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For Spalding Gray, the silver-haired monologuist who laid bare his soul in a soft, New England-flecked accent, the humor he aimed at himself sprang from deep within.
“People want to have me to dinner,” he told The Associated Press in 1997. “I’m not Mr. Quick. I’m not a great social satirist. I need time to absorb life. I spend a lot of time mulling, cogitating.”
That cogitation took a more painful direction in recent years as Gray battled depression and physical pain. On Sunday, his body was found in the East River, two months after he apparently committed suicide. He was 62.
Witnesses had told police they saw Gray on the Staten Island ferry the night he vanished, and his wife, Kathleen Russo, has said she feared he jumped off the boat. Dental records were used to identify the body.
Gray’s greatest success was his Obie-winning monologue “Swimming to Cambodia,” which recounted in part his movie role in “The Killing Fields.” The monologue, developed over two years of performance, became a film directed by Jonathan Demme.
The monologue was widely hailed, with Washington Post reviewer David Richards observing, “Talking about himself — with candor, humor, imagination and the unfailingly bizarre image — he ends up talking about all of us.”
Gray appeared in the David Byrne film “True Stories” as well as other movies that included “Beaches,” “Kate & Leopold” and “The Paper” — 38 film appearances in all.
But Gray’s life in recent years was marred by tragedy and depression.
A horrific head-on car crash during a 2001 vacation in Ireland to mark his 60th birthday left him disheartened and in poor health, and he tried jumping from a bridge near his Long Island home in October 2002.
Gray, whose mother committed suicide when she was 52, spoke openly about considering the same fate. In the 1997 interview, he even provided an epitaph for his tombstone: “An American Original: Troubled, Inner-Directed and Cannot Type.”
Gray was born on June 5, 1941, one of three sons growing up in Barrington, R.I. His mother suffered a pair of nervous breakdowns, committing suicide in 1967 after the second one.
In the monologue “It’s a Slippery Slope,” Gray told his audience he had to overcome a deep depression associated with his turning 52 — his mother’s age when she took her own life.
Gray began pursuing an acting career at Emerson College in Boston. His first efforts at one-man storytelling began with a select audience: his co-workers when he was a dishwasher. The compulsively self-obsessed Gray would regale the other employees with a blow-by-blow account of his day’s events.
He worked in underground theater in Manhattan, eventually co-founding the Wooster Group in 1979. There, he wrote an autobiographical trilogy of plays about life in Rhode Island.
In more than a dozen monologues starting in 1979, Gray told audiences about his childhood, “Sex and Death to the Age 14”; his adventures as a young man, “Booze, Cars and College Girls”; and his struggles as an actor, “A Personal History of the American Theater.” Many were published in book form and several were made into films.
In 1989, he starred as the stage manager in the Broadway revival of “Our Town,” a production that won a Tony Award.
“Spalding had an affinity with that material and its enormous sadness and wistfulness about lost opportunities and the mysteries of the universe,” said Gregory Mosher, who directed the “Our Town” revival. “That probably was Spalding’s main subject, wasn’t it? Writing and thinking about the mysteries of life and death.”
Russo reported him missing Jan. 11, a day after he vanished from the couple’s apartment. He had just seen the movie “Big Fish” with Russo and one of their children.
In addition to Russo, Gray is survived by two sons, ages 11 and 6, a stepdaughter and two brothers. Russo said a memorial service would be held in a few months.