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Fay Wray Dies at Age 96

Actress Played Damsel-in-Distress in Original 'King Kong'

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 9, 2004; 2:09 PM

The actress Fay Wray, 96, who died Aug. 8 at her home in New York, will forever have a place in screen and scream history. She was the blonde damsel-in-distress in the original "King Kong" (1933), one of the greatest fright films of all time.

Ms. Wray had leading roles in about 75 other motion pictures between 1923 and 1958 -- 11 alone in 1933, including "King Kong." But none would so define her career as that classic tale about unrequited love between a virginal beauty and a giant ape.

Fay Wray, the actress best known for fitting into King Kong's mammoth palm, died at the age of 96. (AP File Photo)

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She played Ann Darrow, an unemployed actress invited by a film producer on a long voyage to mysterious Skull Island. The producer uses Darrow as bait to capture Kong and then puts the towering creature on display for all New York to see. The plan goes awry as Kong starts on a big-city rampage in search of Darrow. In the end, he literally falls for her -- from the Empire State Building.

"It was beauty killed the beast," the producer moralizes.

As the beauty, Ms. Wray became a prototype of the horror-film heroine, a character who decorated more than dominated a movie and was gamely willing to shriek in terror.

The sexual suggestiveness of the wholesome and wide-eyed Ms. Wray screaming and squirming in Kong's firm, hirsute grip would become an often imitated and lampooned image of cinema lore. The film was remade in a 1976 with Jessica Lange as the leading lady and the World Trade Center's twin towers as the structure from which he plummets.

Ms. Wray said in her 1989 autobiography, "On the Other Hand," that "King Kong" saved RKO-Radio Pictures from bankruptcy. The American Film Institute honored the picture in 1998 as one of the greatest 100 American films of all time.

Initially, Ms. Wray thought of Cary Grant or Gary Cooper when co-director Merian C. Cooper gave the actress a teasing description of her co-star as the "tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood."

She soon discovered her tantalizing co-star was an 18-inch model made of metal, rubber, cotton and rabbit fur designed by animation expert Willis O'Brien. To film-goers, Kong appeared 40 feet tall through such techniques as rear-screen projection and stop-motion photography that O'Brien had pioneered on the set of "The Lost World" (1925), a silent drama about dinosaurs.

For close-ups, Ms. Wray was cupped in a six-foot-long mechanical device that doubled as Kong's arm and hand.

The process was so slow that she made the action film "The Most Dangerous Game" (1932) on the "Kong" set while waiting for O'Brien to complete his work.

Around that time, she starred in several other horror films, including "Doctor X" (1932), "The Vampire Bat" (1933) and "The Mystery of the Wax Museum" (1933).

She largely retired from film in 1942, after a succession of undistinguished dramas and problems at home with her first husband, the drug-addicted writer John Monk Saunders.

She attempted a career in playwriting and did some stage acting. Those efforts, she said, led to romantic involvement with the playwright-screenwriter Clifford Odets. She said she also rejected the advances of Nobel Prize-winning author Sinclair Lewis, in whose play "Angela is Twenty-Two" she acted.

Although prolific onscreen, Ms. Wray told interviewers she had no illusions that "King Kong" was why she would be remembered.

"Being in the most famous movie of all time is my greeting card," she told the Toronto Star in 1990. "I finally got to lunch with Larry Olivier a few years back. Wouldn't talk a bit about Shakespeare to me. Only wanted to know how we'd made Kong climb the Empire State Building."

Born Vina Fay Wray in Alberta, Canada, Ms. Wray moved with her family to Arizona and Colorado before she left for Los Angeles with a guardian. While a teenager, she was an extra in two- and four-reel Westerns and Hal Roach comedies.

A major break came in 1928, with the release of Erich von Stroheim's hit epic "The Wedding March." The famed director said he did not even bother to test Ms. Wray for the part, citing her enormous sex appeal. He cast himself as a prince and her as a peasant girl.

She then worked with some of the most-renowned directors of the period, usually on fast-paced, action-oriented fare. Among them were Josef von Sternberg ("Thunderbolt," 1929), George Abbott ("The Sea God," 1930) and Frank Capra ("Dirigible," 1931).

In 1934, she had key roles in some minor classics, including "The Clairvoyant" with Claude Rains, "Viva Villa!" with Wallace Beery as Pancho Villa and the comedy "The Affairs of Cellini" with Fredric March.

Her marriage to Saunders ended in divorce in 1939, and he killed himself the next year. Her second husband, the writer Robert Riskin, died in 1955, and her third husband, neurosurgeon Sanford Rothenberg, died in 1991.

Survivors include a daughter from her first marriage; two children from the second marriage.

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