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Gary Gray, 69; Child Actor Appeared in Westerns, TV Series

April 17, 2006|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

As a teenager in Brooklyn in the early 1950s, Connie Stevens had such a big crush on teen actor Gary Gray that she started her own Gary Gray Fan Club.

"I just thought he was adorable and wrote him, 'Could I be your president back here?' " Stevens, who later became an actress, told The Times this week. "There were only five or six of us [in the fan club], but we were pretty mighty!"

On screen, Stevens recalled, Gray "looked very kind, and he was certainly handsome enough and had really sparkly eyes when he talked -- very sparkly. I thought that would be the kind of boy I would like."

Gray, 69, whose career as a child actor in the 1940s and '50s included MGM's final Lassie movie, died of cancer April 4 in Brush Prairie, Wash., said his friend Boyd Magers, an authority on western films.

Gray appeared in many westerns as a child actor, including Randolph Scott's "Return of the Bad Men" (1948) and "Rachel and the Stranger" (1948), a frontier drama in which he was the son of a widower played by William Holden.

Among Gray's other credits: "The Great Lover," starring Bob Hope; "The Girl From Jones Beach," starring Ronald Reagan and Virginia Mayo; and "The Next Voice You Hear," in which he played the son of Nancy Davis and James Whitmore. He also played young David Latham in the "Latham family" B-movie comedy series, including "Leave It to Henry" and "Father's Wild Game."

During the 1950s, Gray showed up regularly on television, in segments of "Fireside Theatre" and "Studio 57" and episodes of series such as "Annie Oakley," "I Love Lucy" and "The Legend of Wyatt Earp."

At 21, Gray met Stevens for the first time when they appeared in the 1958 teen drama "The Party Crashers."

"He said, 'I know you, you were president of my fan club,' " Stevens said. "I was absolutely stunned and shocked that he remembered me."

Gray turned out to be everything she had expected when she watched him on screen during her Brooklyn days -- "sparkly eyes and all; kind, sweet."

Gray, the son of Hollywood business manager Bill Gray, was born Dec. 18, 1936, in Los Angeles. Among his father's clients were Bert Wheeler (half of the comic duo Wheeler and Woolsey) and Jack Benny, both of whom encouraged the elder Gray to get his young son -- and his daughter, Arlene -- into pictures. Both children soon began working in films.

Gray made his film debut at 3, playing the uncredited role of a boy in a sailor suit in a park in the George Cukor melodrama "A Woman's Face," starring Joan Crawford.

He later recalled that Crawford tended to him when he fell and hurt his knee on the set.

"Before my mother could get to me, Joan Crawford picked me up, took me to her dressing room and was feeding me chocolates," he told the Columbian newspaper in Vancouver, Wash., in 1998.

Gray's role in "The Next Voice You Hear" in 1950 led to a contract at MGM, where he appeared with the original Lassie in the 1951 family western "The Painted Hills." At the end of filming, Lassie's trainer, Rudd Weatherwax, gave Gray one of Lassie's puppies, which Gray named Laddie.

Like many former child actors, he found it tougher to land roles as he grew older.

Even before retiring from acting in the early '60s, he had started a swimming pool maintenance and repair business. For many years he worked as a territory, regional and national sales manager for two major pool-equipment manufacturers. He also was sought-after as a speaker for two pool industry associations.

Gray moved to Clark County, Wash., in the early 1990s, about the same time he began appearing as a guest on the western film festival circuit. He retired from the pool business in 1999.

In 2001, Stevens and Gray were reunited at the Lone Pine Film Festival. Stevens saw Gray again in Beverly Hills in August when he received a Golden Boot Award from the Motion Picture and Television Fund for his contribution to film and television westerns.

"I was so happy to see him honored," Stevens said. "I ran all around the room to find him -- he mentioned me onstage -- but I never did find him. Evidently, they took him out a side door, so I regret that. I wanted to give him a big kiss and a gigantic hug because we share a little bit of history together."

Gray is survived by his wife, Jean, four children and many grandchildren.

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