I’ve recently had the good fortune to catch up with two great child actors. Firstly, Billy Gray and then Gary Gray. Billy was quick to point out that Gary would give him a hard time on the set before filming began, and then Billy would appear to be the villain of the piece. Later when I spoke to Gary, he was quick to point out that the stories Billy told his mother, actress Beatrice Gray, at the time were a work of fiction and that most of the teasing was done by Billy. These two likely lads appeared in To Each His Own 1946 and Father is a Bachelor 1950 and one senses that they must have shared a keen camaraderie, which would have been a welcome diversion for two boys working hard in the bustling adult world of 40s Hollywood.
The first thing you notice about Gary is his gentle good humour and easy going manner. He falls comfortably into conversation about his early career and remembers names and movies as if they happened yesterday. You would hardly guess that his week has been spent in pain and discomfort. Straight away you realize that behind the gentle exterior endures a strongly determined spirit.
Gary is a child of Hollywood and has known tinsel town all his life. Yet his career goes well beyond film, considering his last film is more than forty years ago. He has been a successful businessman, spent time in the USAF, Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard, trained as a gymnast as well as a fine trick horse-rider. Anyone who had a then unknown Connie Stevens as president of his fan club must be doing something right. The fact that the thirteen-year-old Gary was made president of Rhonda Fleming’s fan club in 1949 would merely be icing on the cake.
If you would like to see some of Gary’s superb photos from his many films then just drop in on his terrific website at: http://garydgray.tripod.com/
Here are some of the things we chatted about…
David: Could you tell us a little about your early days in film?
Gary: My father was a business manager working for Business Management Associates and had worked with people like the Vaudevillian Bert Wheeler and the great Jack Benny. People like Jack urged my dad to try me in films. So he took me down to Central Casting and I was signed to the Screen Children’s Guild in 1941.
You know I have a pretty good memory of my films. My first film was as an extra in the Joan Crawford film, A Woman’s Face. I played a small boy wearing a sailor suit and playing in the park. I remember falling down while playing hopscotch and Joan Crawford had someone bring me to her trailer. She gave me some chocolate and was really nice. She seemed a very different woman to the one you read about in Mommie Dearest.”
David: Do you have any funny memories from working on a set?
Gary: I worked on The Great Lover with Bob Hope and Rhonda Fleming. There is a scene where I am watching Bob kiss Rhonda. After the scene, Bob says, “Who taught you to kiss?” And he has this disgusted look on his face. Now Rhonda Fleming was one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood and I found this moment pretty funny.”
David: What film is your favourite?
Gary: Rachel and the Stranger remains my favourite film for many reasons especially as Bill Holden was really one of my favourite actors. I would work with him on a few films and one day he came up to my mother and asked her if he could give me a gun. My mother couldn’t very well say “no” to this popular movie star, so Bill gave me a wonderful Winchester .22. This great gift is still my pride and joy these fifty-six years later.
When I tested for this role I had to wait for Bobby Driscoll to finish his reading before doing my reading opposite Loretta Young. After I did my reading I got the A-OK and landed the role. I believe Loretta Young wanted me for the role, which was really great. She was wonderful and a true star. As fate would have it, my wife Jean and I had the great pleasure of visiting Loretta just a year before her death. Even then, Loretta was still as lovely as ever.
In 1947 Bob Mitchum and I did a recording of songs for Rachel and the Stranger and although you can hear me on the record, I can assure you that while Bob sang really well, I could never call myself any kind of a singer. And yes these recordings came out again on a Bob Mitchum CD just a few years ago.”
David: How about your favourite film?
Gary: One of my favourite films is Rebel without a Cause, which came out when I was eighteen and enjoying cars and finishing high school. It was a film which made a huge impact on people back then. Of course, Natalie Wood was a good friend and she was just great playing opposite James Dean.
David: What about your first autograph? Did they use secretaries to sign photos for you?
Gary: As a child I signed quite a few photos but I don’t really remember the very first one. I imagine it would have been exciting at the time. The studio would send me the photos to sign. They didn’t have secretaries signing for me. For many years I didn’t sign a lot, but when I got involved with the various shows that took off in the 90s I began signing a lot. And I’ve have always signed the many, many photos I regularly receive through the mail.
David: What led you to moving into business rather than continuing on in films as an adult?
Gary: I had a terrific run in films around the late 40s with Return of the Bad Men, Rachel right through to The Painted Hills. However as I grew older and began attending the local high school I began making less films although I did a lot of TV work during the late 50s. However, in 1960 work began to dry up during the 1960 Writer’s Strike. At one stage, I found myself on the unemployment line. While I was waiting on the line I heard some people talking about how they were happy just to stay on benefits. So I decided this wasn’t right for me and went out and hunted down a job working as a car salesman. One of the first vehicles I sold was to a Mr Bean. As fate would have it, I met his daughter Jean and about two weeks later I asked her to marry me. Six months later we were married. That happy moment was more than 44 years ago and today we have four lovely daughters, twenty grandchildren and our first great-grandchild.
David: You made a very unusual film with the 1950 fantasy film The Next Voice You Hear?
Gary: I do get asked about a lot about this film and it was certainly different from most films being made in those days. I recall being on the set and Bill Wellman was the director. He was fairly notorious for not liking women on the set. On this day he turned and saw a woman sitting at the back of studio and yelled, “Who the hell’s that lady?” And he was introduced to my mother, Jeanie Gray. In those days it was normal to have a child’s parent close by. My mother wasn’t like most stage mothers and was usually content to sit at the back knitting or doing needlepoint. Most of the time, she would have been just as happy if I didn’t act at all. Anyway, my mother and Bill Wellman became good friends after that day.
David: Do you have any unusual stories from signing for autograph hunters?
Gary: One of the funniest things I remember about meeting an autograph hunter came about at a Jiving Jack & Jill Party. These parties have been put on by my good friend Michael Fitzgerald for the last twenty years. I was moving around the party and a man came up to me with a sheet on which he was gathering signatures. He gave it to me to sign and lo and behold I found my signature already on the sheet. However, it was my signature from fifty years earlier. I was really surprised by that moment.
David: Has your signature changed much over the years and have you seen any forged signatures of your on photos?
Gary: Well, thinking about that last story, my signature has certainly changed quite a lot over the decades although I can always tell my signature. However, over the years I’ve only seen a few forged signatures. I remember seeing one once and not having the heart to tell one person that this wasn’t my signature.
David: I believe you have been collecting memorabilia from your movies in recent years? Do you also collect autographs of favourite actors?
Gary: I have always enjoyed collecting memorabilia from movies in which I have appeared. One favourite is a lobby card that Michael Fitzgerald found for me. It’s a scene from the film The Meanest Man in the World where my scenes had been deleted, which makes it one of my more unusual items.
When I was growing up I didn’t collect autographs, but later on I collected a few like Mickey Rooney, Robert Walker and Tim Holt. When I started attending some shows like the one in Memphis, which was my very first and favourite one as well as Ray Courts and others, I started to collect more autographs from other actors attending the shows.
David: You were a talented gymnast growing up and also learned trick riding?
Gary: One of the great fun things for me was learning to do trick riding. I had spoken to the former world champion rider, Ern Goodrich about teaching me, but he said he was too old, and so he put me in touch with Redd Russell who taught me an awful lot. My wife and I still see his widow Janey Russell. My favourite trick was the slip-the-neck move where you slip from the side of the horse onto the ground and then twist and leap back on around the horse’s neck. I’ve been pretty luck over the years and all I’ve ever received are a few bumps and bruises and never even broken a bone.”
David: Many people have enjoyed your films over the years and would be unaware that you have been battling cancer for sometime now? Do you have any messages for your many, many fans?
You know I loved making films and look back on those days with a great deal of happiness. The fans have been great and I’ve loved signing photos over the years. The doctors told me a couple of years ago that my cancer may only give me three more years and lately the chemo certainly has been pretty tough, but I still enjoy the things I am doing at the moment. And the continuing support of my wonderful family is a huge help while our great friends and many fans have also made the struggle a lot easier for me.