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Ray Mala

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Ray Mala
Photograph by Melbourne Spurr, c. 1933
Ray Wise

(1906-12-27)December 27, 1906
DiedSeptember 23, 1952(1952-09-23) (aged 45)
Years active1921–1952
Gertrude Becker
(m. 1932, divorced)
Galina Kropotkin Liss
(m. 1937; his death 1952)

Ray Mala (born Ray Agnaqsiaq Wise,[1] also known as Ach-nach-chiak; December 27, 1906 – September 23, 1952) was a prominent Native American Hollywood actor. He was one of Hollywood's Native American movie actors along with other Native American actors Lillian St. Cyr, Jesse Cornplanter, Chief Yowlachie, William Eagle Shirt, and Will Rogers who also had successful careers during that time. Mala's career peaked in the 1930s and he was best known for his lead role in Republic Pictures' 14-part serial Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island (1936) following his feature role in MGM's Eskimo, directed by Woody Van Dyke. He was named a "Top Ten Alaskan" by TIME Magazine in 2009.[2]

Early life

Ray Mala was born Ray Wise in the small village of Candle, Alaska, to a Russian Jewish immigrant father and a Native Alaskan Inupiaq mother.[3] He was born during a time when Alaska was still only a territory of the United States and was viewed by most Americans as a vast, mysterious frontier. In 1921 an explorer, Captain Frank Kleinschmidt, ventured to Alaska on an expedition to produce Primitive Love, a film in which a 14-year-old Mala made his screen debut. The teenager acted in front of the camera in a minor role and at times served as a cameraman while shooting on location. Later, from 1921 to 1924, Mala also accompanied Knud Rasmussen, the Danish Arctic explorer and writer, as official cameraman on Rasmussen's trip The Great Sled Journey to collect and describe Inuit songs and legends.


In 1925, Mala arrived in Hollywood and got a job as a cameraman with Fox Film Corporation (before the creation of 20th Century-Fox). Not long after, Mala landed his first lead role in the silent film Igloo for Universal Pictures. Igloo was a success and led to his being cast as the lead in MGM's Eskimo (also known as Mala the Magnificent). Louis B. Mayer sent director Woody Van Dyke to the Alaska Territory to film, with many Alaska Natives in the cast, along with Japanese actress Lotus Long (portraying one of Mala's wives) and Chinese actress Ling Wong. Eskimo was produced by Irving Thalberg and premiered at the Astor Theatre in Times Square, New York City, in 1933. The movie was billed as "the biggest picture ever made" by MGM, but after a sluggish opening, MGM quickly decided to change the title to the more sexy Eskimo Wife-Traders. Still, the movie suffered an eventual loss of $236,000 at the box office.[4] The movie's editor, Conrad A. Nervig, won the first Oscar for Best Film Editing for his work on the picture.

Ray Mala gained praise following Eskimo, and as a result MGM cast him as the lead in Last of the Pagans (1935), directed by Richard Thorpe and filmed on location in Tahiti. Mala's next role came in The Jungle Princess (1936), which launched Dorothy Lamour's career. According to the book The Paramount Story, The Jungle Princess was a success and a money maker for the studio. Mala played the lead in Republic Pictures' Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island (1936), which was one of the first serials the studio made. He shared top billing with Herman Brix in Republic's Hawk of the Wilderness (1938). Other notable films include Green Hell (1940), starring Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.; Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940); Cecil B. DeMille's Union Pacific (1939); Son of Fury (1942), starring Tyrone Power; The Tuttles of Tahiti (1942), starring Charles Laughton; and many others.

Mala also spent time behind the camera. He worked with Academy Award winner Joseph LaShelle on many pictures, including Laura (1944), starring Gene Tierney, and Les Misérables (1952). He was on location in Santa Rosa as a cameraman on Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Other films include Meet Me After the Show (1951), starring Betty Grable, and The Fan (1949).

In 1952, Mala reappeared in front of the camera to play in Red Snow opposite Guy Madison. According to the American Film Institute, Red Snow is the first film to deal with the Cold War and the atomic bomb.


Shortly after the release of Red Snow, Mala died from heart problems on the set of his last film. He was only 45.[5] His career in Hollywood spanned almost 30 years.[3] Fifty years after his death, his remains were returned to Alaska, with a reburial ceremony in 2018 inside Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery.[6]


Year Title Role Notes
1933 Eskimo Mala, aka Kripik Uncredited
1935 Last of the Pagans Taro
1936 Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island Agent Ray Mala
1936 The Jungle Princess Melan
1938 Hawk of the Wilderness Olee John
1938 The Great Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok Little Elk Serial (ch. 5-6)
1938 Hawk of the Wilderness Kias Serial
1939 Union Pacific Indian Finding Cigar Store Indian Uncredited
1939 Mutiny on the Blackhawk Wani - Native Slave Leader
1939 Coast Guard Eskimo Driver Uncredited
1940 Green Hell Mala
1940 Zanzibar Mala
1940 Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe Prince of the Rock People Serial (ch. 7-9); uncredited
1940 South of Pago Pago Native Diver Uncredited
1940 Girl from God's Country Joe
1940 North West Mounted Police Indian Uncredited
1940 The Devil's Pipeline Talamu
1941 Hold Back the Dawn Young Mexican Bridegroom Uncredited
1941 Honolulu Lu Native Cop Uncredited
1942 Son of Fury Marnoa
1942 The Mad Doctor of Market Street Barab
1942 The Girl from Alaska Charley
1942 The Tuttles of Tahiti Nat
1952 Red Snow Sgt. Koovuk Final film role


  1. ^ Stern, Pamela R. (2013). Historical Dictionary of the Inuit. Scarecrow Press. p. 197. Stern gives Mala's birth year as 1908.
  2. ^ TIME Magazine, January 2, 2009
  3. ^ a b Dunham, Mike (March 27, 2011). "Book Recounts Career of The 'Eskimo Clark Gable'". Anchorage Daily News. Archived from the original on May 16, 2013. Retrieved November 25, 2011.
  4. ^ Aleiss, Angela (2005). Making the White Man's Indian: Native Americans and Hollywood Movies. Westport, CT/London: Praeger. p. 45.
  5. ^ Doyle, Billy H. (1999). The Ultimate Directory of Silent and Sound Era Performers: A Necrology of Actors and Actresses. Scarecrow Press. p. 358. ISBN 9780810835474. Gives Mala's birth and death dates.
  6. ^ Carney, Jack (August 20, 2018). "Oscar Winning Alaska Native Ray Mala Reburied in Anchorage". KTUU. Retrieved March 8, 2019.

Further reading

  • Aleiss, Angela (2005). Making the White Man's Indian: Native Americans and Hollywood Movies. Praeger. ISBN 0-275-98396-X. Pages 42–45.
  • Fienup-Riordan, Ann (1995). Freeze Frame: Alaska Eskimos in the Movies. University of Washington Press. ISBN 0-295-97397-8. Includes rare photos.
  • Freuchen, Peter (1953). Vagrant Viking: My Life and Adventures. Julian Messer, Inc. Autobiography of author of Eskimo
  • Harper, Kenn; Potter, Russell (2010). "Early Arctic Films of Nancy Columbia and Esther Eneutseak". Nimrod International Journal of Prose and Poetry.
  • Morgan, Lael (2011). Eskimo Star: From the Tundra to Tinseltown the Ray Mala Story. Epicenter Press. ISBN 9781935347125. Biography of Mala.
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