The little girl born in Cardston, Alberta will forever be remembered as the girl dangling from the top of the Empire State Building in the movie King Kong.
Fay Wray grew up in the shadow of a booming new motion picture industry when her family moved to Los Angeles. Her first brush with show business came at Hollywood High where she appeared in the annual Pilgrimage Play. Armed with resumes and photos, she began to make the rounds looking for work in silent films. At the age of 16, Fay played a small role in Gasoline Love. It would be another two years before she would find work in a film appearing in The Coast Patrol. Hal Roach tapped her to play a leading lady in his comedy shorts, and she was cast opposite Western stars Hoot Gibson in The Man in the Saddle and Art Accord in Lazy Lightning. She was nominated to be WAMPAS (Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers) Baby Star of 1926, along with Mary Astor, Joan Crawford, and Janet Gaynor.
When Erich von Stroheim cast her as Mitzi in his film The Wedding March, stardom was knocking. "That film changed my life," remarked Wray. It would remain her personal favorite and the role in which she felt she most fully expressed herself. Von Stroheim didn't even test her for the part. He said at the time, "As soon as I had seen Fay Wray and spoken with her for a few minutes, I knew I had found the right girl." Considered a masterful film, it went over budget and over schedule and Wray's contract was sold to Paramount.
Paramount would showcase her in The Street of Sin and in Legion of the Condemned with a young Gary Cooper. Talkies were just around the corner and many stars of the silent era would find themselves unemployed when their voices failed to match their screen persona. "Right after The Wedding March, everything happened at once. Sound was coming in, and colour was being used for the first time. It was very exciting to be a part of it," she said in 2004. She got her opportunity when she co-starred in Josef von Sternberg's first talkie, Thunderbolt, in 1929.
Roles in thrillers including Doctor X, Mystery of the Wax Museum, The Vampire Bat, and The Most Dangerous Game would make her one of Hollywood's first "scream queens," but her role as Ann Darrow, in the 1933 classic King Kong, would solidify her as a Hollywood legend. "When we did it, I just thought how lucky I was to be in the movies, where something like this was possible." The film would save RKO Studios and be named one of the 100 greatest films of all time by the American Film Institute in 1998.
When she was offered the part, director Merion Cooper told her, "You're going to have the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood". An excited Wray thought it was Clark Gable, but then he showed her a sketch of a giant ape on the side of the Empire State Building. "There's your leading man," he said.
She made eleven more films in 1934 including Once To Every Woman, Viva Villa! and Bulldog Jack. Roles with great range would follow. She played Gary Cooper's ex-flame in One Sunday Afternoon, a dim-witted artist's model in The Affairs of Cellini and the seductive title role in Woman in the Dark.
Wray would retire for many years after Not a Ladies Man in 1942, and return in 1953 co-starring with Paul Hartman and Natalie Wood in the TV sitcom Pride of the Family. She made a film comeback in character roles, appearing as philandering psychiatrist Charles Boyer's long-suffering wife in The Cobweb. Her last acting appearance was as Henry Fonda's sister in the 1980 television movie Gideon's Trumpet.
In a career that spanned generations, she went from roles in silent two-reelers, talkies and feature films to television - even though her first love was writing: "All my life I've written something, I've always cared much more about writing than I do about acting." In addition to her 1989 autobiography, On The Other Hand: A Life Story, she wrote a semi-autobiographical play, The Meadowlark, which was produced in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania.
"When I'm in New York, I look at the Empire State Building and feel as though it belongs to me, or is it vice versa?" she said in an interview with The New York Times. Fay Wray passed away at the age of 96, in August of 2004. Two days after her death, the lights of the Empire State Building were dimmed for fifteen minutes in her honor.