Not One to Table a Discussion, Spalding Gray Delivers a Real Talkie to Movie Audiences

updated 04/13/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/13/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Most people are trained from early childhood not to talk too much about themselves. It's impolite and inconsiderate, and it puts your friends to sleep. But Spalding Gray never shuts up about Spalding Gray, and it's making him famous.

Equipped with only a chair, a desk and a glass of water, the 45-year-old raconteur sits alone on stages from St. Johnsbury, Vt. to Perth, Australia and tells rambling, true stories that are somehow more fascinating than fiction: about the time when he was 14 and his cocker spaniel died, about the cheerleaders' convention he attended years ago in Santa Cruz, Calif., or how he almost drowned while swimming in the Indian Ocean. Plagued by anxieties large and small, Gray says he finds it "therapeutic to share the bulk of my experiences and emotions." He has tried more conventional therapy but stopped after realizing the therapist was witnessing debut performances of his best stories—and getting paid for it.

Gray's whimsical, self-mocking monologues, unorthodox as they are, have charmed audiences since he first began performing them way-way-off-Broadway in 1979. Critics have praised him too, though most are hard-pressed to define his peculiar talents—he has been compared to Lily Tomlin, Norman Rockwell, Chevy Chase, Mr. Rogers, even Chaucer and Dickens. Now, Gray's following should grow larger still. Swimming to Cambodia, a monologue inspired by his experiences acting a bit part in The Killing Fields, has been turned into a feature film. Directed by Jonathan (Something Wild) Demme and filled with Gray's free-associative tales about U.S. bombing raids on Cambodia, the uncanny skill of Thai prostitutes and his own continuing quest for life's perfect moments, the movie has opened to exceptional reviews.

But why would anyone pay good money to watch some guy in a plaid flannel shirt—Gray's performing uniform—sit at a desk and rhapsodize about his life for 87 minutes? Says Re-nee Shafransky, Swimming's producer and Gray's longtime girlfriend: "Spalding has a line on what it is to be American in this day and age that I don't think anybody else has really captured." Director Demme has another theory: "In addition to being very funny, very biting and very informative, Spalding has the ability to touch on the profound. I think that's his magic."

It's likely that no one in Barrington, R.I., where "Spuddy" Gray was born and raised, would ever have predicted such a reception. His father was a credit manager, his mother a fervent Christian Scientist, and Spalding was a "shy, backward" child who did poorly in school because of undiagnosed dyslexia. His first experience with theater came at Fryeburg Academy in Maine, where he was sent at age 16 because, he says, "I was a juvenile delinquent." Overcoming his terror of acting, he landed a role in the senior play—and snuck in his first piece of improvisation. "I did a hopscotch on this rug, and the whole audience laughed," he remembers. "I was hooked. It was just like a drug."

After graduating from Emerson College in Boston, Gray moved to New York City and studied theater at various workshops. He was telling stories by this time, but only for the amusement of friends. As an actor and playwright with SoHo's Wooster Group, an experimental theater company he co-founded, he began to transform his experiences into stage pieces. He collaborated on a series of plays about his family, in part as an attempt to come to terms with his mother's suicide in 1967. "Then one day I sat down at a table in the theater and just told everything I could remember about sex and death until I was 14," he says. "It didn't flow, it was awful. But it unlocked my memory, and I came back and did it again the next night, for a group of 12 or 15 very loyal friends." His friends were enthralled, his audiences grew, and his career as a one-man show was launched.

For the past several years, Gray's most devoted listener has been Shafransky, 33, a screenwriter whom he met at Manhattan's Studio 54 in 1978. She found him odd and thought he came on too strong; he thought she was a klutz. But he was so captivated by what he calls her "big, stupid, smiling, absolutely clownish, giving face" that he tracked her down the next week and asked her out. She drank too much on their first date and got sick while they were in bed. That, they agree, cemented their relationship. "Spalding was just sort of laughing and taking care of me all night, which broke the ice," she says. "It made me think he wasn't so strange, just a nice guy."

Mainstream America might soon reach the same conclusion, because it's going to see a lot more of Gray and his idiosyncratic art. Terrors of Pleasure, his monologue about a Catskills dream house gone bad, is being filmed by HBO. Requests for performances come continuously from around the country, and even a cable TV talk show may be in the offing. But Gray has loftier goals in mind. "I have this terrific need to voice my life," he says. "Everything that happens to me I want eventually to make into a story. The only thing I'm depressed about is that I won't be able to share my death and dying. Although maybe with the right medium...."

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