March 11, 2002 12:00 PM

Fay Wray, star of King Kong, had nothing on Ola Ray. Fans of Michael Jackson’s classic 1983 video Thriller will recall Ray’s blood-curdling scream as she watched Michael, her heretofore mild-mannered date, transform into a werewolf. For Ray, however, the truly scary part occurred after Thriller‘s release. “I had no idea it was going to be that big,” she says of the video, which sold a million copies over the next decade and now ranks No. 1 on MTV’s list of the 100 Greatest Videos Ever Made. “Every magazine in the world was calling me. People were knocking at my door. I freaked out. I hid.”

And then things got worse. The years that followed turned out to be nightmarish, as the struggling actress became addicted to drugs and mired in a succession of volatile relationships. Today, at 41, “I’m clean,” Ray says. She is also the single, never-wed—and doting—mother of a 6-year-old daughter, lam, with whom Ray shares a modest apartment in Sacramento while trying to revive her singing career. “She wants to stay in that Hollywood life,” says her brother David, 40, a California state employee.

Getting to Hollywood was much easier the first time. Ray, who’d modeled and sung in a rock band as a teen growing up in Japan with her stepfather, James Moore, an Air Force serviceman, her mother, Ruth, a nurse, and eight siblings, was 20 when she dropped off a couple of her glossies at Playboy‘s L.A. bureau. A few months later, Ray became the magazine’s June 1980 centerfold. That opened the door to TV spots, bit movie roles (48 HRS.) and her audition for Thriller in 1983. She remembers Jackson as a practical joker who once offered Ray a ride in his limo, which sped off with her alone in the backseat. A bigger disappointment, she says, “is that after Thriller came along, I stopped working.”

One reason, she claims, was her refusal to give “sexual favors” to producers. “I’m sure that has a little to do with it,” says Terry Clark, a friend and former lover. “But what got her in trouble was not wanting to give up the party life.”

Ray herself admits, “I got involved in the drug scene.” Following a 1992 bust for cocaine possession, she agreed to spend nine months in a Tarzana, Calif., treatment facility.

After getting out she moved in with ex-football-great-turned-actor Jim Brown, whom she had met at the Playboy Mansion. “She is a good-hearted person,” says Brown. But Ray, he says, resumed her drug habit, resulting in their breakup a few months later. Ray denies she backslid and says she left Brown because he treated her badly.

Brown later found himself the defendant in a 1999 paternity suit filed by Ray on behalf of daughter Iam. At the time, Ray was living with an L.A. real estate broker with whom she got involved shortly after leaving Brown. She had at first assumed the new man in her life had impregnated her. But she says she began having doubts when Iam turned 3, “because every time he’d pick her up, she’d scream.”

DNA tests proved that neither he nor Brown was Iam’s father. Ray then asked her longtime friend Terry Clark to be tested. “The baby turned out to be mine,” says Clark, 47, a CBS cameraman. “It was a big shock to me.” He and Ray, off-and-on lovers since 1987, had had a one-night stand around the time she and Brown broke up. Now he is paying more than $1,000 a month in child support. “I totally love my little girl,” he says. “She did a good job bringing the kid up; it’s made Ola a better person.”

Ray, who is now unattached and makes ends meet hostessing at Playboy Mansion parties, was until recently involved in a legal battle to collect a percentage of the profits she says she is owed from Thriller. In 1998 Jackson’s attorney in the case remitted an unspecified sum of money to Ray through the Screen Actors Guild. Ray claimed that wasn’t enough, but says she is not pursuing the case now. More rewarding has been Iam’s appreciation of her mom’s role in the video. “A year ago her dad played it for her,” says Ray. “She came back and told all her friends.” Now shopping three of her pop songs, Ray says, “I hope that after this I won’t need Michael’s change. I’m hoping I’ll have my own.”

Michael A. Lipton

Melissa Schorr in Sacramento

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