After appearing in minor movie roles, Wray gained media attention being selected as one of the "WAMPAS Baby Stars". This led to her being contracted to Paramount Pictures as a teenager, where she made more than a dozen movies. After leaving Paramount, she signed deals with various film companies, being cast in her first horror film roles among many other types of roles, including in The Bowery (1933) and Viva Villa (1934), both huge productions starring Wallace Beery. For RKO Radio Pictures, Inc., she starred in the film with which she is most identified, King Kong (1933). After the success of King Kong, Wray made numerous appearances in both film and television before retiring in 1980.
Wray was born on a ranch near Cardston in the province of Alberta, Canada, to Mormon parents, Elvina Marguerite Jones, who was from Salt Lake City, Utah, and Joseph Heber Wray, who was from Kingston upon Hull, England. She was one of six children and was a granddaughter of Daniel Webster Jones. Wray was never a Mormon herself.
Her family returned to the United States a few years after she was born; they moved to Salt Lake City in 1912 and moved to Lark, Utah in 1914. In 1919, the Wray family returned to Salt Lake City, and then relocated to Hollywood, where Fay attended Hollywood High School.
In 1923, Wray appeared in her first film at the age of 16, 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, the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers selected Wray as one of the "WAMPAS Baby Stars", a group of women whom they believed to be on the threshold of movie stardom. She was at the time under contract to Universal Studios, mostly co-starring in low-budget Westerns opposite Buck Jones.
The following year, 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 by Paramount. While the film was noted for its high budget and production values, it was a financial failure, but 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.
After leaving Paramount, Wray signed to various film companies. Under these deals, 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 preproduction 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 ($200,000 in 2016 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, including The Richest Girl in the World, a second film with Joel McCrea, but by the early 1940s, her appearances became less frequent. She retired from acting in 1942 after her second marriage but due to financial exigencies soon resumed her acting career, and over the next three decades, Wray appeared in several film roles and also frequently on television. Wray was cast in the 1953-54 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. In 1955, Wray appeared with fellow WAPMAS Baby Star, Joan Crawford in Queen Bee.
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 1959, Wray was cast as Tula Marsh in the episode "The Second Happiest Day" of the CBS anthology series Playhouse 90. Other roles around this time were in the episodes "Dip in the Pool" and "The Morning After" of CBS's Alfred Hitchcock Presents. In 1960, she appeared as Clara in an episode of 77 Sunset Strip, "Who Killed Cock Robin?". Another 1960 role was that of Mrs. Staunton, with Gigi Perreau as her daughter, in the episode "Flight from Terror" of the ABC adventure series, The Islanders.
Wray appeared in a 1961 episode of The Real McCoys titled "Theatre in the Barn". In 1963, she played Mrs. Brubaker in the episode "You're So Smart, Why Can't You Be Good?" of the NBC medical drama about psychiatry, The Eleventh Hour. In 1965, she played voodoo practitioner Mignon Germaine in "The Case of the Fatal Fetish". 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. In 1991, she was crowned Queen of the Beaux Arts Ball presiding with King Herbert Huncke.
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 (with fellow 1930's actress Gloria Stuart winning an award, while male contemporaries Bob Hope and Milton Berle, with Sid Caesar were present).On October 3, 1998, she appeared at the Pine Bluff Film Festival, which showed "The Wedding March" (with live orchestral accompaniment).
In January 2003, the 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 married three times – to writers John Monk Saunders and Robert Riskin and the neurosurgeon 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 declared 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, a month before her 97th birthday. 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." 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 1989, Wray was awarded the Women in Film Crystal Award. Wray was honored with a "Legend in Film" award at the 2003 Palm Beach International Film Festival. For her contribution to the motion picture industry, Wray was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6349 Hollywood Blvd. She received a star posthumously on Canada's Walk of Fame in Toronto on June 5, 2005. A small park near Lee's Creek on Main Street in Cardston, Alberta, her birthplace, was named Fay Wray Park in her honour. The small sign at the edge of the park on Main Street has a silhouette of King Kong on it, remembering her role in the film King Kong. A large oil portrait of Wray by Alberta artist Neil Boyle is on display in the Empress Theatre in Fort Macleod, Alberta. In May 2006, Wray became one of the first four entertainers to ever be honored by Canada Post by being featured on a postage stamp.