NEW YORK – The Empire State Building (search) — the skyscraper that King Kong (search) scaled while holding tight to Fay Wray (search) — will dim its lights for 15 minutes Tuesday in honor of the actress who died Sunday, a building spokesman said.
Wray died quietly in her sleep at her Manhattan apartment, said Rick McKay, a friend and director of the 2003 documentary "Broadway: The Golden Age," the last film she appeared in. She was 96.
Fay Wray tried twice to wrestle free from a giant gorilla's grip. Once onscreen in the 1933 classic "King Kong" and then again in the years that followed when she yearned to shake the ape's prestigious shadow.
"I used to resent 'King Kong,'" she said in a 1963 interview. "But now I don't fight it anymore. I realize that it is a classic, and I am pleased to be associated with it."
During a career that started in 1923, Wray appeared with such stars as Ronald Colman, Gary Cooper and Spencer Tracy, but she was destined to be linked with the rampaging Kong in movie fans' minds.
Her other films included adventures like "The Four Feathers" (search) and "Viva Villa;" Westerns such as "The Texan" and "The Conquering Horde;" romances such as "One Sunday Afternoon" and "The Unholy Garden;" as well as the horror films "Dr. X" (search) and "The Mystery of the Wax Museum."
After appearing in director Erich von Stroheim's 1928 silent "The Wedding March," playing a poor Viennese girl abandoned by her lover, Wray became a much-employed leading lady. In 1933, the year of "King Kong," she appeared in 11 films.
In 1980, she told of her dissatisfaction with roles of that period: "Leading ladies were not supposed to be funny but were supposed to stand there and look beautiful. That was frustrating as an actress."
In "King Kong," she plays an unemployed actress who agrees to take a job with a movie company that is going on location to a mysterious island inhabited by the huge ape.
When the fictional film company discovers him, Kong is attracted to Wray and abducts her. But he is eventually captured and put on display in New York. Kong escapes and finds Wray, with terrifying results, but eventually meets his death on the Empire State Building.
In her 1988 autobiography, "On the Other Hand," (search) Wray wrote of Kong: "He is a very real and individual entity. He has a personality, a character that has been compelling to many different people for many different reasons and viewpoints."
The actress recalled that she was paid $10,000 for her work on "King Kong," but her 10 weeks' work was stretched over a 10-month period. "Residuals were not even considered, because there were no established unions to protect us," she added.
Although Kong appeared huge, the full figure was really only 18 inches tall. Wray spent her time with its fake arm, which was 8 feet long.
"I would stand on the floor," she recalled, "and they would bring this arm down and cinch it around my waist, then pull me up in the air. Every time I moved, one of the fingers would loosen, so it would look like I was trying to get away. Actually, I was trying not to slip through his hand."
Wray quit working in 1942 to be a wife and mother. Her first husband was John Monk Saunders, who wrote such air films as "Wings" and "The Dawn Patrol." After a divorce, she married Robert Riskin (search), the writer of "It Happened One Night," "Lost Horizon" and other Frank Capra films. In 1950, he suffered a stroke and died five years later.
Returning to work in 1953, Wray appeared mostly in motherly roles in youth-oriented films like "Small Town Girl," "Tammy and the Bachelor" and "Summer Love." In 1979 she played opposite Henry Fonda in a TV drama, "Gideon's Trumpet."
Wray stayed active in recent years, touring the globe to promote "The Wedding March" when it was reissued in 1998 and flying to Los Angeles for her grandson's wedding just weeks ago. She was working on a sequel to her autobiography, McKay said.
"King Kong" was remade in 1976 with the giant ape scaling the World Trade Center towers with Jessica Lange in its oversized grip. The story is being remade yet again by "The Lord of the Rings" filmmaker Peter Jackson (search), this time with Naomi Watts as the female lead. The newest movie is set for release in 2005.
Wray had a daughter, Susan, from her first marriage and a daughter and son, Victoria and Robert Jr., by the second. Sixteen years after Riskin's death, she married his physician, Dr. Sanford Rothenberg, who died in 1991.
Apparently at peace with her most famous role, Wray wrote in her autobiography: "Each time I arrive in New York and see the skyline and the exquisite beauty of the Empire State Building, my heart beats a little faster. I like that feeling. I really like it!"