Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on December 27, 2012
This is the second part of my two piece article on actor Aldo Ray. The first part can be found here.
When THE MARRYING KIND was released in 1952 Aldo Ray was praised for his portrayal of a blue-collar man struggling to keep his fractured marriage together. Film critic Bosley Crowther singled out Ray’s performance in his review for The New York Times:
Ray’s everyman quality earned him lots of fans and critical praise early in his career but it was hard won. During the film’s production director George Cuckor ordered Ray to take ballet lessons because he moved like a football player. Studio chief Harry Cohn also insisted that Aldo Ray (DeRa at the time) change his name to John Harrison but Ray refused to answer to his new name on set and was applauded by the film crew who backed his rebellious decision. The teamsters, who were proud of their own ethnic heritage, admired Ray’s determination to try and keep his distinctly Italian name intact. A compromise was eventually worked out and Aldo DeRa became Aldo Ray instead of John Harrison.
Problems seemed to follow the film after it was released. At the time the HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) were holding hearings and Ray’s costar Judy Holliday was asked to testify about her political affiliations. Picketers stood outside of theaters showing THE MARRYING KIND carrying signs that read, “Judy Holliday is the Darling of the Daily Worker” so producer Harry Cohn and director George Cuckor decided to send Ray out to promote their movie alone. According to film critic Emanuel Levy, Aldo Ray toured 35 cities in 90 days using his all-American appeal to sway audiences into seeing the picture and it worked. Ray would go directly to theaters showing the movie and march into the protesting crowds to tell them they were wrong and shortsighted for picketing THE MARRYING KIND. His winning smile and easygoing manner seemed to ease the demonstrator’s apprehensions and they would often end up apologizing to Ray for their actions and asking for his autograph.
During my recent trip to the small town of Crockett (population 3,094 in 2010) where Aldo Ray grew up and eventually retired, I learned that Ray used the same charming qualities to win over locals. According to census records, Ray’s family moved to Crockett, CA around 1930 when he was just 4 years old. At the time the C&H Sugar refinery dominated the small seaside town and at least 70% of the local residents worked there. Ray’s family was no exception and his father spent most of life as an employee of C&H Sugar. Ray also worked for the company as a dock laborer after WW2 while he was attending college. Since then C&H Sugar has drastically cut its workforce and currently only about 1% of Crockett’s population is employed by the refinery. Much like the closed textile mill that Aldo Ray’s character tries to revive in the effective depression era drama GOD’S LITTLE ACRE (Anthony Mann; 1958), the beautiful old C&H Sugar building that once employed thousands now stands as a solemn reminder of Crockett’s prosperous past. In the shadow of the refinery sits the eccentric and quaint Crockett Historical Museum where you’ll find a small but heartfelt display celebrating the life of Aldo Ray. Glass cases house memories of Ray’s football heroics, the brief time he spent as the town’s constable and his noteworthy acting career. But if you really want to know more about Aldo Ray you’ve got to talk to historian Nancy Reiser who gladly shares everything she knows about the actor with museum visitors.
Nancy Reiser had so many great stories to share that I had a hard time keeping up with her but her lively chatter and abundant enthusiasm was a welcome reminder that Aldo Ray had touched many lives during his time in Crockett. Ray attended Crockett’s longstanding John Swett High-School and according to locals his Italian mother was an incredible cook who often made meals for Ray’s football team. Groups of young men would congregate in Ray’s family kitchen to enjoy his mother’s homemade ravioli. Besides football, Ray was an avid swimmer who learned how to maneuver through rough waters while navigating the Carquinez Strait. When he joined the Navy in 1944 it didn’t surprise anyone that he became a frogman and as part of the Navy’s Underwater Demolition Team Ray participated in various WW2 military operations and saw action during the Battle of Okinawa.
Nancy also told me that Ray taught the kids in Crockett to swim when he returned home after the war and shared stories about Ray’s campaign to become the town constable. Ray’s general appeal and friendly nature seemed to have turned him into a local hero before he was a movie star. And although Ray was born with a healthy ego that occasionally may have clouded his judgment, he never let his Hollywood career go to his head. According to local film critic Edward Guthmann who interviewed Ray in 1986, Ray told him that, “Everybody said, ‘Behave like a star.’ I said, ‘What the f— is a star supposed to behave like? I’m me.” Ray often returned home to Crockett to see family and friends after he had made a name for himself in the City of Angels and during these return visits he was occasionally accompanied by a pretty starlet or two. Local kids who had grown up around Ray enjoyed following him through town while trying to catch a glimpse of the actresses he was entertaining. But Ray always had time to shake hands or sign autographs and his gracious disposition is still evident on the streets of Crockett today. Residents smile broadly when they recall Ray’s memory and there’s a genuine sense of pride that their local boy is still generating interest from classic movie buffs like myself. But all of the memories Ray left behind aren’t golden. As I was leaving Crockett’s Historical Museum an older gentlemen with a wistful look in his eye reminded me that Ray, “Liked to drink and he drank a lot.”
At Crockett’s What’s On Second Antique Shop owners Dennis and Joanne Dowell carry a large selection of Aldo Ray collectables including original film posters and promotional photos. The shop also recently provided the production team of THE MASTER (Paul Thomas Anderson; 2012) with many of historic props they used during filming and they generously offered to share their own stories about Aldo Ray. Dennis reminded me that Ray eventually returned to his childhood home in Crockett during his last years when his career in Hollywood had bottomed out. Ray’s career had been one of Harry Cohn’s pet projects and the two men got along famously because in Ray’s own words, “He (Harry Cohn) took no shit from anybody and he saw that I was that kind of a guy, too.” But when Cohn died in 1958, Columbia refused to renew Aldo Ray’s contract and he was left to his own devices. He had spent a decade working for some of Hollywood’s best director’s such as George Cuckor (THE MARRYING KIND; 1952 and PAT AND MIKE; 1952), Raoul Walsh (BATTLE CRY; 1955 and THE NAKED AND THE DEAD; 1958), Anthony Mann (MEN IN WAR; 1957 and GOD’S LITTLE ACRE; 1958), Michael Curtiz (WE’RE NO ANGELS; 1955) and Jacques Tourneur (NIGHTFALL; 1957) but without Cohn’s guidance and the help of skilled filmmakers who could shape Ray’s rough-hewn performances into screen gold, his career began to flounder. Ray struggled to find work throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s and ended up in many television productions. His macho war-worn persona had fallen out of fashion and he eventually lost his Studio Actors Guild card when he agreed to act in non-union films, including a porn film called SWEET SAVAGE (1979) which won him a Best Actor Award from the Adult Film Association of America although Ray kept his clothes on in the role and only had to deliver a few lines.
Aldo Ray spent his last years in Crockett until his lifelong smoking habit finally caught up to him. As I said in the first part of my Aldo Ray piece, nobody smoked a cigarette like Aldo Ray on screen. It was an utterly natural act done without any forethought and unfortunately that kind of devil-may-care approach to living eventually killed him. It was undoubtedly compounded by a life well lived although in his later years, Ray often expressed his dissatisfaction with the cards he’d been dealt and he never seemed completely capable of enjoying his accomplishments. Reflecting on his career in Hollywood, Ray told interviewer Edward Guthmann that, “Nothing really got better for me down there. And every woman I ran into had her right hand on my c— and her left hand on my wallet.” Like many war veterans who struggle with depression as well as drinking problems and nicotine addiction, Ray couldn’t win every battle he fought. He died in 1991 at age 64 due to complications from throat cancer combined with a bad bout of pneumonia. Today it’s easy to overlook Ray’s early achievements and become nostalgic about what ‘might have been’ but that only diminishes the actor’s memory. Ray succeeded in a tough industry against all odds and the films he left behind are potent reminders of his natural talent as well as his larger than life personality.
You can catch two of the best films Aldo Ray appeared in during the 1960s on TCM next month. On Tuesday, January 15th TCM will air DEAD HEAT ON A MERRY-GO-ROUND (1966) followed by THE DAY THEY ROBBED THE BANK OF ENGLAND (1960) as part of their ‘Great Capers’ line-up. Although these movies might not contain Ray’s most compelling performances, both are well worth a look if you’re an Aldo Ray fan and they should appeal to anyone who appreciates a good heist film.
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