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, 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, no slouch on the dance floor herself, as they take in Leroy’s suggestive moves.
Allen 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.”