Ray was born Aldo Da Re in Pen Argyl in Northampton County in eastern Pennsylvania, to an Italian family with five brothers (Mario, Guido, Dante, Dino and Louis) and one sister (Regina). (His brother, Mario Da Re (1933–2010), lettered in football at USC in the years 1952 to 1954, and on May 12, 1955 appeared as a contestant on the NBC quiz show You Bet Your Life hosted by Groucho Marx.)
His family moved to the small town of Crockett in northern California when Aldo was four years old; his father worked as a laborer at the C & H Sugar Refinery, the largest employer in the town. He attended John Swett High School, where he made the football team; he also coached swimming.
In 1944, at age 18, during World War II, Aldo entered the United States Navy, serving as a frogman until 1946; he saw action at Okinawa with UDT-17. Upon leaving the Navy in May 1946 he returned to Crockett. He studied and played football at Vallejo Junior College, then entered the University of California at Berkeley to study political science. (Ray later described himself as an "arch conservative" and a "right winger".) He left college in order to run for the office of Constable of the Crockett Judicial District in Contra Costa County California. "I always knew I was going to be a big man but I thought it was going to be in politics", he said.
In April 1950 Columbia Studios sent a unit to San Francisco to look for some athletes to appear in a film they were making called Saturday's Hero (1951). Aldo's brother Guido saw an item on the San Francisco Chronicle about the auditions and asked his brother to drive him there. Director David Miller was more interested in Ray than his brother because of his voice; also, Ray was comfortable talking to the camera due to his political experience. He later recalled, "They...said 'What's wrong with your voice kid? Are you sick? If you're sick you don't belong here.' I said, 'No, no, no, this is the way I've always spoken.' And they loved it." Ray would later retell this story in the trailer for Pat and Mike.
Ray signed a contract and was sent to Los Angeles for a screen test. He was cast in the small role of a cynical college football player opposite John Derek and Donna Reed.
Ray worked on the film between the primary and general elections. He was elected constable on 6 June. "I was 23 and a sort of child bride to the voters", he later said. "The guy I ran against was a 16-year incumbent, and I destroyed him with 80 percent of the vote! I was going to work my way up to the U.S. Senate, see, and I would've, too."
Columbia picked up their option on Ray's services, and signed him to a seven-year contract. "Of all the people in the picture they took up only one option – mine", he said. "And I said, 'thank you, good bye. I'm going home where I can be a big fish in my small pond. You can take this town (Hollywood) and shove it."
Columbia refused to release him from his contract and put him under suspension, giving him a leave of absence to work as constable. "I told them I couldn't care less, they could give me whatever they wanted", he said. Ray started his new job in November 1950.
After several months Ray found "the quiet life... monotonous", so he contacted Max Arnow, talent director at Columbia, and expressed interest in appearing in more movies. Four weeks later Arnow called back, saying Columbia wanted to audition Ray for a small part in Judy Holliday's new movie, The Marrying Kind.
Ray went to Hollywood and did a screen test with the director, George Cukor. The first test went badly but head of Columbia Harry Cohn liked Ray and asked for another test. The second one was done opposite Jeff Donnell, who Ray later married; it was more successful and Ray ended up being cast in the lead.
Harry Cohn felt the name "Aldo Da Re" was too close to "Dare" and wanted to change it to "John Harrison"; the actor refused and "Aldo Ray" was the compromise. He divorced his wife and resigned as constable in September 1951. His wage was $200 a week.
Cukor famously suggested that Ray go to ballet school because he walked too much like a football player. The director later talked about the actor:
He has a great advantage: the way his eyes are made. The light comes into them. There are certain people who have opaque eyes which refuse to catch the light. But his eyes had a certain glow and gave quite well in the photographed result. He did this silent scene very well lying there on the bed in the same room with Judy (Holliday). Then later he did comedy scenes with her very difficult ones–and there were also emotional sequences where he broke down and cried. They were brilliant.
"Cukor is hypersensitive to reality", recalled Ray. "He told me exactly what to do and why. He explains everything and he knows exactly what he wants." Ray's performance was much praised. Sight and Sound later wrote:
To give the performance he did in The Marrying Kind after so little previous experience was clear evidence that in Aldo Ray the screen had discovered one of its rare "naturals". This was no carefully edited, tricked out performance, but a strikingly sincere and imaginative interpretation: an exceptional talent responding to a finely intuitive director... There was about him none of the personality assurance that extracts a special consideration of the actor as distinct from his role.
Cukor then cast Ray in a support role in Pat and Mike, starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Ray's work in Pat and Mike led to his nomination, along with Richard Burton and Robert Wagner, for a Golden Globe as Best Newcomer. Burton won the award that year, but Ray's career was launched. He says after two films with Cukor "I never needed direction again."
Ray said Spencer Tracy told him, "'Kid, I don't know what it is that you got, and I got, and some of us have, but you can work in this business forever.' That made me feel good, you know, coming from a guy like him. I never bowed down to anybody at Columbia or anywhere else, but my overall idea was, I'll do whatever they tell me because it's their business, not mine, and I've got to learn it."
Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn liked Ray and wanted him for the role of Private Robert Prewitt in From Here to Eternity (1953) but Fred Zinnemann insisted Montgomery Clift be cast. However other good roles followed instead. ""Because of Harry, all my first pictures were big hits, tremendously popular", Ray recalled.
In 1953, he starred opposite Jane Wyman in Let's Do It Again, then followed this acting opposite Rita Hayworth in Miss Sadie Thompson (1953), a remake of the W. Somerset Maugham story Rain. He also appeared in a production of Stalag 17 at La Jolla Playhouse.
Ray was loaned to Warner Bros to appear in Battle Cry (1955). This was directed by Raoul Walsh who would be one of Ray's favourite directors. The film was a big hit at the box office – probably the most popular movie Ray ever made – although it led to him being typecast.
"In some ways the tough soldier role locked me in", reflected Ray later. "There were no sophisticated roles for me. I never seemed to get past master sergeant, though I always thought of myself as upper echelon."
As the 1960s ended, Hollywood's appetite for Ray's machismo started to wane. Though he worked steadily in the 1970s, the quality of his roles diminished, and he was typically cast as gruff and gravelly rednecks.
In 1976 he said he was broke. He blamed this on his ex-wives and red tape that meant he could not develop his real estate properties. "I lost it all", he said. "And I am very very bitter about it.... The biggest mistake I ever made was discovering women. I only wish society had been as free and easy when I was coming along as it is today because if that had been the case I wouldn't have been married. Three women in my life utterly destroyed me."
His career decline accelerated in the 1980s, and after being diagnosed with throat cancer, he accepted virtually any role that came his way to maintain his costly health insurance. He returned to Crockett in 1983.
Ray was originally cast in the role of Gurney Halleck in David Lynch's 1984 adaptation of Frank Herbert's novel Dune, but was replaced by Patrick Stewart due to ongoing issues with alcoholism.
He made a number of films for Fred Olen Ray. "He'd give me $1000 in cash, pay my expenses, and I'd do a day's work", said Ray. "Somebody showed me one of his cassettes--'starring Aldo Ray'--but it was just a one-day job.... I needed money at the time, and Fred knew I needed a buck, so I did it. He exploited me, yeah, but I was ripe for it."
In 1986 Ray's SAG membership was revoked when it was discovered he was acting in a non-union production, Lethal Injection. However Ray still got his union pension and benefits. His fee at this stage was $5,000 a week.
In 1989 he was diagnosed with a malignant tumor.
Ray remained in Crockett, with his mother and family and friends. On 19 February 1991 he was admitted to the Veterans Administration Hospital in Martinez, 40 miles east of San Francisco. He died of complications from throat cancer and pneumonia on 27 March. He was cremated and buried in Crockett, with a majority of the residents coming out to pay their respects.
Ray was married several times:
Shirley Green. They had one child, a daughter named Claire.
Jeff (real name, Jean) Donnell (married 30 September 1954, divorced 1956)
British actress Johanna Bennet (married 1960, divorced 1967), who continues to work today under the name Johanna Ray, as a respected casting director. They had two sons and a daughter. Johanna Ray, a longtime collaborator with David Lynch, cast her son Eric Da Re with Aldo in Lynch's Twin Peaks series, as well as the movie Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me.