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Spalding Rockwell Gray (June 5, 1941 – ca. January 10, 2004) was an Americanmarker actor, playwright, screenwriter, performance artist, and monologist. He was primarily known for his "trenchant, personal narratives delivered on sparse, unadorned sets with a dry, WASP, quiet mania." Gray achieved celebrity for writing and acting in the play Swimming to Cambodia, adapted into a film in 1987.

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.

Early life

Gray was born in Providence, Rhode Islandmarker to Rockwell Gray, Sr., a factory worker, and Margaret Elizabeth "Lizzie" Horton, a homemaker. He also had two younger brothers – Channing Michael and Rockwell, Jr. He was baptized into the Christian Scientist faith and was raised in Barrington, Rhode Islandmarker, and spent summers at his grandmother's house in Newportmarker.

After graduating from Barrington High School, he enrolled at Emerson Collegemarker as a poetry major, where he earned his B.A. in 1963.

In 1965, Gray moved to San Franciscomarker and became a speaker and teacher of poetry at the Esalen Institutemarker. In 1967, while Gray was vacationing in Mexico Citymarker, his mother committed suicide at the age of 52. After his mother's death, Gray moved away from the west coast and permanently settled in New York Citymarker.

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 Gray, 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."

Early photo of Gray, circa 1964

After 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 filmed in 1987. It was a monologue based entirely on his experiences in Southeast Asia while filming a small part in the 1984 movie The Killing Fields. For his play, 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 mike. Poor theatre - a man and an audience and a story. Spalding sitting at that table, speaking into the mike, 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."

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 relatively 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

Performing a theatre monologue
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."

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 in a 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: He replied,
:"I would say that my major problem with Hollywood is this -- I sometimes paraphrase Bob Dylan -- Bob Dylan says 'I may look like Robert Frost, 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.'"

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."

"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."

Personal life and death

In June 2001, he suffered severe injuries in a car crash while on holiday in Irelandmarker. "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 gruesome, jagged scar on his forehead. [He now suffered not only from depression but 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 had spent the ensuing months experimenting with every therapy imaginable."

Among those from whom Gray sought treatment was Oliver Sacks, a well-known neurologist. Sacks began seeing Gray as a patient in August 2003 and continued to do so until almost the time of his 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."

On January 9, 2004, Gray did partake 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.

On January 10, 2004, Gray, suffering from increasingly deep episodes of 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.”

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

On March 7, 2004, the New York Citymarker medical examiner's office reported that Gray's body had been discovered by two men and pulled from the East Rivermarker. One of these men subsequently gave an interview providing details of the accidental discovery. 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 taken her own life in 1967, suicide was the suspected cause of death. 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.

He was survived by his wife Kathie Russo, stepdaughter Marissa, two sons, Forrest Dylan Gray (aka "Forrest Fire Gray"), and Theo Spalding Gray, and brothers Channing and Rockwell Gray.

Posthumous 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. The show includes a cast of four actors as well as one revolving cast member.


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)


  1. Willis, John, and Hodges, Ben. Theatre World: Volume 60, Hal Leonard Corp. (2006)
  2. Wilmeth, Don B., and Miller, Tice L. Cambridge Guide to American Theatre, Cambridge University Press (1996)
  3. Gray, Spalding. Swimming to Cambodia, Theatre Communications Group (2005)
  4. Vilga, Edward. Acting Now: Conversations on Craft and Career, Rutgers Univ. Press (1997)
  5. | Spalding Gray - Missing Person
  6. Spalding Gray's body found in East River -
  7. Vanishing Act - Spalding Gray - Cover Story
  8. About the Show
  9. Spalding Gray: Stories Left To Tell

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