Obituary: Ray Sharkey
Friday 18 June 1993
RAY SHARKEY was a solid actor, with both enough individuality and looks for stardom, but it eluded him. He made his movie debut in 1974 in The Lords of Flatbush, one of several movies of the time to look back nostalgically to high-school days in the Fifties.
The 'lords' of the title proclaim their aristocracy by having their names in studs on the back of their leather jackets, the uniform along with blow-wave and kiss-curl. Two of them were played by Sylvester Stallone and Henry Winkler, neither then well known; and Sharkey had a bit as a student.
He had occasional roles in some television series, such as Starsky and Hutch, All in the Family, The Jeffersons and Barney Miller. He made a few films, gingerly moving up the cast- list, and was in two major 1978 productions, Karel Reisz's Who'll Stop The Rain aka Dog Soldiers and Paradise Alley, directed by and starring, post-Rocky, Stallone. Both flopped, as did John Byrum's film about Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, Heart Beat. Sharkey, however, was impressive as the character based on Allen Ginsberg.
Word was out from the set that Sharkey was going to be Hollywood's next big star, and he was signed for two leading roles - by Paul Mazursky for Willie and Phil and Taylor Hackford for The Idolmaker, both expected to be among the big successes of 1980. Mazursky's film was a rum thing about two young men, Sharkey and Michael Ontkean, who share a passion for Truffaut's Jules et Jim and, paralleling the relationship in that movie, the same girl, Margot Kidder - who is not with them when they settle happily in bed together as Billie Holiday's version of 'What Is This Thing Called Love?' blares out on the soundtrack. The Idolmaker was a different matter, a crafty and cynical satire on the music business of the Fifties, with Sharkey on dynamic form as a wannabe-Elvis. He was awarded a Golden Globe for his performance - but too late to save the film at the box-office.
'Hollywood scuttlebutt had pegged (it) as a certain hit,' observed James Toback, who had already cast Sharkey in Love And Money, adding that after two failures 'regardless of his talents, (his) name was commercially worthless by the start of 1981'. In a new distribution deal, Paramount inherited Love and Money but loathed it - according to Toback because the Klaus Kinski 'character bore an unflattering resemblance to Charles Bluhdorn, the boss of Gulf and Western, which owns Paramount'. Excisions were demanded, others were restored, and when the final, edited version was sneaked into one New York cinema over two years after the first previews, Sharkey no longer delivered 'enough of the weight and gravity that the role requires'. Toback did not add that the comedy-thriller was convoluted and conventional by turns - perhaps because he did not consider the final version to be much like the one he had prepared.
But Sharkey's career as a leading actor was decisively over. He had a small role as a fellow prisoner of war of Richard Pryor in Some Kind of Hero (1982) and some mainly dubious credits, including Wired (1989), in which he was a dead Puerto Rican cab-driver who takes John Belushi all over Los Angeles.
In 1991 he announced that he had kicked a dollars 400-a-day heroin habit in 1987 - coincidental, perhaps, with his starring role as an Atlantic City gang boss in a television series, Wiseguy; but in 1992 he was arrested on a narcotics charge in Canada. His last credit was in a Burt Reynolds vehicle, Cop and a Half, directed by Henry Winkler - a reunion from The Lords of Flatbush. Variety said, 'Ray Sharkey's villain had possibilities but it doesn't help that he seems to be in another movie.'
Those who have seen The Idolmaker must find this all very sad.
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