I don’t know what this first video is from, but it has to be within the last year because they mention the Broadway musical of King Kong. It’s a piece on the original movie that uses a lot of an old interview with Fay. I do recognize the announcer, Bill Kurtis who was a very popular TV news anchor in Chicago who then went on to do national work for CBS. And later became a host on several documentary TV series. (Fun note for perspective: I found out only a few years ago that he was close friends with my dad’s cousin -- and my second cousin -- Marion Elisberg Simon, who was sort of a doyenne of Arts, social programs, and Jewish community in Chicago, and he wrote an introduction to her autobiography a few years ago. She only just passed away last year at 99.)
I also came across this fascinating video from 1998, when Fay was 91. She had been invited to come to the Oscars, and host Billy Crystal goes down into the audience to talk to her. What's interesting is that she seems surprised that he's there, which seems unlikely since you wouldn't invite a 91-year old legend to the Oscars, plan to talk to her live, and not tell her. What's also possible, if not likely, is that they did indeed tell her, and at 91 she just got the stories conflated and thought they meant to only have her stand up and wave. The point here, though, is that this is a recipe for something going very, very wrong, live on TV, with a massive worldwide audience -- and yet Fay (although a bit flustered) is sharp, bright and utterly charming. And while every moment you think it's going to go kablooey, it never does. What leaps out too are the looks of joy and awe on the faces of all these major stars in the audience, because that's Fay Wray there, at 91. (By the way, that's her daughter Vicki sitting to her left, with short dark hair and wearing a sort of plaid jacket with black lapels.)
When I noted above that Fay was charming in the video, that shouldn't come as a surprise. From all I've ever heard from Vicki, and stories from others -- including a friend who waited tables years ago and she was a regular-- that she was incredibly charming. I got to meet Fay Wray once, when she was around 92. Her son-in-law David Rintels (who's a good friend of mine) brought her to an event I was at, and he introduced us. It was a very short conversation, but long enough to make me believe every lovely thing David and Vicki and others had told me about her. Incredibly sweet.
She lived to 96, and I remember David once saying that as long as festivals would invite Fay to appear with King Kong that Fay would stick around. What’s fascinating is that she also was a very good writer, and wrote several Broadway plays, including one with Sinclair Lewis who apparently fell in love with her and wanted to marry her, though she wasn’t interested. She did have a relationship though with Clifford Odets.
My favorite story about her is when David told me that the filmmaker Peter Jackson wanted to meet with her before he made his new version of King Kong. To put perspective on the story, Jackson had of course directed, co-written and produced the Lord of the Rings trilogy which together grossed about $3 billion, of which he got a solid royalty. And his absolute favorite film growing up was King Kong. So, he REALLY wanted to meet with Fay, who was 88 at the time. A lunch was set-up between the two, and afterwards David and Vicki asked how it went. “Oh, it was fine,’ she said, “he was a very nice young man. But I really don’t think I’ll be able to invest in his movie.” She’d thought that that was why Peter Jackson – who was SO rich at that point he could have funded the movie himself -- wanted to meet with her, to help finance the film. They explained her, no, he just wanted to meet with her because he was such an admirer.
He actually offered her a role in the movie, to play the lady at the end who says the famous like, “It was beauty that killed the beast,” but she said no. Her reasoning was that “I had made my ‘King Kong,’ and this is his.”
When I went to see the remake, I was wondering if he’d give a sort of thank you to her in the end credits, having met with him. So, I waited through the looooong credits, until they got to the scroll at the end of all the names he thanks. Dozens and dozens in a very long list (including her daughter Vicki) – and then, when the long scroll of names in small print passed by there then came one final credit. In massive letters that literally filled the entire screen –
Every time I tell that story, the pure generosity of it by Peter Jackson and his clear affection for her almost (honestly) brings me to tears.
Fay retired from acting after marrying Robert Riskin, but when he passed away much too early from a stroke, she came out of retirement and went back to work, doing a great deal of TV shows among other work. Eventually she retired again.-- but one last time she again came out of retirement in 1980, at the age of 73, to act in one last production. But there was a good reason for it. It was the acclaimed Hallmark Hall of Fame TV film Gideon's Trumpet with Henry Fonda based on the true-life landmark case that brought about the right of a defendant to counsel.whether or not it can be afforded. But that wasn't the reason she did the film -- it was because it was written and produced by David Rintels, her son-in-law, married to Vicki Riskin.
Here's her one scene, as Gideon's landlady. If you want to jump to her brief appearance, it comes at the 4:00 mark. By the way, that's her in the freeze-frame below.
Anyway, the memoir has been getting good reviews, including in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press. (The mere fact that any of them -- let alone all -- reviewed it is impressive enough to me, since publishers would kill to get a book reviewed in any such a major publication.) The Post review oddly doesn’t talk about the book much, but more about the lives of Fay Wray and Robert Riskin. But it does end with this, saying: “Researching and writing this book has given Victoria Riskin — and her readers — two related pleasures: getting to know the man who championed the little guy on film and remembering the woman who screamed life into a Fay Wray doll.”
And here's a very nice Q&A that the Los Angeles Times did with Vicki just the other day. You can read it here.