Ray, Nicholas, 1911-1979

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Nicholas Ray (born Raymond Nicholas Kienzle, Jr., on August 7, 1911, in Galesville, Wisconsin) was a film director active in Hollywood between 1944 and 1963. Revered by American and European critics and filmmakers, Ray put his personal touch on every film he made, despite the constraints of the studio system. His films are marked by a sensitive handling of actors, a distinctive visual style that includes an expressionistic use of color and dramatic compositions, and unconventional subject matter. Ray's evocative depictions of young rebels, troubled outsiders, and characters on society's margins have won wide recognition in the United States and abroad as among the most aesthetically and culturally significant American films.

After briefly attending the University of Chicago, Ray began his career in the 1930s with a short stint as an apprentice at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin Fellowship in Wisconsin. Ray then moved to New York, where he performed as part of a left-wing theater troupe, the Theatre of Action. He worked as an actor and stage manager for the Works Progress Administration's Federal Theatre Project and co-produced a folk music radio show with Alan Lomax. During World War II, Ray was hired by John Houseman to work on Voice of America radio programs. In 1944 he went to Hollywood to assist Elia Kazan on his film adaptation of Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn . After returning to New York to direct works for television and the Broadway stage, Ray returned to Hollywood to direct his first feature at RKO Studios, They Live By Night (1949).

Ray directed nineteen feature films for various Hollywood studios from 1949 to 1963, including In a Lonely Place (1950), Johnny Guitar (1954), and his best-known and most successful film, Rebel Without a Cause (1955). By the late 1950s, however, Ray's alcohol and drug abuse had begun to have increasingly serious repercussions for his career and personal health. After collapsing on the set of 55 Days to Peking (1963), Ray was removed from the film and never worked for a major studio again. He traveled through Europe in the 1960s, trying to get financial backing for a string of film projects, before returning to the United States to film the conspiracy trial of the Chicago Seven in 1969. In 1971, Ray was hired to teach filmmaking at Harpur College, State University of New York at Binghamton. Believing the best way to teach filmmaking was to make a film, Ray and his students made We Can't Go Home Again (screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 1973 under the title The Gun Under My Pillow ), an experimental work shot in a variety of formats.

In 1977, a newly sober Nicholas Ray obtained work teaching film directing and film acting at the Lee Strasberg Institute and New York University, and appeared in Wim Wenders's film The American Friend . Later that year, he learned he had lung cancer. He continued to teach and had a small role in Milos Forman's film Hair, but his health continued to decline. Wim Wenders's documentary Lightning Over Water (Nick's Story) chronicles the last few months of Ray's life in New York. Nicholas Ray died on June 16, 1979.

Ray was married four times: to journalist Jean Evans (circa 1931-1940), to actress Gloria Grahame (1948-1952), to dancer Betty Utey (1958-1966), and to writer Susan Schwarz, whom he met in 1969 and who remained with him until his death. He was survived by two sons, Anthony and Timothy, and two daughters, Julie and Nicca.

From the guide to the Nicholas Ray Papers, 1929-1998, (The University of Texas at Austin, Harry Ransom Center)

Relation Name
associatedWith Gutman, James C., 1946- person
associatedWith Jones, James, 1921-1977. person
associatedWith Ray, Susan person
Place Name Admin Code Country
Motion pictures--Production and direction
Motion pictures--Study and teaching
Motion pictures--United States


Birth 1911-08-07

Death 1979-06-16




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