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Give her the Simple Life
When filming is done, Dallas's Linda Gray leaves Hollywood behind for her hide-out in the hills
©TV GUIDE Canada, November 24, 1979
Two mountain ranges and more than 30 miles separate the ranch from the movie-star ghetto of Beverly Hills. In the sun-baked hills covered with wildflowers and scrub oak sits a redwood and glass house, its huge windows overlooking a swimming pool, tennis court and stables, its comfortable interior rich with curious and antiques plopped down amid cushy sofas and glass tables.
It could be the home of a wealthy rancher on the CBS hit Dallas. It is the home of Dallas star Linda Gray, who plays the gloriously venomous, perniciously seductive Sue Ellen, hard-drinking wife of the villainous J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman). Linda is Hollywood's latest hot ticket, the new star everyone wants to meet.
Up here in the hills she concentrates on her roles as the wife of art director Ed Thrasher and the mother of 15-year-old Jeff and 13-year-old Kelly. The tensions of life as a star of a weekly TV series seem very far away, but sometimes not far enough.
Rumors of rifts on Hollywood soundstages are nothing new, and Dallas has spawned its share. Gossip has it that Linda is stung by cast resentment, especially on the part of Victoria Principal and Charlene Tilton, of her ever-expanding role; that she thinks Larry Hagman is round-the-bend crazy; that she is jealous of the attention being paid to young Charlene (Lucy in the series) and her new, nearly nude pin-up-poster.
"I have learned," says Linda, "to be philosophical about the nonsense, about the mountains-out-of-molehills distortions.
"The other day, for instance, we gave a party, and everyone from the show came out to the ranch except Victoria and Charlene. My feelings were a little bruised and I was a bit miffed. I owe my home and I guess I wanted to show off, wanted everyone to admire what Ed and I have built, how nice out kids are.
"I mentioned it to someone from the press and it became a part of the body of misinformation about the people on the show: Victoria and Charlene didn't come to my party, ergo, they are having a spat with me. It really isn't so. They both wanted to come and tried, right up to the last minute. They both explained what had happened later. I'm so sorry I ever said anything to anyone about it."
"Look," she continues, "I won't pretend that we're all saintlike on the show. We all struggle to be successful, and it is not an easy fight. There is bound to be some resentment, but not because anyone is mean or petty.
"It just happens that part of Sue Ellen is a lot of fun. She is quicksilver--sometimes hateful and at other times just pitiful, all confusion and repressed anger. This is a lady who's a lush, has an affair with a deadly enemy of the Ewing family and almost kills her baby.
"Charlene is lucky too, because she can really do a lot with the headstrong little Lucy. But it's much harder on Barbara Bel Geddes [The Ewing matriarch] and Victoria Principal [virtuous wife of the good Ewing son] because they have to play salt-of-the-earth types.
"Barbara has been around long enough and is so loved that she just goes about the business of squeezing every ounce out of her role.
"For Victoria, who is starring in her first big part, it's much more frustrating. If she feels some apprehension and even a little resentment, I can understand that. we all try so hard, and we just have to cope with our emotions the best way we can."
When the rumored jealousies of the Dallas set are mentioned, Victoria Principal replies, "You've got us mixed up with Charlie's Angels."
Charlene Tilton responds with : "Linda is just like my mother. Or, my older sister," adding that they even go to rodeos together, for heaven's sake.
"I think Linda does consider me an eccentric," Larry Hagman says with satisfaction, contributing the further intelligence that she actualy encouraged his eccentricity by giving him a beanie with an electric light on top for his birthday.
On MGM soundstage 19, Hagman, as the despicable J.R., spews out line after line of vitriolic dialogue while Linda, as his high-tones, alcoholic wife, stands transfixed. A camera dollies in for a close-up as tears well up in her beautifully made-up hazel eyes. She is about to speak the pay-off lines when Hagman twists his rubber face into a hideous caricature of depravity and crosses his squinty blue-eyes. Linda, the rest of the cast and the crew dissolve in laughter.
The disembodied voice of the director, heavy with resignation, comes over the loudspeaker: "OK, the next time it's for real."
The next take is perfect on the first try, and lunch break is called. Hagman sprints off to the dismal MGM commissary. Linda leaves for what is euphemistically called a dressing room on the MGM lot.
It is Shack City--a little row of lean-tos in a tunnel next to the stage. inside each hovel is a lumpy day bed, a chair and a dressing table with a mirror.
"Listen," she says, smiling at comments about her low-life studio digs, "I grew up a few blocks from this studio and used to come over here after school in my little pleated skirt and blue cardigan. I sat on the curb outside the lot and dreamed about life on the inside. Mickey Rooney, Elizabeth Taylor, Judy Garland. I can't remember my exact fantasies, but I knew this was where the excitement and glamour were. I was hooked. Starstruck--terminally star-struck.
"So you may see a shabby dressing room and outdoor johns in a wind tunnel. I see my dreams come true."
Linda's parents had given her a strict Catholic upbringing, and they were deeply concerned about her determination to become an actress. They had heard about people in show business, and were afraid that Linda's sheltered existence had not prepared her to deal with that kind of people.
Nevertheless, when she was 18, blessed with California-girl good looks and a tall, easy grace, she began a modeling career that she hoped would lead to acting. One of her first jobs was at Capital Records, where the art director was looking for a fresh young face and a good pair of Legs for album covers.
"My agent gave me such a glowing recommendation that the art director said 'If she's that good, I'll marry her'." And he did.
"I arrived at Capital and was told to go into Mr. Thrasher's office," Linda recalls. "With very little in the way of preliminaries, he told me to lift my skirt. I thought about that for a second, then lifted my skirt about half an inch to mid-kneecap. He said, 'Is that is?' I said, 'Yes.' God knows why he hired me."
For six months, Thrasher chuckled over the funny, strait-laced model while trying to get her to go out to dinner with him. Finally, she said she would. The wedding took place six months later.
"The modeling was so easy. But no one bothered to tell me that it didn't necessarily mean that my life script had Runaway Success written all over it. I was sure I was going to be a big star overnight. In my case, overnight meant 15 years.
"I made the difficult transition from print model to television model by pestering my agent to death. Once I got accepted on TV as a silent body, I started agitating for words. I trucked from audition to audition, trying to look as if I had been doing speaking commercials forever. I didn't fool too many casting directors, but finally I got a shampoo commercial.
"About 400 commercials later, I decided it was time to try for films and television. My commercial agent was in despair because every pretty girl who can steering a sentence together in a commercial thinks she's an actress.
"I, on the other hand, knew I was," says Linda, laughing. "I'd been taking acting lessons with Charles Conrad for three years. Finally, he told me to stop practicing and get out and work. Unfortunately, my name, when spoken by my agent was met with long silences.
"Then I got a guest-star part on McCloud, followed by Switch, Marcus Welby, M.D., and other series. They were OK for experience, but I wanted a movie or a regular role in a series."
It was Norman Lear, the white-haired wizard of off-beat comedy, who finally put Linda's career on course.
"I was called to come over to the Lear offices and test for All That Glitters, a new series he was casting. I knew only that it was a steady role and that Norman had a marvelous reputation for treating actor as though they were artists instead of demented children. I was, to say the very least, elated.
"Then I found out what he had in mind for me. He just looked at me with those wise, wonderful blue eyes of his and said, 'Linda, I think you'd make a wonderful transsexual.'
"Even though I had a husband and two children by that time, my parents still worried that I was too young and naive to handle myself in the show business. I never had the nerve to ask them what they thought when they saw their nicely brought-up daughter playing a transsexual.
"It was all over in 13 weeks, and while I was never comfortable with the part, I loved working with the people. But I was no longer 30 and was wondering it it would ever happen to me. I went out to test for things among them something called Dallas, and worried a lot."
When she tested for Dallas, the role of Sue Ellen was considered a mere walk-on. In fact, Linda had to do an impromptu audition with a telephone because the part was not considered important enough to bring in another actor for the test. But small as the part was, Linda was happy to get it.
"At first, they had no idea what to do with the part," says Linda. "Sue Ellen's lines ran to 'More coffee, darling?' and 'I have a headache.' Victoria Principal and Patrick Duffy were the goody-goddies. Jim Davis and Barbara Bel Geddes were parental. Larry Hagman was the villain. And I was the redhead on the couch.
"Gradually, I think because Larry and I were so wonderfully evil together and had so much fun acting off each other they beefed up my part, then out parts. This season the scripts have me getting so rotten, I jokingly asked for an armored limousine to pick me up and take me home each day."
Home. Linda talks about it often, and she means more than the luxurious ranch in the hills. It's the haven where the Dallas strumpet reverts to the country wife and mother, the center of a simple, disciplined life for her kids an some semblance of sanity for herself and her husband.
"Out life is crazy enough as it is," she says. "I don't want to add to the confusion by imposing Beverly Hills standards on my kids. Gucci handbags and Mercedes cars at 16--I just don't want that. So we live in the country and I commute an hour each way.
"The fun part of my working life, of course, is the celebrity stuff. Getting invited to different cities to do the show, going to parties occasionally. I love it. We all do. Everyone loves being in a hit, even if the critics call us the world's soapiest prime-time soap opera.
"I'm 35 years old. I work with people I love, and it's great. But the adjustment for my family has been tremendous. I am not always there for them physically, and I regret that.
"The other night we all sat down and I tried to explain how I felt about everything. How I have worked hard for this success and how important it is to me, and how hard I work now to earn it. It costs us all something. It means I need everyone's help.
"The kids have to pitch in and clean up and help make dinner when I don't get home until late. A lot of times Ed and I don't have the time to talk things over the way we'd like to.
"But we are very, very lucky to have the love and closeness that we share, and the life we lead. I'm really just very grateful."
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