Ray was born Aldo Da Re in Pen Argyl in Northampton County in eastern Pennsylvania, to an Italian family with five brothers (Mario, Guido, Dante, Dino and Louis) and one sister (Regina). (His brother, Mario Da Re (1933–2010), lettered in football at USC in the years 1952 to 1954, and on May 12, 1955 appeared as a contestant on the NBC quiz show You Bet Your Life hosted by Groucho Marx.) His family moved to the small town of Crockett in northern California when Aldo was four years old; his father worked as a laborer at the C & H Sugar Refinery, the largest employer in the town. He attended John Swett High School, where he made the football team; he also coached swimming.
In 1944, at age 18, during World War II, Aldo entered the United States Navy, serving as a frogman until 1946; he saw action at Okinawa with UDT-17. Upon leaving the Navy in May 1946 he returned to Crockett. He studied and played football at Vallejo Junior College, then entered the University of California at Berkeley to study political science. (Ray later described himself as an "arch conservative" and a "right winger".) He left college in order to run for the office of Constable of the Crockett Judicial District in Contra Costa County California. "I always knew I was going to be a big man but I thought it was going to be in politics", he said.
In April 1950 Columbia Studios sent a unit to San Francisco to look for some athletes to appear in a film they were making called Saturday's Hero (1951). Aldo's brother Guido saw an item on the San Francisco Chronicle about the auditions and asked his brother to drive him there. Director David Miller was more interested in Ray than his brother because of his voice; also, Ray was comfortable talking to the camera due to his political experience. He later recalled, "They...said 'What's wrong with your voice kid? Are you sick? If you're sick you don't belong here.' I said, 'No, no, no, this is the way I've always spoken.' And they loved it." Ray would later retell this story in the trailer for Pat and Mike.
Ray signed a contract and was sent to Los Angeles for a screen test. He was cast in the small role of a cynical college football player opposite John Derek and Donna Reed.
Ray worked on the film between the primary and general elections. He was elected constable on 6 June. "I was 23 and a sort of child bride to the voters", he later said. "The guy I ran against was a 16-year incumbent, and I destroyed him with 80 percent of the vote! I was going to work my way up to the U.S. Senate, see, and I would've, too."
Columbia picked up their option on Ray's services, and signed him to a seven-year contract. "Of all the people in the picture they took up only one option – mine", he said. "And I said, 'thank you, good bye. I'm going home where I can be a big fish in my small pond. You can take this town (Hollywood) and shove it."
Columbia refused to release him from his contract and put him under suspension, giving him a leave of absence to work as constable. "I told them I couldn't care less, they could give me whatever they wanted", he said. Ray started his new job in November 1950.
After several months Ray found "the quiet life... monotonous", so he contacted Max Arnow, talent director at Columbia, and expressed interest in appearing in more movies. Four weeks later Arnow called back, saying Columbia wanted to audition Ray for a small part in Judy Holliday's new movie, The Marrying Kind.
Ray went to Hollywood and did a screen test with the director, George Cukor. The first test went badly but head of Columbia Harry Cohn liked Ray and asked for another test. The second one was done opposite Jeff Donnell, who Ray later married; it was more successful and Ray ended up being cast in the lead.
Harry Cohn felt the name "Aldo Da Re" was too close to "Dare" and wanted to change it to "John Harrison"; the actor refused and "Aldo Ray" was the compromise. He divorced his wife and resigned as constable in September 1951. His wage was $200 a week.
Cukor famously suggested that Ray go to ballet school because he walked too much like a football player. The director later talked about the actor:
He has a great advantage: the way his eyes are made. The light comes into them. There are certain people who have opaque eyes which refuse to catch the light. But his eyes had a certain glow and gave quite well in the photographed result. He did this silent scene very well lying there on the bed in the same room with Judy (Holliday). Then later he did comedy scenes with her–very difficult ones–and there were also emotional sequences where he broke down and cried. They were brilliant.
"Cukor is hypersensitive to reality", recalled Ray. "He told me exactly what to do and why. He explains everything and he knows exactly what he wants." Ray's performance was much praised. Sight and Sound later wrote:
To give the performance he did in The Marrying Kind after so little previous experience was clear evidence that in Aldo Ray the screen had discovered one of its rare "naturals". This was no carefully edited, tricked out performance, but a strikingly sincere and imaginative interpretation: an exceptional talent responding to a finely intuitive director... There was about him none of the personality assurance that extracts a special consideration of the actor as distinct from his role.
Cukor then cast Ray in a support role in Pat and Mike, starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Ray's work in Pat and Mike led to his nomination, along with Richard Burton and Robert Wagner, for a Golden Globe as Best Newcomer. Burton won the award that year, but Ray's career was launched. He says after two films with Cukor "I never needed direction again."
Ray said Spencer Tracy told him, "'Kid, I don't know what it is that you got, and I got, and some of us have, but you can work in this business forever.' That made me feel good, you know, coming from a guy like him. I never bowed down to anybody at Columbia or anywhere else, but my overall idea was, I'll do whatever they tell me because it's their business, not mine, and I've got to learn it."
Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn liked Ray and wanted him for the role of Private Robert Prewitt in From Here to Eternity (1953) but Fred Zinnemann insisted Montgomery Clift be cast. However other good roles followed instead. ""Because of Harry, all my first pictures were big hits, tremendously popular", Ray recalled.
In 1953, he starred opposite Jane Wyman in Let's Do It Again, then followed this acting opposite Rita Hayworth in Miss Sadie Thompson (1953), a remake of the W. Somerset Maugham story Rain. He also appeared in a production of Stalag 17 at La Jolla Playhouse.
Ray was loaned to Warner Bros to appear in Battle Cry (1955). This was directed by Raoul Walsh who would be one of Ray's favourite directors. The film was a big hit at the box office – probably the most popular movie Ray ever made – although it led to him being typecast.
"In some ways the tough soldier role locked me in", reflected Ray later. "There were no sophisticated roles for me. I never seemed to get past master sergeant, though I always thought of myself as upper echelon."
Ray was meant to appear in My Sister Eileen as The Wreck but walked off the set claiming his role was too small, and had to be replaced by Dick York.
Battle Cry was a big hit at the box office so Columbia gave Ray a lead role as a sergeant who marries a Japanese girl in Three Stripes in the Sun (originally The Gentle Wolfhound), then loaned him to Paramount for We're No Angels (1955), in which he starred with Humphrey Bogart, Peter Ustinov, Basil Rathbone, Leo G. Carroll, and Joan Bennett.
Ray was profiled in Sight and Sound which said:
Aldo Ray's technical advance in the four years since The Marrying Kind enables him now to work in subtler, more economical degree; there is an authoritative reserve- and, still remarkably intact, the original rare lack of ostentation. All the same, his career seems to have become a nomadic drifting round the studios looking for the right kind of film. The good humour, the lenitive smile, the frog in the throat voice betray nothing of the disappointment the actor must feel after such exciting beginnings under Cukor's guidance.
Ray was meant to appear in Jubal but refused, because Columbia had made a profit on his loan outs for Battle Cry and We're No Angels but not paid Ray a bonus; Rod Steiger took the role instead. Ray was put on suspension.
Ray then refused to appear in Beyond Mombassa because he did not want to go on location. This led to him being replaced by Cornel Wilde and put under suspension again. However the situation was resolved when he agreed to make Nightfall (1957), playing an artist who encounters a pair of ruthless bank robbers.
In 1956, in between appearances in Three Stripes In The Sun and Men in War, Ray tried his hand at radio, working as a personality and announcer at Syracuse, New York hit music station WNDR. A photo of Ray with a colleague in the WNDR studios, taken as part of a station promotional package, survives and can be found on a WNDR tribute website, although it's not known if any aircheck tapes of his radio shows still exist. By 1957, in any event, he had left WNDR and the radio business and returned to Hollywood.
On January 31, 1957, Ray appeared on NBC's The Ford Show, Starring Tennessee Ernie Ford. He and Tennessee Ernie Ford did a comedy skit from a foxhole.
Columbia loaned out Ray to Security Pictures (who released through United Artists) to appear in Men in War (1957), opposite Robert Ryan; it was directed by Anthony Mann, who became Ray's favourite director. Ray was given 5% of the profits which he later estimated at having earned him $70,000.
Ray was reunited with Security Pictures, Ryan and Mann to star in God's Little Acre (1958), an adaptation of Erskine Caldwell's controversial novel directed by Mann, starring Robert Ryan and Tina Louise.
By the seventh year of his contract with Columbia Ray was earning $750 a week. He later said for the first ten years of his career he made less than $100,000. He expressed interest in producing his own vehicle, The Magic Mesa from a script by Burt Kennedy, but it was not made.
Instead Ray appeared in The Naked and the Dead, an adaptation of Norman Mailer's novel, directed by Raoul Walsh. It was produced by Paul Gregory who said:
Aldo Ray was drunk the entire time. He was a very sweet guy, but he was gone. He drank drank drank. Raoul Walsh would say, "Let's get him in the morning cause in the afternoon it's over."... I just could not get used to it, actors who got all this money and then didn't behave professionally. The English actors have classical training. They perform like professionals. You take someone like Aldo Ray who was just picked up and catapulted into stardom, and then he was just a sponge for booze. He killed himself drinking, not living up to his moral contract.
Ray later admitted producers were scared off casting him in projects due to his drinking.
Ray had been popular with Harry Cohn because, in the actor's words, "He took no shit from anybody and he saw that I was that kind of a guy, too." But when Cohn died in 1958, Columbia elected not to renew Ray's contract and he decided to leave Hollywood. He later said "I never was an expatriate. I spent some time in England and Spain and Italy but I was never out of this country [the US] longer than six months."
He starred in 1959 in Four Desperate Men (The Siege of Pinchgut), filmed in Australia; it was the last movie produced by Ealing Studios (releasing through MGM), and a box office disappointment. He then appeared opposite Lucille Ball in an episode of Desilu Playhouse. He said he made more money from these two projects "than I'd made the whole eight years before."
In 1959, Ray was cast as Hunk Farber in the episode, "Payment in Full" of the NBC western series, Riverboat. In the story line, Farber betrays his friend and employer to collect reward money, which he uses to court his girlfriend, Missy.
Ray made The Day They Robbed the Bank of England in England and Johnny Nobody in Ireland. He later described his British sojourn as a "big mistake" because none of his British films were widely seen in America.
"Everything went well until the end of '62 – then everything collapsed – including me", he later said. "I didn't take care of myself physically and mentally."
He hired a press agent, started taking better care of himself physically and changed agents.
Ray returned to Hollywood in 1964. He had a small role in Sylvia (1965) and made a pilot for a TV series financed by Joe E. Levine, Steptoe and Son (an unsuccessful adaptation of the British TV series). "I feel I shall have a complete regeneration of my career", he said in 1965.
He later appeared in What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?, Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round and Welcome to Hard Times. He also made several guest appearances on television.
In 1966 Ray claimed that "I've been turning down a lot of TV and B movies. I won't consider anything but important roles in important pictures." He said he was "almost independently wealthy" having saved and invested wisely in real estate from the times when his fee was $100,000 a film. He was interested in returning to politics but not until he had made "at least" four more movies. "The ideal situation would be three films every two years."
He formed his own company, Crockett Productions, and bought two original scripts that were not made: Soldares, by Edwin Gottlieb, about the search for Pancho Villa; and Frogman, South Pacific, by William Zeck.
His best-known work of the 1960s was his portrayal of Sergeant Muldoon, alongside John Wayne, in The Green Berets (1968).
Ray starred in Kill a Dragon shot in Hong Kong in 1966 and Suicide Commando shot in Rome and Spain in 1968. He also made two television pilots in the 1960s; neither was picked up.
As the 1960s ended, Hollywood's appetite for Ray's machismo started to wane. Though he worked steadily in the 1970s, the quality of his roles diminished, and he was typically cast as gruff and gravelly rednecks.
In 1976 he said he was broke. He blamed this on his ex-wives and red tape that meant he could not develop his real estate properties. "I lost it all", he said. "And I am very very bitter about it.... The biggest mistake I ever made was discovering women. I only wish society had been as free and easy when I was coming along as it is today because if that had been the case I wouldn't have been married. Three women in my life utterly destroyed me."
In 1979, Ray appeared in a pornographic movie, Sweet Savage, in a non-sexual role. Ray said later:
I wanted, I guess, to see what it was all about--a kind of half-assed adventure, you know? It was also a kind of vacation for me in a bad time--a nice location in Arizona--and I picked up a few thousand bucks. After it came out, a few people wagged their fingers at me--'Oh-ho-ho, you dirty dog'--but I knew I hadn't done anything wrong. They shot all the sex stuff after I'd flown back to L.A. I won the adult film Oscar for that, by the way, but somebody copped it.
In 1981 Ray told a newspaper that his drinking was "under control" and "I think things are going to shoot straight up. I'm working on a deal now and if the picture is made my worries... are over... If things go the way I anticipate and I stay healthy I think I've got better years ahead of me than behind me." He said he was open to a return to politics "if my movie career doesn't take off like I think it will." He admitted being unhappy with his career saying "I think I should have gotten more good stuff."
His career decline accelerated in the 1980s, and after being diagnosed with throat cancer, he accepted virtually any role that came his way to maintain his costly health insurance. He returned to Crockett in 1983.
Ray was originally cast in the role of Gurney Halleck in David Lynch's 1984 adaptation of Frank Herbert's novel Dune, but was replaced by Patrick Stewart due to ongoing issues with alcoholism.
He made a number of films for Fred Olen Ray. "He'd give me $1000 in cash, pay my expenses, and I'd do a day's work", said Ray. "Somebody showed me one of his cassettes--'starring Aldo Ray'--but it was just a one-day job.... I needed money at the time, and Fred knew I needed a buck, so I did it. He exploited me, yeah, but I was ripe for it."
In 1986 Ray's SAG membership was revoked when it was discovered he was acting in a non-union production, Lethal Injection. However Ray still got his union pension and benefits. His fee at this stage was $5,000 a week.
In 1989 he was diagnosed with a malignant tumor.
His last film was Shock 'Em Dead which was filmed in 1990 appearing with Traci Lords and Troy Donahue. The same year he was interviewed and said:
I regret that I don't have more control of my tongue and thoughts--because I speak too frankly and too honestly, and this world is not meant for frank and honest people. They don't mix. Reality is pretty phony... I'm in great shape--got all my energy and strength back. I had surgery on my neck last March, and after one more session of the chemo--that's 50 more hours--the doctors say I'll have it all beat. . .I'm not scared of dying--it's how I die that matters. I'd rather live one good year than ten crappy years. And I think I've got some good pictures ahead of me if I can find the right roles. There's plenty of good stuff left in me, you know?
Ray remained in Crockett, with his mother and family and friends. On 19 February 1991 he was admitted to the Veterans Administration Hospital in Martinez, 40 miles east of San Francisco. He died of complications from throat cancer and pneumonia on 27 March. He was cremated and buried in Crockett, with a majority of the residents coming out to pay their respects.
Ray was married several times:Shirley Green. They had one child, a daughter named Claire.
Jeff (real name, Jean) Donnell (married 30 September 1954, divorced 1956)
British actress Johanna Bennet (married 1960, divorced 1967), who continues to work today under the name Johanna Ray, as a respected casting director. They had two sons and a daughter. Johanna Ray, a longtime collaborator with David Lynch, cast her son Eric Da Re with Aldo in Lynch's Twin Peaks series, as well as the movie Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me.
Author Richard Matheson said that his best-known work, The Incredible Shrinking Man, was inspired by a scene in Aldo Ray's Let's Do It Again in which a character puts on someone else's hat and it sinks down past his ears; "I thought, what if a man put on his own hat and that happened?" he recounted in an interview for Stephen King's non fiction work Danse Macabre.
Quentin Tarantino says Aldo Ray would have been ideal casting for the character of Butch in Pulp Fiction (1994), and the look of Butch in the film (as played by Bruce Willis) was inspired by Ray.
Brad Pitt's character in writer-director Quentin Tarantino's 2009 war film Inglourious Basterds is a soldier named "Aldo Raine."
The Crockett Museum has a display depicting his life.
A profile in Movie Morlocks analysed Ray's appeal from the film Nightfall:
Nobody smokes a cigarette like Aldo Ray. There's no forethought involved. No effort to seduce or impress audiences with an exaggerated pose or gesture. Ray doesn’t have to pretend to be cool, threatening, bruised, battered or tough. He just is. And I find every unassuming gesture he makes utterly captivating. Aldo Ray has never been considered a great Hollywood actor in the traditional sense but his natural, unaffected performances often seemed to emerge from some unsettled place. You could frequently hear a genuine urgency in way he delivered his lines and his casual swagger told you he’d been around the block more than once. Whenever Ray erupted on screen it felt like you were watching a volcano explode and if you didn’t get out of the way it could easily swallow you up in a heavy flow of golden molten lava. Film historians often like to talk about the sea change that occurred in the 1950s, when actor's like Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando brought a new kind of sincerity to Hollywood. These highly trained method actors changed the way we appreciate and understand acting today and they’ve rightfully been recognized for their accomplishments. But there were other performers that unconsciously championed a new kind of natural approach to acting. And one of them was Aldo Ray.