He was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, one of ten children from a poor Italian family, though others say the birth took place in Canada. When he was 5 years old, he began painting crazy, beautiful pictures all over the walls of his family's house and his parents couldn't stop him. Even then, he believed he was a genius. That belief made him tireless.
He attended Georgetown University and The Catholic University of America. It was at the latter that he found a flair for the dramatic and he began studying acting with Philip Burton. Gerry made his acting debut in Washington, DC in 1954, playing Father Corr in Shadow and Substance. From then on, he acted whenever he could find work. In 1963, he appeared in the New York production of the hit play War at the Village South Theatre, for which he won the Barter Theatre Award for Outstanding Actor. On May 18 of that year, he married his longtime girlfriend Stephanie. They had a son, Erick, soon after.
1964 found him playing a bit part in the Broadway production of Hamlet at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, which starred Richard Burton. As a result, he appeared in the film version of the show released by Warner Brothers in 1964. That same year, he made his first Off-Broadway appearance in the anti-capital punishment musical Hang Down Your Head and Die at the Mayfair Theatre with friend James Rado, a fellow actor trying to work on his craft and studying with Lee Strasberg. It only played one performance before being shut down by the government. Soon after this, he took on the role of Tom in the smash-hit The Knack at the New Theatre of Brooklyn and later appeared in the touring company of the show with Rado.
At the show's Chicago stop that year, Rado and Ragni tried to revive Hang Down Your Head and Die with as much of the script as they remembered and some new songs and material they planned to collaborate on with Corky Siegel and Jim Schwall, of the Siegel-Schwall Blues Band, whom they met playing in a beatnik coffee house off the Harper Street strip. They spent time writing ideas for the show, which was now to be a four-man presentation performed by Rado, Ragni, Schwall, and Siegel, in a house on the South Side of Chicago and an apartment on Stony Island Avenue. Rado and Ragni rented the Harper Theatre, where the Chicago showing of The Knack was going on, to perform the musical. Two weeks later, however, the run went back to New York and they had to leave with the cast, leaving that show incomplete.
Jerry had been involved with The Open Theater and its experimental techniques since it was originally part of the Living Theatre in 1962. He'd come up with the new name in the split from the Living Theatre. In 1966, the Open Theatre began rehearsals for the Megan Terry play Viet Rock. Ragni took a leading role in the show and was in the cast when the play opened at the Martinique Theatre in New York and played a very successful run that sold a lot of seats.
The show and the experimental techniques associated with it gave him the inspiration to work with Rado on a musical about the hippies and their environment. First, research had to be undertaken. They associated with a group of kids in the East Village who were dropping out and dodging the draft and talked to characters in the streets and people they knew and read lots of articles in the press and media about hippies and about kids being kicked out of school for growing their hair long. Most importantly, they applied their imaginations to what they had amassed. Soon, the lyrics to thirteen songs ("Ain't Got No," "I Got Life," "Reading and Writing," "Don't Put It Down," "Sodomy," "Colored Spade," "Manchester, England," "Frank Mills," "We Look at One Another," "Hair," "Aquarius," "Easy to be Hard," "Good Morning Starshine," "Where Do I Go?") and a first draft of the show, titled Hair, were complete. Two of these thirteen songs were removed, a lot were revised and titles changed, and more were written.
Once they had a complete draft of the show that they liked, they brought it to producer Nat Shapiro for consideration. His response to the songs was, "Where's the music?" He then put them together with composer Galt MacDermot, who was given the script and came back with music for the handful of songs that were then specified in the script. Their agent, Janet Roberts, then tried to sell it to Broadway producers, but they were getting rejections right and left. Joseph Papp, of the New York Shakespeare Festival Theatre, called and said he wanted to produce it at his new theatre on Lafayette Street. Gerald Freedman was the artistic director, so he was signed on to direct the first production of the show. On October 29, 1967, Hair opened at The Public Theater with Ragni as Berger, MacDermot as one of the phony cops that bust the show at the end of the first act, and Rado as Claude (for the first ten performances only). Michael Butler, a Chicagoan, attended the opening and many subsequent performances and was dissatisfied that Rado wasn't regularly playing Claude, as he had a natural affinity for the part, having written it.
Butler was immediately interested and wanted to move it to Broadway, so he bought the rights from Papp for $50,000 and got ready to stage a whole new grander production, with Tom O'Horgan, who Ragni knew from off-Broadway, directing. In the meantime, the show moved to a nightclub in Midtown called Cheetah, where it had a month-long run. When O'Horgan signed, there was a cast overhaul and Alvin Ailey was hired as choreographer, with Bertrand Castelli sharing directorial duties as executive producer. Ailey left the show early on, to be replaced by popular choreographer Julie Arenal, assistant to Anna Sokolow, who had choreographed the Off-Broadway run of Hair.
On April 29, 1968, in its complete revised form, the show re-opened at the Biltmore Theatre on Broadway. Rado and Ragni reprised their roles from the Off-Broadway production. MacDermot was now the show's musical director. Along with the show's popularity, the songs became hit singles for Liza Minnelli, Nelson Riddle, The Staples Singers, MacDermot himself, Quincy Jones, Three Dog Night, The Cowsills, Madeline Bell, Paul Jones, Sonja Kristina, The Fifth Dimension, Oliver, Caterina Valente,and Barbra Streisand. The Broadway cast album on RCA Records topped the US charts for a year. The 1970 album DisinHAIRited, a sequel of sorts, contained earlier songs cut from the revised production.
The Broadway production was a traumatic experience for Jerry. He became wealthy, but his marriage broke up and he fell from mainstream society. He joined a Christian cult and contributed money to the Black Panther Party and Yippie causes.
Not long after the Broadway production, he and Rado went to Los Angeles and played their signature roles in that production. They stayed for five months, making changes to the show as they performed. However, they did not inform the staff and when they returned to the Broadway production, his changes to the show without telling the staff became a bit of a nuisance. In one incident, after walking nude down the aisle with Rado during a performance, they were arrested. At another point, there were guards outside the theatre and Ragni and Rado were barred from entering. When the conflict was resolved, all the changes were written into the script and they rejoined the show. Soon, however, Ragni moved into the touring companies, playing Berger for many performances in many cities. He very nearly became the role that he was playing onstage.Dude, The Highway Life ever since Hair had opened. He had bulging notebooks filled with scribbles of dialogue and lyrics written in between meals at Max's Kansas City. Combined, they were a 2,000-page script. He discussed doing the score with MacDermot after the L.A. opening, but MacDermot was doing Two Gentlemen of Verona at the time. Once done, he wrote the music to 50 of the songs in the show. Producing the musical would entail having the interior of the Broadway Theatre scooped out and turned into a free-wheeling environmental theatre representing heaven and hell. The 2,000 pages were cut down to 200, a second act was written, more songs were added, and although in a constant state of change and plagued with backstage problems, the show opened at The Broadway Theatre in October 1972, produced by Peter and Adela Holzer and starring Nell Carter, Rae Allen, Salome Bey, Ralph Carter, Nat Morris, and Allan Nicholls, and closed after 16 performances. The cast album on Columbia Records didn't fare very well on the charts, landing at a low place.
In 1977, Ragni and Rado collaborated with Steve Margoshes on a new show called Jack Sound and His Dog Star Blowing His Final Trumpet on the Day of Doom, which was produced Off-Broadway by the Ensemble Studio Theatre. It played a short run alongside an ill-fated Broadway revival of Hair that ran for forty-three performances altogether and starred Ragni and Rado as the bogus cops who bust the show.
In 1990, after Hair had again been revived on a touring basis and had gone through some revisions by Ragni, Rado, and MacDermot, the team (with Steve Margoshes) collaborated on a new musical called Sun, also known as YMCA. It was an environmental musical about politics, pollution, the rain forests being cut down, and the like. A three-disc cast recording was made after a performance at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall that is soon to be released on the independent company Rado Records. Revision of Rado's musical Rainbow Rainbeam Radio Roadshow: The Ghost of Vietnam (now renamed Billy Earth: The New Rainbow) was also being undertaken.
Ragni died of cancer in New York before the revision of Rado and his brother Ted's musical sequel to Hair could be undertaken.