Born as Raymond Nicholas Kienzle Jr. at Galesville, Wisconsin, he got kicked out of high school numerous times, but he also wrote local radio shows that won him admission to college. Renaming himself Nick Ray in 1931, Ray's eclectic post-high school education included a year at the University of Chicago and several months at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin art colony, where he studied architecture and drama.
Moving to New York in 1932, Ray became active in left-wing theater, including acting in Elia Kazan's directorial debut for the Theater of Action, and working on a Joseph Losey production for the Federal Theater Project. Out of the FTP by 1940, Ray worked in radio and was hired by John Houseman to produce radio programs for the Office of War Information.
He worked at the theatre with left wing groups and directed Lovers of the Night (1945), one of his few totally controlled pieces of work. After assisting on several other films and directing a Broadway show and a TV show, Ray headed back to Hollywood to work for Houseman at RKO on a film adaptation of Thieves Like Us, retitled They Live By Night (1949).
Ray left RKO in 1953. Backed by his agent Lew Wasserman, Ray worked steadily for the rest of the decade. His most important films were made in following decade, like Johnny Guitar (1954). After his Westerns, Ray set to work on an original story about contemporary youth. Starring James Dean in his definitive performance, Rebel Without a Cause (1955) became one of the decade's most trenchant statements on suburban-bred teen alienation.
Returning to the underside of suburbia in Bigger Than Life (1956), and after another offbeat Western, The True Story of Jesse James (1957), being tired of Hollywood Ray started to film in Europe Bitter Victory (1957) and other movies.
Settling in Europe after shooting The Savage Innocents (1959) in England and Italy, Ray turned to epics with King of Kings (1961), a handsome widescreen rendering of the life of Christ. While shooting his next epic, 55 Days at Peking (1963), however, Ray suffered a heart attack and was replaced, ending his mainstream career.
Ray returned to the U.S. settling in New York City in 1976. Though he was diagnosed with cancer in 1977, Ray appeared in Milos Forman's Hair (1979), and began a collaboration with Wenders on Lightning Over Water (1980), a documentary of Ray's last days. Ray died in New York, New York, of lung cancer, shortly after he and Wenders stopped production.
The big news about Nicholas Ray, in Gavin Lambert's memoir Mainly About Lindsay Anderson (Knopf, 320 pages) is that its author had an affair with super-butch Hollywood director Nicholas Ray, whose Rebel Without a Cause featured a dreamy Sal Mineo in love with a sexy James Dean.