SPALDING GRAY 1941 – 2004
Angst, depression, and self-doubt are rarely the stuff of inspiration – except for artists who, like Spalding Gray, could transform such experiences into inspiration for others.
Gray, who was found dead in New York’s East River on March 7 after having been missing for nearly two months, earned singular status for staged monologues that laconically detailed his obsessions and phobias. (Several were adapted as films, including the Obie-winning Swimming to Cambodia, directed on screen by Jonathan Demme in 1987.) The 62-year-old, flannel-shirted, shaggy-haired actor ”brought auto-performance into the mainstream,” says Mark Russell, executive artistic director of Manhattan’s P.S. 122, which showcased Gray’s final work, Life Interrupted. ”He had that dry Yankee wit that was able to take us to embarrassing places but make us comfortable with it.”
Raised in Rhode Island, Gray cofounded New York’s underground theater entourage the Wooster Group, for which he wrote his first monologue, Sex and Death to the Age 14, which touched on his troubled childhood. In between heralded solo performances were roles in such films as 1984’s The Killing Fields (which inspired Swimming to Cambodia) and 1988’s Beaches, but even a steady career offered little comfort. As he said in Gray’s Anatomy, ”Doubt is my bottom line. The only thing I don’t doubt is my own doubt.”
To many, Gray seemed to be successfully ordering his internal chaos through his work. Ten years ago, he married Kathleen Russo, with whom he had sons Forrest, 11, and Theo, 6. But in June 2001, Gray and Russo were in a brutal car accident in Ireland, and his traumas seemed to become unmanageable. Reparative surgeries and two suicide attempts followed, culminating in his January disappearance. Says Russell, who was working with Gray at the time: ”The first performance of Life Interrupted, I thought everyone would ask for their money back. But he seemed to be climbing out. Each performance was getting stronger. He was a master.” A master, as his admirers will attest, of so much more than self-doubt.