Kevin Conway, ‘Red Ryder’ and ‘Elephant Man’ actor, dead at 77
NEW YORK — Kevin Conway, who brought intensity to roles large and small on the screen and the stage, including memorable turns in the 1970s in the plays “When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder?” and “The Elephant Man,” died Wednesday in Manhattan. He was 77.
Geraldine Newman, his longtime partner, said the cause was a heart attack.
Conway got a late start on his acting career, but by 1969 he was making his Broadway debut in Arthur Kopit’s “Indians.” His first significant film role was in “Slaughterhouse-Five,” George Roy Hill’s adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, in 1972.
Early on, he often played explosive characters and tough guys. In 1978 he worked opposite Sylvester Stallone in both “F.I.S.T.,” a tale of organized labor and organized crime, and “Paradise Alley,” in which he played a hoodlum in the mean streets of 1940s New York. Stallone, he said, had suggested that he get a tattoo of an eagle on his forehead to make the character more memorable.
“I told him I wasn’t crazy about the idea,” Conway told People magazine. “A thing like that could cut down your employment opportunities.”
Conway was also seen on TV in numerous series and miniseries. In 2007 alone he appeared in the short-lived NBC series “The Black Donnellys,” about Irish brothers caught up in organized crime in New York, and the miniseries “The Bronx Is Burning,” about the 1970s New York Yankees, in which he portrayed team executive Gabe Paul.
He made good use of his compelling, slightly raspy voice as well, providing narration for television shows and commercials. He warned New York subway riders to say something if they saw something. He was the voice of Mark Twain in a 2001 Ken Burns documentary. At about the same time, he was the creepy Control Voice for a remake of the science-fiction anthology series “The Outer Limits.”
“There is nothing wrong with your television,” he advised viewers as eerie static materialized. “Do not attempt to adjust the picture.”
Kevin John Conway was born on May 29, 1942, in Harlem to James and Margaret (Sanders) Conway. His father was a mechanic, and his mother worked for the telephone company.
After graduating from Bishop Loughlin High School in Brooklyn in 1959, he spent time in the Navy and then took a job at IBM, starting in the mailroom and working his way up to sales. On a whim he enrolled in nighttime acting classes. Eventually, he said, he asked IBM to fire him so that he could collect unemployment while pursuing an acting career.
He began getting stage roles and delivering charged, attention-getting performances.
In the early 1970s he was in a long-running off-Broadway revival of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Dale Wasserman’s adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel about an asylum, playing the wildly disruptive McMurphy, the role played by Kirk Douglas in 1963 on Broadway and by Jack Nicholson in the 1975 film.
In 1973 he had another off-Broadway success in Mark Medoff’s “When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder?,” playing an amped-up man with a gun who disrupts a diner.