First impressions are everything in show business and Gene Anthony Ray knew how to make an indelible one. In his introductory scene as Leroy Johnson (check out the clip below), a street-smart, rebellious dance prodigy in Fame, Alan Parker’s gritty Oscar-winning 1980 musical about students at a performing arts school, Ray effortlessly stole the focus from a female friend he was helping audition. Clad in barely-there satin shorts and a sleeveless shirt pulled behind his head to accentuate his flawless torso, Ray electrified audiences with his sultry dancing. “What do you call that?” a teacher asks the instructor played by Debbie Allen as they take in Leroy’s suggestive moves. Allen, no slouch on the dance floor herself, instinctively replied, “Wicked!” Movie viewers couldn’t help but agree.
The time was right for someone like Gene Anthony Ray to take his place in the spotlight. It was the spring of 1980 when Fame was released to movie theaters. Disco was dead. MTV was yet to be born. Off The Wall, Michael Jackson’s smash R&B album, still ruled the music charts. A series of films, such as Saturday Night Fever, Grease and All That Jazz, which showcased dazzling dance numbers, had been surprise hits at the box office. Audiences were now ready for something to fuse the edgier and slick elements. They wanted someone with some mean street strut in his step. Seventeen-year-old Ray filled the bill with ease.
Although Ray would often maintain that he wasn’t a real-life Leroy (insisting that he was neither antisocial nor illiterate like the character — “I enjoy reading!” he’d occasionally exclaim during interviews), both used their incredible charisma, raw talent and innate dancing ability to escape from a troubled family life in Harlem. Ray honed his fancy footwork at neighborhood block parties. He claimed to win every contest he entered as a kid and he entered every contest he could find — even winning the award as the best male disco dancer at New York’s famed Roseland Ballroom.
As a young teen, Ray had even attended the real-life performing arts school depicted in the film, although he was expelled during his first year. In a 2003 cast reunion interview, he confessed he was kicked out due to his mouth and bad attitude toward authority figures. In the same interview Allen, who’d developed an almost familial relationship with Ray while making the movie, described him as “an amazing ball of energy and fire who was sweet and sour at the same time.” She also claimed Ray had slapped one of his teachers at the school. Still, rebelliousness often translates well to the screen, and Ray’s made him a relatable character to legions of impressionable young people.
Along with Allen and two other actors from the film, Ray was asked to reprise his character in the television series in 1982. Although it struggled for ratings in the U.S., the small-screen version of Fame became a bona-fide phenomenon in Europe and was produced for six seasons and the cast performed in concerts to adoring, screaming crowds. Ray not only emerged as the sex symbol of Fame, but his face became synonymous with the series. His appeal was so strong that he was forced to hire two secretaries to handle the voluminous fan mail he received — reportedly 17,000 letters each day at one point. With his doleful eyes, photogenic features and chiseled, Adonis-like physique, Ray was naturally a popular subject with fan magazines read predominantly by females, but he always deflected questions about his sexual orientation.
The 1980s, when the AIDS pandemic was written about in terms befitting a horror movie, was a more challenging time to be out to the general public, of course. It was veritable career suicide. Among friends, though, Ray was completely open about his sexuality. During interviews conducted at this time, Ray seemed guarded about some aspects of his private life and often butched it up in front of the camera. Later his flair for camp became more apparent, his gestures became more flamboyant, he rolled his eyes more frequently, and seemed to always be on the lookout for a quick joke to deflate tension. During the height of his career, when questioned about his love life, Ray always maintained that due to his exhausting work schedule he only had time for one woman — his mom Jean.
His mother would prove to be a catalyst in both his life and his career. In 1983 a house he’d purchased for his family in a predominantly Caucasian neighborhood in rural New York was set on fire four times while Ray wasn’t home in what was suspected to be racially-motivated arson. The same year it was widely reported that Jean, along with her own mother, was arrested in a major drug sting for selling cocaine and heroin — even on the set of Fame, although Ray wasn’t implicated. The bond between son and mother was unimpeachable. Despite the humiliation, Ray remained loyal and attended Jean’s court hearings until she was eventually sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Another female he became close to at this time was Marguerite Derricks (for clarity’s sake, that’s not her above but Antonia Franceschi, another Fame costar), a beguiling, energetic blonde, who joined Fame as a dance student during its second season. She and Ray were fast friends and, as she recalls, he immediately defended her against petty jealousy when she was first cast on the series.
“The dancers were rather bitchy when I first joined because it was very much like a real high school and I was the new kid,” Derricks, now an award-winning choreographer for films such as Showgirls and the 2009 remake of Fame, shared in a recent interview. “They were whispering behind my back, ‘We don’t need her.’ Gene Anthony walked in the room and immediately saw what was going on and put his arm around me. He said, ‘Y’all are just some tired bitches!’ We became really great friends. I later became friends with all the dancers, but he was always my protector. He was louder than anyone could be, but he had the biggest heart in the world. He was really wonderful.”
Derricks also admired the close relationship Ray had established with Debbie Allen.
“He and Debbie would get on the dance floor and it was magical,” she shares. “Their relationship was magical. They loved each other very much. She took care of him like a big sister and loved him and protected him. He really looked up to her.”
In an interview conducted after his death, Allen recalled Ray’s mischievous, sometimes temperamental nature when he grabbed her ass while she was singing. After she scolded him, he was so hurt that he destroyed a dressing room.
Ray could not only dance lighter than air (Fame choreographer Louis Falco compared Ray to a young Fred Astaire) and kick higher than most female dancers, he could also out-party the rest of his cast members and friends. Immense fame comes at a cost, particularly when you’re young and making money beyond your wildest dreams and the entire world is kissing your ass and buying you one more round of cocktails or offering another bump of coke. Although he appeared in all six seasons of Fame, Ray’s drinking and drug use escalated and he was eventually suspended for a time after missing nearly 100 days of shooting.
Derricks makes it clear that when Ray was on set, he was 100 percent present and hard-working.
“When he walked into a room not only would the light shine but the room would shake,” she recalls. “I’ve never met someone who was so charismatic. It was just natural. Everyone wanted to be around him. He was funnier than anybody. He’d make up raps sometimes to songs. He was quick-witted. He was a natural dancer. He was naturally great at everything. I trained really hard to do what I do. For Gene, he could just look at something and do it better than anybody else.”
Yet it wasn’t always easy being so identified with Leroy Johnson. Following the cancellation of the series in 1987, Ray’s professional life became a long series of failed opportunities. An appearance in a Weather Girls music video didn’t lead to much. He landed a role in the highly-anticipated musical adaptation of Carrie in London and received respectful reviews in the part played by John Travolta in the 1976 film. Unfortunately, the show became infamous as one of theater’s most notorious short-lived flops. He even performed on cruise ships, which must have seemed a world away from his TV star heyday. He’d get cast in an occasional TV commercial or land a cameo in a film, but substantial employment proved elusive.
During this period, it becomes challenging to sort out the factual details of Ray’s life because he was often off the radar. He headlined a show at Glam Slam, a Los Angeles nightclub owned by Prince, embarked on a European dance tour and later tried unsuccessfully to launch a Fame-style dance company in Milan, Italy. His partying continued unabated, though, and he blew through his savings. In Milan, Ray was arrested for stealing a bottle of wine from a supermarket to attack a couple of men who were harassing him, although the charges were dropped. There were even reports he sometimes slept on park benches.
Friends who knew Ray when he lived in Los Angeles in the early ’90s, but who asked to remain anonymous for this article, shared wildly different opinions of him. One man who knew him from West Hollywood bars remembered he was friendly and always offered a smile but was rarely sober. Another man who knew Ray on a more intimate basis noted that he could become arrogant when drunk or using drugs and was mostly unpleasant during the time the two were acquainted. As Debbie Allen said, Ray was a mixture of sweet and sour at the same time.
In 1993 the British press ran a series of sensational newspaper headlines saying that Ray was dying of AIDS, even though he didn’t test positive for HIV until later. In an interview in 1994, Ray admitted the rumors hurt, especially when old friends told him they were shocked to learn he was still alive. Ray said he was cautious about denying the stories out of respect for his friends who really were suffering with HIV/AIDS.
When he did test positive in 1996, Derricks was the first person Ray called.
“We were on the phone for hours, just crying,” she recalls. However, the next day he rang her again to tell her the diagnosis was a mistake. Unsure of the exact reason, Derricks stops short of speculating that Ray didn’t want to become an emotional burden.
“We had seen so many of our friends from that time die,” she adds. “It was a really, really difficult time. It felt like every other week we were going to the hospital to visit our friends.”
A camera crew from entertainment channel E! caught up with Ray in Italy in 2002 as he posted flyers for a male stripper review he was headlining under the stage name “Leroy Johnson.” So much for trying to maintain a distance from his Fame character. Ray needed to make a living. The interview is very unsettling. He appeared gaunt, unfocused and is almost unrecognizable, claiming someone had just punched him in the face.
In still another on-camera interview conducted the next year, Ray looked healthier and more robust and noted the fickleness of fame. “Just as quick as you had it, it can go and it’s much more harmful than never having had it before.”
Interviewed in 2003 for supplemental materials (above) for Fame’s DVD release, Ray acknowledged his influence on a generation of musical theater performers. “If your work, what you’ve done has inspired somebody to do well and do something positive in this crazy world today, it’s worth it,” he stated. “I’ll do it again.”
Sadly, he’d be dead within a year at age 41.
Like many of his friends Derricks was surprised when Ray died following what was reported as complications from a stroke. She reveals that he did become quite ill from time to time but seemed to always recuperate. “He was in a hospice and was really, really sick and I went to visit him every day and then he was fine,” she remembers. “He always bounced back.”
Allen was also shocked at Ray’s young demise. She wiped away tears as she remembered a phone call she received from his mother, who’d been released from prison in 1999, telling her this was her last opportunity to speak to her friend, that he probably wouldn’t live through the night. She’d soon find herself rushing to New York to attend his funeral in November 2003.
His obituary in the New York Times noted that despite his never having trained professionally, he “had a raw talent that dazzled choreographers.”
Although Ray never found another project to showcase his dynamic talents the way Fame did, it’s not difficult to see his influence in series such as Glee and a generation of musical performers who followed him. To borrow a lyric from the movie’s Oscar-winning theme song, as long as cinema endures we’ll continue to remember his name and his glorious dancing.