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Spalding Gray

Spalding Gray

At the Performing Garage (1979-81). Photograph by Gary Schoichet
Born (1941-06-05)June 5, 1941
Providence, Rhode Island, U.S.
Died ca. January 11, 2004(2004-01-11) (aged 62)
New York, New York, U.S.
Spouse Renée Shafransky (1991–1993)
Kathleen Russo (1994–2004) (his death)

Spalding Rockwell Gray (June 5, 1941 – ca. January 11, 2004) was an American actor, playwright, screenwriter, performance artist and monologuist. He was primarily known for his "trenchant, personal narratives delivered on sparse, unadorned sets with a dry, WASP, quiet mania."[1]:316 Gray achieved celebrity status for his monologue Swimming to Cambodia, which was adapted into a film in 1987 by Jonathan Demme.

He began his career in regional theatre, moved to New York in 1967 and three years later joined Richard Schechner's experimental troupe, the Performance Group. He co-founded the Wooster Group ensemble in 1975. He died in New York City of an apparent suicide in 2004. A documentary film about his life, entitled And Everything Is Going Fine, was released in 2010 and was directed by Steven Soderbergh.


  Early life

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.

After graduating from Fryeburg Academy in Fryeburg, Maine, he enrolled at Emerson College as a poetry major, where he earned his B.A. in 1963.

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 the age of 52.[2] 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.


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."[3]:293

After starring in some supporting actor movie roles, such as in The Killing Fields, and television parts, including Saturday Night Live, Gray first achieved national prominence with his play Swimming to Cambodia, which he wrote in 1985 and was adapted into a film in 1987. It was a monologue based entirely on his experiences in Southeast Asia where he played a small role in the 1984 movie The Killing Fields. For his monologue, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and the National Book Award in 1985.

  Minimalism and monologues

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."[4]

Aside from his more well-known monologues, Gray was a founding member of the experimental theater company The Wooster Group, and appeared in a large number of plays, including a high-profile revival of Thornton Wilder's Our Town. In the 1980s and 1990s, Gray performed his monologues frequently at The Painted Bride in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He appeared there yearly, and the admission price was always nominal for the time. It was believed that he kept the admission low, as The Painted Bride had provided a venue for his early performances. He read from Swimming To Cambodia as a work in progress at The Bride.

  "Neurotic" and hilarious storyteller

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." [4] :Intro

In 1992, Gray published his first and 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."[5]:111

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."[4]

"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 had always battled his hereditary depression and bipolar tendencies, suffered a badly broken hip, leaving his right leg almost immobilized, and a fracture in his skull that left a jagged scar on his forehead. He now suffered not only from depression but also from 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. Shattered both physically and emotionally, he spent the ensuing months experimenting with every therapy imaginable."[6]

Among those from whom Gray sought treatment was Oliver Sacks, a well-known 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." [7]

On January 9, 2004, Gray did take part in a final interview. The subject of this interview was not Spalding Gray but 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" has been published in New England Theatre Journal.[8]

On January 11, 2004, Gray, suffering from increasingly deep episodes of clinical depression in part as a result of his injuries, 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."[6]

When Gray was first declared missing, his profile was featured on the Fox Network show America's Most Wanted.[9]

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 subsequently gave an interview providing details of the accidental discovery.[10] It is believed that Gray jumped off the side of the Staten Island Ferry. In light of a suicide attempt in 2002, and the fact that his mother had killed herself in 1967, suicide was the suspected cause of death.[11] 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 his final bout of depression.[12]

Gray was buried at Oakland Cemetery in Sag Harbor, New York.[13] 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. Running 39 pages, 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.

Gray's voice is still being heard through the resurrection of his journal entries in the 2007 play Spalding Gray: Stories Left to Tell at the Minetta Lane Theatre in New York City. The concept for this play was derived by Gray's widow.[14] 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 U.S.[15] 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. Ms. Russo, Gray's widow, stated, "Steven told me that he wanted Spalding to tell the story, as if it was his last monologue, and I think he accomplished that."[16]


  Movies written and performed by Spalding Gray




  • Swimming to Cambodia (1985)
  • The Nothing Issue (1985)
  • Sex and Death to the Age 14 (1986)
  • In Search of the Monkey Girl (1987)
  • High & Low (1988)
  • Homespun (1988)
  • Terrors of Pleasure (1988)
  • Monster in a Box (1992)
  • Impossible Vacation (1992, novel)
  • Gray's Anatomy (1994)
  • First Words (1996)
  • It's a Slippery Slope (1997)
  • Morning, Noon and Night (1999)
  • Life Interrupted: The Unfinished Monologue (2005)
  • The Journals of Spalding Gray, (October, 2011) Knopf; edited by Nell Casey and Kathie Russo


  1. ^ Willis, John, and Hodges, Ben. Theatre World: Volume 60, Hal Leonard Corp. (2006)
  2. ^ Gaby, Wood (26 December 2004). "Shades of Gray". The Observer. http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2004/dec/26/1. Retrieved 25 November 2008. 
  3. ^ Wilmeth, Don B., and Miller, Tice L. Cambridge Guide to American Theatre, Cambridge University Press (1996)
  4. ^ a b c Gray, Spalding. Swimming to Cambodia, Theatre Communications Group (2005)
  5. ^ Vilga, Edward. Acting Now: Conversations on Craft and Career, Rutgers Univ. Press (1997)
  6. ^ a b Williams, Alex (2004-02-02). "Vanishing Act". New York Magazine. http://nymag.com/nymetro/news/features/n_9787/. Retrieved 2008-07-09. 
  7. ^ Wood, Gaby (2004-12-26). "Shades of Gray". The Observer. http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2004/dec/26/1. Retrieved 2009-01-07. 
  8. ^ Smalec, Theresa (2008). "Spalding Gray's Last Interview". New England Theatre Journal. http://www.netconline.org/netc-publications.php. Retrieved 2009-01-07. 
  9. ^ "Spalding Gray - Missing Person". AMW.com. http://www.amw.com/missing_persons/brief.cfm?id=25815. Retrieved 2009-12-04. 
  10. ^ Snead, Robin (August 2007). "What It Feels Like to Find Spalding Gray's Body". Esquire: p. 91. http://www.esquire.com/dont-miss/wifl/spaldinggray0807. Retrieved 2009-02-23. 
  11. ^ Spalding Gray's body found in East River - Salon.com[dead link]
  12. ^ Williams, Alex (2004-02-02). "Vanishing Act - Spalding Gray - Cover Story". Nymag.com. http://nymag.com/nymetro/news/features/n_9787/. Retrieved 2009-12-04. 
  13. ^ Spalding Gray (1941 - 2004) - Find A Grave Memorial
  14. ^ "About the Show". Storieslefttotell.com. 2006-06-05. http://www.storieslefttotell.com/Abouttheshow.html. Retrieved 2009-12-04. 
  15. ^ "Spalding Gray: Stories Left To Tell". Stories Left To Tell<!. 2007-06-26. http://www.storieslefttotell.com/index.html. Retrieved 2009-12-04. 
  16. ^ "One Singular Auteur, Through Another" New York TimesJan. 15, 2010

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