Wednesday, May 24, 2017
Remembering Gene Anthony Ray
(May 24, 1962 – November 14, 2003)
He was best known for portraying Leroy Johnson in the 1980 film "Fame" and the 1982-1987 television series "Fame".
Ray was born in Harlem in New York City, on May 24, 1962. His father abandoned him, and he was raised by his mother, Jean Ray, and his grandmother, Viola (Lilly) Ward. Ray grew up on West 153rd Street. He showed a fondness for dance as a child, and began performing on the street and at block parties. His formal dance training included a year of dance at the New York High School of the Performing Arts (the inspiration for the film "Fame") and a class at Julia Richman High School.
While at Richman, Ray skipped class to audition for the film "Fame". His exquisite physique and good looks made him a star on the subsequent TV series, and he became fast friends with dancer-actor--choreographer Debbie Allen. Their impromptu dancing was electric. His natural athleticism and talent meant that he could out-dance almost anyone -- without any rehearsal. He was immensely charismatic; nearly everyone who met him said his mere presence charged a room.
In 1982, Ray purchased a home in rural New York for his mother and grandmother. It was torched by racists four times.
In 1983, Ray's mother, three aunts, three uncles, and grandmother were both arrested for selling drugs -- even on the set of "Fame". Jean Ray was later sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Gene Ray himself was in trouble, too. While he could be charming, sweet-natured, generous, and gentle, he also had a temper that could lead to physical violence, massive insecurities, a cruel streak, and a near-complete inability to deal with criticism. A near-alcoholic in his teens, Ray began heavily abusing drugs and alcohol during the series' run. When drunk, he was arrogant and vicious. At one point, Ray was suspended from the show for several months in 1984 for skipping 100 days of work.
"Fame" was cancelled by NBC after a single season. It was a huge hit in Europe, however, and went into syndication. It was cancelled again in the spring of 1987.
From then on, Ray barely worked. He was in a few commercials, he was in a play or two, he was a background dancer in a few films and TV shows. But no one wanted to take a chance on his addictions.
Although Ray butched it up on screen, off-camera he was flamboyant and camp. With friends, he was remarkably open about his homosexuality and his extremely active sex life; with the press, he remained frustratingly private.
By 1993, Ray had blown his life savings on partying, drugs, and alcohol. He was homeless for much of the time, sleeping on park benches. He was rarely sober.
In 1996, Ray was diagnosed HIV positive. He'd often fall ill with one disease or another, spend time in a hospice, and then seem to recover.
Ray managed to get to Europe in 2001, where he'd enjoyed the greatest success of his life. A dance school he tried to start in Milan, Italy, fell apart. He started a male stripper review to make money. A TV crew caught up to him in 2002: He was gaunt and somewhat incoherent.
Ray returned to the United States in 2003. He had gained weight and seemed healthier, and filmed a "Fame" reunion video. He moved to New York City, to be closer to his mother (who was released from prison in 1999).
Gene Anthony Ray suffered a stroke in June 2003. It's unclear what effect it had on him, but he seemed to recover. He suffered another stroke in November, lingered two or three days, and then died on November 14, 2003.