Ray Walston started acting in 1938 at the Margo Jones Players in Houston, Texas. He had wanted to be an actor for a very long time, dreamed about it. At the Margo Jones Players he got his wish. For almost four years he performed in a play a month. It was there, he states, that the audiences taught him something about acting.
When he finished in Houston, Ray went to the Cleveland Playhouse in Ohio, which he says is still the finest Regional Theatre in America. Margo Jones was going to direct there the first play Tennessee Williams ever wrote, called “You Touch Me”, taking Ray with her under a two year contract.
During those two years, Ray acted in twenty-two plays. The players there were professionals. The theatre seated 750. With two theatres in the building, Ray was constantly working, rehearsing days and performing nights. He might walk-on in one play and rotate to the lead in the next one. During this period, Ray also worked on workshop productions, which he would show to the company after the evening performance at ten or eleven o’clock.
With this unshakeable foundation, Ray took a train to New York in 1945, found an apartment and started looking for work. He landed a walk-on understudy in Hamlet, starring Maurice Evans. Every season until 1950 he was in a play. The longest run at this time was three months, playing the part of Mr. Kramer in Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke.
In 1950 Ray went to Chicago to play the part of Luther Billis in Rogers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. Rogers and Hammerstein plucked Ray from the company and sent him to do the play at London’s Drury Lane Theatre with Mary Martin for nine months.
Returning to America, Ray did a play in Cambridge, Massachusetts called The Temptation of Maggie Haggerty”, which did not go to New York.
In 1953 he appeared in another Rogers and Hammerstein production called Me and Juliet, a musical-comedy, which ran eleven months in New York and Gibraltar. Following this, Ray did a musical written by Truman Capote called House of Flowers playing opposite Pearl Bailey.
In May, 1955, Ray auditioned for the part of Applegate in the play Damn Yankees. He had read the book “The Year The Yankees Lost The Pennant”, written by Douglas Wallop, which gave him wonderful descriptions of Applegate, the Devil, describing how Applegate would enter and exit earth through the sewers, and how, when talking to people he would take the forelock of his hair and twist it in his fingers, eventually pulling it down into a peak, creating a “devilish” look.
Ray did his reading for Hal Prince, one of the producers. He told Prince, “I want you to stand downstage, and I don’t want you to move. Turn your back to the audience, read the lines up to me, and no matter what I do, no matter how long I take in between lines, don’t come in, don’t think I’ve forgotten the lines. I’ve worked on this very hard, I know exactly how I want to do it, and I don’t want you to do anything except to remain still. I’ll play the role.”
And play the role he did, for two and a half years on Broadway.
Twentieth Century Fox offered Ray a role in a picture with Cary Grant titled Kiss Them For Me. Three months after that he did Twentieth Century Fox’s South Pacific. Then he did the film version of Damn Yankees, followed by Jane Fonda’s first film Tall Story, with Anthony Perkins.
Ray continued to work in films: Universal’s Portrait In Black with Lana Turner, Lloyd Nolan and Anthony Quinn; Billy Wilder’s Academy Award winning (best picture) The Apartment; Say One For Me, with Bing Crosby; Convicts Four, which filmed ten days inside maximum security Folsom prison (an experience Ray says he will never forget).
In 1962 Ray was offered the title role in the television series My Favorite Martian. He didn’t want to do it, but the money was hard to refuse. He did the pilot, thinking it would never get on the air. After the pilot, Ray did a film with Jerry Lewis called Who’s Minding The Store?, and one for Hal Wallace called Wives and Lovers, in which he played opposite Shelley Winters.
Then My Favorite Martian started filming in 1963. It ran for three years. At the end of the first year, during a three month hiatus, Peter Sellers had a heart attack while doing a Billy Wilder film called Kiss Me Stupid. Ray went in, but it was a mistake. One of the worst pictures Billy Wilder ever made, a big flop.
After the third season of My Favorite Martian, Ray went back to Broadway to do a show with George Abbott called Agatha Sue I Love You, which lasted only four nights.
Back to Hollywood for Caprice, with Doris Day. Then on the road for a tour of The Odd Couple, followed by another tour of Canterbury Tales, the film Paint Your Wagon, a tour of I Know You Can’t Hear Me When The Water’s Running, the film The Sting, Popeye, with Robin Williams, and so on…
Not bad for a boy from Laurel, Mississippi, whose father earned ten dollars a week, and whose family gave him no encouragement whatsoever to ba an actor.