Anatomy (1996)
- And Everything Is Going Fine (2010)
- In addition to the five theatrically released film versions of Grey's monologues, video recordings from 1982 of Sex and Death at the Age of 14 and A Personal History of the American Theater are currently available on the Criterion Collection DVDs of And Everything Is Going Fine and Grey's Anatomy, respectively.
- Cowards (1970)
- Love-In '72 (1972)
- Farmer's Daughters (1976)
- Little Orphan Dusty (Uncredited, 1976)
- Maraschino Cherry (Uncredited, 1978)
- The Killing Fields (1984)
- Hard Choices (1985)
- The Communists Are Comfortable (1985)
- Almost You (1985)
- Seven Minutes in Heaven (1985)
- True Stories (1986)
- Beaches (1988)
- Stars and Bars (1988)
- Clara's Heart (1988)
- Heavy Petting (1989)
- The Image (1990)
- To Save a Child (1991)
- Straight Talk (1992)
- King of the Hill (1993)
- Zelda (1993)
- Twenty Bucks (1993)
- The Pickle (1993)
- The Paper (1994)
- Beyond Rangoon (1995)
- Bad Company (1995)
- Drunks (1995)
- Glory Daze (1996)
- Buckminster Fuller: Thinking Out Loud (1996)
- Diabolique (1996)
- Bliss (1997)
- Coming Soon (1999)
- The Best Man (play) (2000)
- Revolution #9 (2001)
- Julie Johnson (2001)
- How High (2001)
- Kate and Leopold (2001)
- The Paper Mache Chase (2003)
- And Everything Is Going Fine (2010)
- Saturday Night Live (1 episode, 1977)
- Spenser: For Hire (1 episode, 1987)
- Trying Times (1 episode, 1987)
- The Nanny (9 episodes, 1997–1998)
- The Mike O'Malley Show (1 episode, 1999)
- Will and Grace (1 episode, 2000)
- Swimming to Cambodia (1985) - monologue
- The Nothing Issue (1985)
- Sex and Death to the Age 14 (1986) - a collection of 6 early monologues
- In Search of the Monkey Girl (1987) - non-fiction essay
- High & Low (1988)
- Homespun (1988)
- Monster in a Box (1992) - monologue
- Impossible Vacation (1992) - novel
- Gray's Anatomy (1994) - monologue
- First Words (1996)
- It's a Slippery Slope (1997) - monologue
- Morning, Noon and Night (1999) - monologue
- Life Interrupted: The Unfinished Monologue (2005) - a monologue, a story and a letter
- The Journals of Spalding Gray, (October, 2011) Knopf; edited by Nell Casey and Kathie Russo
- Willis, John, and Hodges, Ben. Theatre World: Volume 60, Hal Leonard Corp. (2006)
- Gaby, Wood (26 December 2004). "Shades of Gray". The Observer. Retrieved 25 November 2008.
- Gray, Spalding (1992). Monster in a box (A Vintage original, 1st ed. ed.). New York: Vintage Books. ISBN 0679737391.
- Gray, Spalding (1994). Gray's anatomy (1st ed. ed.). New York: Vintage Books. ISBN 0679751785.
- Vilga, Edward. Acting Now: Conversations on Craft and Career, Rutgers Univ. Press (1997)
- Wilmeth, Don B., and Miller, Tice L. Cambridge Guide to American Theatre, Cambridge University Press (1996)
- Gray, Spalding. Swimming to Cambodia, Theatre Communications Group (2005)
- Williams, Alex (2004-02-02). "Vanishing Act". New York Magazine. Retrieved 2008-07-09.
- Wood, Gaby (2004-12-26). "Shades of Gray". The Observer. Retrieved 2009-01-07.
- Smalec, Theresa (2008). "Spalding Gray's Last Interview". New England Theatre Journal. Retrieved 2009-01-07.
- "Spalding Gray - Missing Person". AMW.com. Retrieved 2009-12-04.
- Snead, Robin (August 2007). "What It Feels Like to Find Spalding Gray's Body". Esquire. p. 91. Retrieved 2009-02-23.
- Spalding Gray's body found in East River - Salon.com[dead link]
- Williams, Alex (2004-02-02). "Vanishing Act - Spalding Gray - Cover Story". Nymag.com. Retrieved 2009-12-04.
- Spalding Gray (1941 - 2004) - Find A Grave Memorial
- "About the Show". Storieslefttotell.com. 2006-06-05. Retrieved 2009-12-04.
- "Spalding Gray: Stories Left To Tell". Stories Left To Tell<!. 2007-06-26. Retrieved 2009-12-04.
- "One Singular Auteur, Through Another" New York Times January 15, 2010
- Spalding Gray at the Internet Movie Database
- Spalding Gray at the Internet Broadway Database
- Spalding Gray at the Internet Off-Broadway Database
- Works by or about Spalding Gray in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
- Scene from Swimming to Cambodia video, 5 minutes
- Remembering Spalding Gray – Fresh Air Audio Archives (NPR)
- Overview of Spalding Gray's Work
- Official Website from the Estate of Spalding Gray
- Spalding Gray's Last Interview, Theresa Smalec, PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art Jan 2008, Vol. 30, No. 1, (PAJ 88): 1–14.
- Audio Interview with Mr. Gray, recorded 1996 conducted by Douglas Ordunio