Remembering Ray Stricklyn

There was a special sadness in hearing Ray Stricklyn had died. One feels this consummate actor was cheated of stardom promised and rightfully his. Time after time stardom seemed within his grasp, time after time it eluded him. But not for lack of qualifications. He had everything needed, except maybe luck. In 1950 he made his Broadway debut in Moss Hart's The Climate of Eden, and his talent and almost angelic beauty earned him a Theatre World Award as most promising young actor. Arriving in Hollywood for a movie role in 1955, he was hailed as "the next Montgomery Clift," later as "the next James Dean." He was neither; he was himself, as good an actor as either, and it wasn't stardom he craved—it was life as an actor, doing the work, being acknowledged for it.

A writer writes, a painter paints, a musician composes, plays an instrument. An actor can't be an actor alone. Acting is communal. An actor needs a theatre, a play, an audience. The sensitivity and vulnerability that made Ray Stricklyn a consummate actor made him miserable when he wasn't acting. His first role was in kindergarten as Little Boy Blue, and he remained Little Boy Blue all his life, except when working in theatre. When acting, Ray was confident, assured, authoritative, vibrant. Too long off and, he revealed in his autobiography Angels and Demons, his demons of self-doubt, depression, frustration, despair beset him.

Angels and Demons—candid, courageous, gossipy, fascinating to read—wouldn't have been written if Ray's friend, neighbor, and former associate Kim Garfield hadn't bullied and cajoled him into mastering the computer to write his life story. Garfield arrived from New York in 1976 to work for publicist John Springer in his West Coast office headed by Stricklyn. Top movie star clients included Henry Fonda, Bette Davis, Robert Preston, Elizabeth Taylor. "We had more fun together working with crazy movie stars, but there was always this underlying sadness about Ray," Garfield recalled. "He deeply missed acting. Only when he got back onstage in the '80s did I see he could be happy. When illness made it impossible for him to act he became very depressed." His cigarette habit caused Ray's chronic emphysema. To dispel his deep depression, Garfield insisted he get busy and write his life story. "He was a dear friend for 26 years. I miss him deeply," she said.

So we can thank Garfield for Ray's autobiography, and Karen Kondazian for getting him back onstage after 20 years away. Kondazian, with the playwright's blessing, was producing Tennessee Williams' rarely staged Vieux Carré and knew Ray would be perfect as dying homosexual artist Rossignol, Williams' version of himself grown older. But Ray had lost all confidence. He protested, "I can't do it. I won't. I'm afraid." Kondazian persisted, "You can! You must! You will!" I interviewed Ray in 1999, and he told me, "I hadn't been in a show for so long I had completely lost all self-confidence. I had worked with José Quintero in New York; I needed his assurance that I was good enough. He reassured me." The L.A. Drama Critics Circle, L.A. Weekly, Drama-Logue, and Daily Variety critics assured him further with acting awards and cheered him on his way back to a revival of his acting career, which he accomplished gloriously with his creation, writing, and solo performance as Tennessee Williams in Confessions of a Nightingale. It became his crowning achievement, won every possible award, toured the U.S., Scotland, Israel, and played off and on for 10 years.

Before that, Ray scored a short-lived triumph in 1982 playing a gentle, decent man mourning the loss of his lover, whose exciting cat-and-mouse pas de deux with Nat Christian's razor-wielding demon lover ended in visual fireworks that linger. Its producer, Lee Melville, was responsible for Stricklyn's Naomi Court appearance. Melville had never forgotten Ray's performance in Compulsion at a small Hollywood theatre 45 years ago. Melville told me, "It was mesmerizing and it changed my life. If I had an idol in acting, Ray was it. It was thrilling to meet him later—and that he has been my dear friend for the past 25 years. He will be greatly missed and never forgotten."

Kondazian recalled introducing Ray each night in Confessions of a Nightingale as she had introduced Williams himself at performances of The Rose Tattoo in which she starred at the same Beverly Hills Playhouse: "I introduced Ray just as I had introduced Tennessee, and then Ray would saunter onstage in his rumpled white suit squinting at the audience in that delicious, naughty way he had."

Actor Michael Kearns eloquently expressed what I always had sensed in Ray: "There was a disquieting sadness about him, a universal heartache. He shared his demons with courage and skill, allowing the audience to feel less alone in this battle of being human. I think of Ray and I see that publicity photo of him as Tennessee Williams, knowing like Williams that his larger-than-life laugh was as much about tragedy as it was about comedy."

When grief is deepest, there is nothing to say. Garfield described partners Ray Stricklyn and David Galligan as "soul brothers." I have always seen Galligan as Ray's rock of Gibraltar. Galligan said, "As a Catholic boy growing up, I thought I'd be a saint. I wasn't. He was my best friend. We shared our work and shared our life. It's hard to put a 36-year relationship in a nutshell."

Hard and sad. That we'll never again see Ray as his uniquely personal, sweet-singing, quintessential Williams is more cause for sadness. But we read the last words in his Angels and Demons with a sense of message: "They say when you're dying that your whole life flashes before you. In attempting to put these words to paper, my life has certainly flashed before me…. Until that inevitable moment arrives, I will don my white suit one more time and let the nightingales sing…."