Gene Anthony Ray Biography
Street Dancer, "Fame" Brought Fame, Troubles Took Over, Selected works
Gene Anthony Ray shot to fame in the early 1980s when he took on his first—and only important—role of his acting career. As Leroy Johnson in both the movie and television versions of Fame, Ray used his street-honed disco moves, good looks, and tough-guy personality to win over a generation of teenagers. A talented dancer, Ray's problems with drugs and alcohol prohibited him from achieving a successful comeback after Fame's popularity faded.
Ray was born on May 24, 1962, in New York, New York. He grew up with his mother, Jean Ray, and a younger brother on West 153rd Street in Harlem, surrounded by an extended family of aunts and uncles. Although Ray denied that he was very much like Leroy Johnson, the tough, street-kid Fame character that made him famous, similarities abound. Like Leroy, Ray grew up on the streets, in the rough, urban center of New York during the 1960s and 1970s. Also like Leroy, he was not trained as a dancer, but rather honed his skills dancing at neighborhood block parties. According to the London Times, Ray later recalled, "All the blocks had parties, not just ours. And I'd go to them and scoop all the prizes." He once claimed the award as the best male disco dancer at New York's Roseland Ballroom.
After showcasing his talent in a dance class at Julia Richmond High School, Ray was accepted into Manhattan's School of Performing Arts, the same school in which Fame was based. He did not last long, however, and was expelled for disruptive behavior after a year. He later told Seventeen, "I got kicked out. I had beefs with the teachers and settled them the way Leroy would, by cursing the teachers out." According to Ray, as a dancer he had to carry some attitude around with him. He told The Express, "Because I danced, I couldn't afford to be a wimp. I mean, wherever I went to school I had to come back to that area and survive in the streets."
On the day of the auditions for the movie Fame, Ray skipped school to attend. One of 2,800 teenagers trying out for a part, 17-year-old Ray knocked the producers off their feet. According to The Daily Telegraph, the film's choreographer Louis Falco said of Ray's audition: "Gene uncovered something inside me that I hadn't witnessed before. He was just incredible. I felt like I was in the same shoes as the person who had maybe seen Fred Astaire for the first time." His brash attitude, stunning good looks, and flashy disco moves earned him the role of Leroy Johnson.
"Fame" Brought Fame
Fame hit theaters in 1980 and received widespread attention, especially from the teenage audience. Critical reviews were mixed. "Fame is the spur to some authentic exhilaration," noted John Coleman of the New Statesman, but he continued, "It is also sadly glib in its determination not to miss a contemporary trick." Despite his misgivings, Coleman did comment that Leroy was "splendidly done" by Ray. In The New Republic review, Stanley Kauffman sang the movie's praises: "You keep Star Wars and all the sequels, with their special-effect, lab-coddled cosmic powers, and I'll take the real comic power of these kids."
The film follows the lives of students and several of the teachers of the School of Performing Arts, and the plot is driven along by the hard-rocking disco music and dance routines intermixed with the dialogue. The film won Academy Awards for best musical score and best song. In the film Ray's character, Leroy, is a streetwise kid who, like Ray, earned his place in the elite school by sheer, raw talent. Also like Ray, what Leroy had in dance moves, he lacked in social skills. He was rough, tough, and untouchable, in a way that made teenage girls swoon. His character, who helped make Lycra pants and leg warmers a hit trend during the early 1980s, was so popular that it was one of the few that was reused in the television series Fame, which ABC began airing in 1982.
Just twenty years old when the television series began to air, Ray's personal fame was at its peak. He hired two secretaries to answer the some 17 thousand fan letters he received daily. He also began to show up to work wearing a platinum diamond-studded medallion and made little secret of his love of partying. Although the television series was positively reviewed in the United States, it failed to gain an audience and was dropped by ABC. However, Fame had developed a strong following of 11 million regular viewers in the United Kingdom and was, consequently, picked up by MGM Television, which distributed it in syndication from 1983 to 1987. In 1982 Ray toured Britain with other Fame cast members. The show The Kids from Fame played to adoring teenage audiences. The following year, a television special based on the tour was aired in the United States.
Troubles Took Over
By 1983 Ray's life was beginning to spiral out of control. In June, the $400,000 house he had purchased in a white neighborhood of Rockland County, New York, was intentionally set afire. Ray, who was only using the house on weekends, had planned to move into the house permanently after his younger brother finished high school in the Bronx. The two-story home was set ablaze in four separate locations on the outside of the house, reportedly aided by gasoline. No one was ever convicted, although it was rumored that the fire may have been racially motivated.
The following summer, in 1984, Ray's mother was arrested in a drug raid along with 14 others, including his grandmother, three aunts, and three uncles. Ray's mother, 46-year-old Jean Ray, was charged with dealing heroin and cocaine. His grandmother, 66-year-old Viola (Lilly) Ward, was carrying six ounces of cocaine and a loaded .38-caliber pistol when she was taken into custody. In March 1984, after a two-week trial, Ray's mother was convicted. According to police, she sold heroin and cocaine to undercover officers in several buys in 1983 that took place in Harlem bars. In April 1984 she was sentenced to at least 15 years, with parole eligibility in 1999.
Although Ray, who remained very loyal to his mother, was never implicated in the drug dealings, he was under tremendous stress. After failing to show up for Fame rehearsals 100 times and self-admittedly using drugs between shoots, he was fired from the show in 1984. Ray's use of drugs and alcohol continued unabated. His personal and professional life in shambles, he sat idle for five months, during which time he gained nearly thirty pounds. Eventually Ray began to work out, slimming down again to his normal 28-inch waist size. He spent the remainder of his life attempting to reclaim his place in the spotlight but was never successful.
He briefly revived his dance career with his performance in the Weather Girls' musical video of "It's Raining Men," and he received positive reviews for his performance as Billie in the British stage production of Carrie in 1988. However, he failed both in his attempt to set up a European dance tour and then to open a Fame-style dance school in Milan, where he shared a flat with a porn actress. In 1992, with his use of alcohol out of control, Ray stole a bottle of wine from a Milan supermarket and used it to attack two men who were taunting him. He was arrested, although the charges were later dropped. Having squandered his wealth to feed his drug habit, Ray was unemployed, and rumors spread that he was sleeping on park benches in Milan. In 1995 a rumor also circulated that Ray had died of AIDS.
Once again Ray made an attempt to regain control of his life. In 1995 he had a cameo role in Out of Sync, a film co-produced by Fame co-star Debbie Allen. The following year he appeared briefly in the movie Eddie, starring Whoopi Goldberg. In 1996 Ray was diagnosed HIV-positive. The high toxicity of the drugs he was then required to take made him weak, although he did appear in Dr. Pepper and Diet Coke advertisements during the late 1990s. His mother, now released from prison, helped care for him. When Ray was interviewed by the British Broadcasting Association in the early 2000s, as part of a Fame reunion special, he appeared thin and weak. He suffered a stroke in June 2003, and died on November 14, 2003 in Manhattan. Ray, who brushed aside questions of his sexuality, never married.
Daily Telegraph (London), November 20, 2003.
Express (London), November 21, 2003, p. 66.
Independent (London), November 20, 2003.
Jet, June 13, 1983, p. 59; July 11, 1983, p. 18; March 19, 1984, p. 61; April 23, 1984, p. 39; April 11, 1994, p. 53; December 8, 2003.
National Post (Ontario), November 21, 2004, p. S7.
New Republic, June 7, 1980, pp. 22-24.
New Statesman, July 25, 1980, pp. 26-27.
New York Times, November 19, 2003, p. C14.
Scottish Daily Record, September 28, 2002, p. 34.
Seventeen, December 1982, pp. 126ff.
Times (London), November 26, 2003.
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