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STAR TURNS: Fay Wray’s big break with a tall, dark and… hairy leading man

Canadian-born actress Fay Wray in scene from King Kong,' directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933. (Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images) - Credit: The LIFE Picture Collection via

TIM WALKER recalls his conversation with the famed King Kong actress.

The producer told Fay Wray that she was going to have ‘the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood’ and she optimistically thought it might be Cary Grant. It turned out to be a giant ape – or at least an 18-inch model of one that was made to look a lot bigger with some technical wizardry – and she was to play his love interest. The film was King Kong.

Wray was a feisty 82 when I caught up with her as she was promoting her memoirs, which she’d amusingly entitled On the Other Hand. There was a picture of her on the cover being held in King Kong’s left paw. A part in a classic can weigh heavily on an actor – it’s all the fans ever want to talk about for decades and it inevitably results in typecasting – but Wray knew the moment she saw the script that this was the film that was going to make her name.

‘The part was going to go to Jean Harlow, but she’d had contractual obligations elsewhere and someone suggested me,’ she told me, self-deprecatingly. ‘I jumped at it because I could see that it had a marvellous charm about it. It was such a silly story really, but I knew they’d make it beautifully and indeed they did. You really can’t fault it, even today. The special effects were way ahead of their time, but it isn’t even those that make the picture so special. It’s the way it makes you care about Kong, so that when eventually he falls to his death from the Empire State Building, it’s hard not to shed a tear.’

She had allowed her hair to turn iron grey, but her lipstick was bright red and she had retained a definite twinkle in her eyes. She seemed somewhat startled still to be alive. ‘I am about the only person that appears in my book who has a pulse,’ she said. ‘I think though it will do well as nobody will ever forget the stars of the golden age of Hollywood. They forget them these days, of course, but then again they don’t have so much class.’

Still, Wray said making King Kong wasn’t so terribly glamorous. ‘Quite frankly, it was more of an endurance test. The rear-projection process we used making that film – me having to pretend to see the gigantic Kong that would later be added in by the special effects boys – was exhausting. There was one scene that – I kid you not – required me to work for 22 hours without a break. It was hard to summon up much energy towards the end when the director shouted ‘scream, scream for your life, Fay!”

Other scenes put her in physical danger. ‘The close-up scenes when I was in Kong’s paw were done with the thing attached to a lever that could be raised or lowered, but sometimes the fingers that were supposed to be holding me became loose and I had to shout at the props man when it looked like they were about to snap off and fall to the ground along with me.’

She felt the film had aged remarkably well, all things considered, and it was all worth the effort. ‘Sometimes you find yourself making a film where it’s really just a job for everyone involved – no one really cares about it, one way or the other – but with King Kong everyone involved was a total perfectionist. I think that was really what made it worth so much more than the sum of its parts. I think if any other group of individuals had got together to make that film it would almost certainly have descended into farce. We took it incredibly seriously.’

She had never appeared in a real classic before King Kong and nor did she after it, and, although three-times married, she joked that the mighty ape was the most enduring love affair of her life. When, in 2004, Peter Jackson suggested she appear in a small cameo in his upcoming remake of King Kong, she had no hesitation in declining and pointedly let it be known she felt the original Kong could only ever be the true King. When she died later that year at the grand age of 97, the lights of the Empire State Building – where she’d played her last big scene with Kong – were lowered in her honour.