Wray was born on a ranch near Cardston in the province of Alberta, Canada, to two Mormons, Elvina Marguerite Jones, who was from Salt Lake City, and Joseph Heber Wray, who was from Kingston upon Hull, England. She was one of six children. Her family returned to the United States a few years after she was born; they moved to Salt Lake City in 1912 and moved in 1914 to Lark, Utah. In 1919, the Wrays returned to Salt Lake City again and then relocated to Hollywood, California, where Fay attended Hollywood High School.
Early acting career
In 1923, Wray appeared in her first film at the age of sixteen, when she landed a role in a short historical film sponsored by a local newspaper.In the 1920s, Wray landed a major role in the silent film The Coast Patrol (1925), as well as uncredited bit parts at the Hal Roach Studios.
In 1926, American film association, the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers, selected Wray as one of the "WAMPAS Baby Stars", a group of women who they believed to be on the threshold of movie stardom. She was currently under contract to Universal Studios, mostly co-starring in low budget westerns opposite Buck Jones.
The following year in 1927, Wray was signed to a contract with Paramount Pictures In 1928, director Erich von Stroheim cast her as the main female lead in his film The Wedding March, released under Paramount, a film noted for its high budget and production values. It was a financial failure, but it gave Wray her first lead role. Wray stayed with Paramount to make more than a dozen films and to make the transition from silent films to "talkie" films.
Horror films and King Kong
After leaving Paramount, Wray signed to various film companies. It was under these deals that Wray was cast in various horror films, including Doctor X. However, her greatest known films were produced under her deal with RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.. Her first film under RKO was The Most Dangerous Game (1932), co-starring Joel McCrea and shot at night on the same jungle sets that were being used for King Kong during the day, with the leads from both films, Wray and Robert Armstrong, appearing in both movies.
The Most Dangerous Game was followed by Wray's most memorable film, King Kong. According to Wray, Jean Harlow had been RKO's original choice, but because MGM put Harlow under exclusive contract during the pre-production phase of the film, she became unavailable and Wray was approached by director Merian C. Cooper to play the role of Ann Darrow, the blonde captive of King Kong. Wray was paid $10,000 dollars to play the role. The film was a commercial success. Wray was reportedly proud that the film saved RKO from bankruptcy. Wray's role would become the one with which she would be most associated.
She continued to star in various films, but by the early 1940s, her appearances became less frequent. She retired from acting in 1942, after her second marriage. However, due to financial exigencies she continued in her acting career, and over the next three decades, Wray appeared in certain film roles and also frequently on television.
Wray was cast in the 1953-1954 ABC situation comedy, The Pride of the Family, as Catherine Morrison. Paul Hartman played her husband, Albie Morrison. Natalie Wood and Robert Hyatt played their children, Ann and Junior Morrison, respectively.
Wray appeared in three episodes of CBS's courtroom drama, Perry Mason, the first of which was "The Case Of The Prodigal Parent" (Episode 1-36) aired June 7, 1958. In 1959, she portrayed murder victim Lorna Thomas in "The Case of the Watery Witness." In 1965, she played voodooist Mignon Germaine in "The Case of the Fatal Fetish."
In 1959, Wray was cast as Tula Marsh in the episode "The Second Happiest Day" of the CBS anthology series Playhouse 90. Another 1959 role was in the episode "The Morning After" of CBS's Alfred Hitchcock Presents. In 1960, she appeared as Clara in the episode "Who Killed Cock Robin?" of the ABC/Warner Brothers detective series 77 Sunset Strip. Another 1960 role was that of Mrs. Staunton, with Gigi Perreau as her daughter, Julie, in the episode "Flight from Terror" of the ABC adventure series, The Islanders, set in theSouth Pacific and starring Diane Brewster.
In 1963, she played Mrs. Brubaker in the episode "You're So Smart, Why Can't You Be Good?" episode of the NBC medical drama about psychiatry, The Eleventh Hour. She ended her acting career in the 1980 made-for-television film, Gideon's Trumpet.
In 1988, she published her autobiography, On the Other Hand. In her later years, Wray continued to make public appearances. She was approached by James Cameron to play the part of "Rose Dawson Calvert" for his 1997 blockbuster Titanic with Kate Winslet to play her younger self, but she turned down the role and the part of Rose was given to Gloria Stuart. She was a special guest at the 70th Academy Awards, where the show's host, Billy Crystal, introduced her as the "Beauty who charmed the Beast". She was the only 1920s Hollywood actress in attendance that evening. On Oct. 3, 1998, she appeared at the Pine Bluff Film Festival, which showed "The Wedding March" (with live orchestral accompaniment). In January 2003, a 95-year old Wray appeared at the 2003 Palm Beach International Film Festival to celebrate the Rick McKay documentary film Broadway: The Golden Age, by the Legends Who Were There, where she was also honored with a "Legend in Film" award. In her later years, she also visited the Empire State Building frequently, once visiting in 1991 as a guest of honor at the building's 60th anniversary, and also in May 2004, which was among her last public appearances. Her final public appearance was at an after-party at the Sardi's restaurant in New York City, following the premiere of the documentary film Broadway: The Golden Age, by the Legends Who Were There.
Wray was married three times – to the writers John Monk Saunders and Robert Riskin and to the neurosurgeon, Dr. Sanford Rothenberg (January 28, 1919 – January 4, 1991).
She had three children: Susan Saunders, Victoria Riskin, and Robert Riskin, Jr. She became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1933.
In her autobiography On The Other Hand: A Life Story she declares herself a Republican.
In 2004, Wray was approached by director Peter Jackson to appear in a small cameo for the 2005 remake of King Kong. She met with Naomi Watts, who was to play the role of Ann Darrow. She politely declined the cameo, and claimed the original "Kong" to be the true "King". Before filming of the remake commenced, Wray died in her sleep of natural causes on August 8, 2004, in her Manhattan apartment. Her friend Rick McKay said that "she just kind of drifted off quietly as if she was going to sleep... she just kind of gave out." She was 96 years old. Wray is interred at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood, California.
Two days after her death, the lights of the Empire State Building were extinguished for 15 minutes in her memory.
In the 2005 film, Carl Denham (Jack Black) mentions he hired Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) "because Fay was unavailable".