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Spalding Gray, 62; Master of the Monologue

March 09, 2004|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Spalding Gray, the masterful monologuist of "Swimming to Cambodia" fame, who turned his darkest fears about life and death into riveting one-man theater pieces that defined the genre, was confirmed dead Monday when a body found in the East River in New York City was identified as his. He was 62.

Gray, who lived on Long Island but kept an apartment in New York City, was reported missing by his wife, Kathleen Russo, on Jan. 11 after he missed a meeting with a friend and a scheduled flight to Aspen for a ski trip.

While clinging to hope, his family and friends feared the worst after a witness reported seeing a despondent-looking man who matched Gray's description on the Staten Island ferry the night he vanished. Gray had tried to jump from the ferry about seven months ago.

No suicide note was found this time, although he apparently had left notes or phone messages indicating his intentions in earlier suicide attempts.

His body was pulled from the river off Brooklyn on Sunday and identified as Gray through dental records and X-rays. Ellen Borakove, a spokeswoman for the New York City medical examiner's office, said the cause of his death was being investigated.

"We're hoping now that we have some closure," Russo said Monday from the couple's Long Island home. "The family will begin to heal."

Severe Depression

Gray had been severely depressed since a near-fatal car accident in Ireland in 2001 that had left him with a number of health problems, including paralysis in one foot. He attempted suicide in 2002 and 2003.

As he did with so many of his intimate experiences -- from his mishaps with pets and discovery of sex to his mother's mental illness and suicide at age 52 -- Gray struggled to transform his latest crisis into a new monologue. He called it "Life Interrupted," and performed it late last year at a small theater in Manhattan.

"I'll never run out of material as long as I live," he once told Newsweek magazine. "The only disappointment is that I probably won't be able to come back after I die and tell that experience."

Over the past four decades, Gray wrote and performed 17 monologues, including "Monster in a Box," "Gray's Anatomy" and "It's a Slippery Slope." One of his last pieces, a series of riffs on fatherhood and domesticity called "Morning, Noon and Night," marked a departure for Gray in its generally sunny tone.

He is widely credited with perfecting and popularizing the personal monologue, or "auto-performance."

"He opened the doors to a whole generation of people, but I don't think anyone quite reached the precision and simplicity that Spalding did," Mark Russell, executive artistic director of New York's Performance Space 122, where Gray last performed, told The Times recently. "You felt like he was discovering parts of his life on stage as you watched him, parts that were particularly harrowing and exciting and funny. He made you feel you were part of his life."

Gray also was a screen actor whose minor role as an American ambassador's aide in "The Killing Fields" -- the 1984 movie by director Roland Joffe about the friendship of a New York Times reporter and a Cambodian photographer during the war in Cambodia in the 1970s -- brought him wider attention and roles in other films and on television.

His experiences making "The Killing Fields" formed the basis of his one-man stage show "Swimming to Cambodia," for which Gray won an Obie in 1985. The film based on "Swimming" was directed by Jonathan Demme in 1986.

Born in Barrington, R.I., in 1941, Gray was the middle of three sons of Rockwell Gray, a factory worker, and his wife Elizabeth, who raised Gray and his brothers in her Christian Science faith. A wayward student who had undiagnosed dyslexia, he was fond of pranks such as setting off cherry bombs in the school bathroom, but he straightened out and later attended Emerson College in Boston.

At Emerson he discovered the stage. He acted in some 50 plays during the 1960s and 1970s, including the lead role of Hoss in Sam Shepard's "Tooth of Crime" in its 1973 New York premiere.

In 1967, when Gray was on vacation in Mexico, his mother had a nervous breakdown and killed herself in the family garage. Her death, and mortality in general, would become a recurring theme in his monologues.

The year he lost his mother, he joined Richard Schechner's improvisational Performance Group in New York City. The group's first production called on each actor to tell a personal story about death to a member of the audience. Gray chose to talk about his mother's suicide and its aftermath.

"This really was my first monologue," he told The Times in 1994. "It was hardly performed at all, just spoken directly into the eyes of a stranger.... This event was extremely powerful for me."

In 1975 he co-founded the avant-garde Wooster Group with Elizabeth LeCompte and her future husband, actor Willem Dafoe. He starred in an autobiographical play, "Sakonnet Point," named after the Rhode Island resort town where he spent much of his childhood.

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