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EXCLUSIVE TO ULTIMATE DALLAS - official guide to the TV series.
Interview with Linda Gray who portrayed the long suffering wife of JR.......... .....Sue Ellen Ewing
by Paul Bocchini for Ultimate Dallas
Before accepting the role of Sue Ellen Ewing on the hit television series "Dallas", Linda Gray appeared in nearly 400 nationally televised commercials. Her acting career began with an appearance on "Marcus Welby M.D." and prior to "Dallas", she portrayed a transsexual on a Norman Lear sitcom. After eleven seasons as Sue Ellen, Linda Gray left "Dallas" to pursue other interests which included becoming a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations. Linda Gray returned to series television as Hilary Michael's in the Fox drama, "Models Inc." She is currently directing her first feature film.
PB: I compiled a list of all the movies that you¹ve done and I tried to rent as many as possible before I spoke with you.
LG: Oh no!
PB: The movie that caught my attention as the one not to miss was one you made in 1976 titled Dogs.
LG: (laughing) Oh please!
PB: I tried everywhere but you can't rent it. I even tried to special order it but I didn¹t have any luck. From the title it sounds like a cult hit in the making, what was it about?
LG: The bottom line, I was killed in the shower by Dobermans who then dragged my body around, kind of the poor man's version of Psycho. It was so bad. I've had a very laughable career and what has seen me through is my sense of humor. But we did it, had fun and moved on, thank God.
PB: In 1977, you starred in one of Norman Lear's television shows called "All That Glitters" playing a transsexual. In 1999, a transsexual character would be controversial. How did it go over twenty years ago?
LG: It was fabulous, it was one of the best roles that I'¹ve ever done. When I got the part, Norman said "You're perfect for this role!" I asked him to explain the role to me and he said "you're playing a transsexual." My eyes just spun around in my head but after I read the script I said "OK, but if I'm going to represent a transsexual than I need to talk to a transsexual and I don't know any transsexuals." He said "it's just acting." "No it's not just acting. What if they see it and I'm doing something upside down and not proper. I want to make sure they aren't embarrassed by having me up here." So he flew down this fabulous woman named Rusty. They put us in a room and I had a yellow legal pad with questions. I knew she thought I was some Hollywood actor who was going to make mock of them and I knew she'd have those feelings. I had to convince her that I was an actor trying to get information. After that, we spent the next eight hours in that room. She told me the fascinating story of her sex change operation, telling me how she had known since early childhood that she was in the wrong body. She was so cool, Norman flew her down a couple times while we were filming. It was a great experience and I just loved it.
PB: When did you first hear about a television show called "Dallas" and what was the audition process like?
LG: The woman who cast me in "All That Glitters," her name is Ruth Conforte and she was in charge of casting the minor characters on "Dallas" and they had already cast Mary Fran in the role.
PB: As Sue Ellen?
LG: Yes! People don¹t know this. They had already cast Victoria and most of the others. Then they said "we are looking for the wife of JR Ewing." It was a really minor role. In the first script I had two lines like "more coffee darling, or more coffee." If anybody ever sees the first episode I was never even referred to, and never as JR's wife. I could have been the tennis pro or some girl friend who had spent the night. So Ruth said "do you know Linda Gray," and the producers said "who?" Ruth said "she's doing this thing for us" and explained to them about "All That Glitters," but they said "oh no, she's doing comedy and this is dramatic." Ruth said "just see her." "No, no, we want Mary Fran." They figured that Victoria Principal was dark, so they wanted a blonde. Finally I came in and read this scene which was a phone conversation with JR who tells me yet again that he isn't coming home for our child's birthday party. Sue Ellen knows that isn't true and he is with one of his mistresses. I did it beautifully and I knew the minute I walked out of that door that I had that part. It wasn't like I hope, I hope, I hope, it was more like I know, I know, I know. I was right, I got it.
PB: Initially you were only supposed to be in the first few episodes of "Dallas" and in the beginning you weren't even listed in the opening credits. How did you manage to turn Sue Ellen from a minor decoration into the major female lead?
LG: I remember in the first episode sitting on the couch and the camera went around and shot close-ups of everybody just to get reaction shots, but I was the only one without any dialogue. Larry was talking all the time, and Patrick was saying a few things, Jock was talking, Miss Ellie, and Pamela, everybody had something to say but me. As JR was going on and on, I stared at him and all this stuff started going on behind my eyes. It was like "who are you and why are you carrying on like this? You are the most idiotic pain in the ass kind of man on the planet. Why would I be married to you?" So when it came to my close-up, I just projected that. Then CBS saw the chemistry between Larry and I and said "Whoa, what's going on here? Let's investigate."
PB: I remember the insanity during the Summer while we all waited to find out who shot JR.
PB: How crazy was your life during that Summer and what extremes did people go to trying to find out if you knew who it was or if you would tell?
LG: It was one of those summers where you thought, please just be over. We really had no idea what it would turn into, I mean, JR got shot, big deal. I would try to go and get milk or bread at the market but I couldn¹t go anywhere. I had the baseball hat and glasses and whatever else you do to disguise yourself. It was a very small community and everybody knew me. And people thought they were so clever, (mockingly), "Who shot JR, ha, ha, ha." We would get money bribes and foreign countries were calling Larry and offering him huge amounts of money. Of course we knew, but we couldn`t say.
PB: You did know?
LG: We knew because we filmed it.
PB: I read in many different sources that several people had filmed the `I did it` episode and that the cast didn't find out who did it until we found out when the episode aired. Is that completely false?
PB: You knew all summer and everybody kept quiet?
LG: I did it in voice over. I went from the set where we shot the series to where they did the sound. I walked in with two armed guards and did the voice over where I said "Kristin, you shot JR." I had already done it before the hiatus.
PB: Well, I think this is a myth that is going to be dispelled.
LG: And you can do it.
PB: This is going to be a Pulitzer moment for me when I expose this.
LG: You go babe, go.
PB: In my opinion, your best acting moment came at the start of the dream year when Sue Ellen falls off the wagon yet again. This time however, she hits rock bottom and is even drinking on skid row with a bag lady. What do you consider your finest acting moment on "Dallas"?
LG: It was that season. You and I have the same great taste. I had for a few years begged the producers, "please, no more drinking, no more affairs." It had been drinking, affairs, drinking and more drinking and then more affairs. It wasn¹t what I wanted to depict as a woman. I know Sue Ellen had married the wrong man but I didn¹t want to keep portraying her as a victim all the time. If you're Meryl Streep or Susan Sarandon and you're portraying that character in a two hour movie that's one thing. But when you are playing it every week, it really starts to get boring. I begged them to stop and they were so patronizing, "you do it so well." and I'd say "thank you", through clenched teeth, "but I don't want to drink anymore." Then one year we had new producers come in and they said "let's think about this." They came back to me with this great idea. "We will have you stop drinking but we have to take you rock bottom first." This sounded great. The best thing about it, besides the acting, was I was in and out of make up in twenty minutes. They'd put some gel stuff in my hair, some white wash on my face and I was ready. Usually it would take two hours to do Sue Ellen's hair and make-up.
PB: The scene with you in the detoxification centre was about as unglamorous as you could be.
LG: That¹s what I wanted, I had a Valentino outfit on and I said "let's do it and make it as real as possible." I will never forget filming it in that place. We went into a jail in Dallas and it was slimy and awful. I told the director to make sure everybody was ready because when I let out this primal scream I wanted it to be from my toes. I didn¹t want to rehearse it. That was the most creatively gratifying moment for me.
PB: Once people knew I was interviewing you they had two questions for me to ask. First, "Ask her what it was like doing love scenes with Christopher Atkins and having him walk around in a bathing suit in every scene," and secondly, "How come Sue Ellen and Pam were always dressed to the nines whether sitting by the pool, horseback riding, or out for lunch, but Miss Ellie always looked like she shopped off the rack at Wal-Mart."
LG: (laughing) These are great questions. Well, Miss Ellie always designed her own dresses with her seamstress and we couldn¹t get her out of those damn pearls. But I adored Barbara Bel Geddes and she was the only one I knew of by reputation. I mean, I knew Larry from "I Dream of Jeannie" and Patrick was with the frogs in what was that, "The Man from Atlantis." But Barbara Bel Geddes was kind of an icon for me as an actress. I thought if Barbara Bel Geddes is doing this series than it's an honor to be doing this with her. But she's from the East coast and she is theatre trained and I think her clothing represented a Barbara Bush kind of thing, where they dress differently than we do here. Their focus isn't on fashion but on sensible shoes and clothes. Looking back, I think it was perfect the way she dressed. Even though it was Texas, I think Miss Ellie has some Eastern breeding and was a little more proper and blue blood.
PB: And Christopher Atkins? I mean it, this came up before Miss Ellie's wardrobe.
LG: When they first cast him as the younger man I thought "Great, he's so cute." We used to tease each other all the time. He'd be " oh geez, I have to do this scene again in my blue speedo", and I'd be "Yes! And I hope all the scenes are in the blue speedo." It was such fun. I¹d love the scenes where he'd walk away and I could check out his butt, he's just adorable.
PB: In the cliffhanger of the dream year when you blew up in JR's office, if that hadn¹t turned out to be a dream, do you know how you were you going to survive or were you thinking of leaving?
LG: No I don't. Part of it I think (laughing) between you, me and all your readers is that they were always concerned that none of us asked for too much money and if we did, we'd be dead or written out. Those finales were always used to tease some of us, to put the fear of God into us in case we asked for more money during a negotiation year. If we did, we could be written out. I think that is really dirty pool because if you ask for too much money they could always say no.
PB: On the topic of the dream year, a lot of people have strong opinions of what they thought when it all turned out to be Pam's dream. What did the cast think when the writers announced it was all dream and it never really happened. Did you think it was an easy way out?
LG: We all talked about it. We all went Œughhh, moaning and groaning. But the reality was we all sat down one day on the set and realized we'd be criticized no matter what we did or how they solved this situation. The dream thing started people talking. I don't think people today talk about television as much. Good, bad or indifferent, the shower scene was one of the first shows where people talked about it on Monday morning. Whether it was "what did you think about that stupid dream thing," or "wasn't that clever." Whether it was good or bad, it was controversial and people still talk about it.
PB: In 1985, Rock Hudson¹s AIDS diagnosis was made public and there was the hysteria over "the kiss" with Linda Evans. Six years later in 1991, Dack Rambo who played Jack Ewing, disclosed that he had AIDS. Although it was six years later and he too had done love scenes, had enough time passed that there wasn't a panic or was there panic on the "Dallas" set?
LG: You know that's an excellent question. I don't think on the set there was panic. By then people had more awareness of what the disease was and more empathy. In the beginning, whenever anything starts and is new, people panic and go crazy, I really think people do that because they are ignorant and not educated as to what the disease entails. In my mind, six years was enough to get people educated, now not fully and not everybody, but enough people who cared enough about loved ones getting this disease. I had two terrific friends dying of AIDS and I didn't quite know all of the things yet. I`d ask what`s happening and why? Dack was just wonderful, I loved Dack, he was a good human being.
PB: I found the second episode of "Dallas" that you directed but I couldn't find the first. Which one was the first?
LG:The first was the Masquerade Ball. I did that episode with Barbara Carrera and it was tough. Normally, "Dallas" would have two people in bed, two people in an office, and two people at dinner. But not me, no, give her as the first episode that she will direct, a Masquerade Ball that takes place in Martinique. And I thought, "Oh Shit!"
PB: They picked the episode for you?
LG: Yes they did.
PB: Was it a scare tactic?
LG: I don't know, I was relentless, I had begged and begged, please let me direct one episode in the next two years and they said "No." I had studied directing on Sunday's which was our only day off with a wonderful French woman director named Lillian Cheauvin, so I felt comfortable asking. I wasn¹t just one of the stars of the show asking, "Let me direct," as if it was a given. They said "no," and I asked why, They said "then all the other woman will want to direct." I said "none of the women I know want to direct, Barbara doesn¹t want to direct, Victoria doesn't want to direct, Charlene doesn't want to direct and let them ask if they want to. But don't say no because the rest of the women might want to." It was an on going battle so I think my first script was like, "we are going to get her." It was a nightmare but I did it and I did it well.
PB: After 11 years as Sue Ellen, you decided to leave "Dallas." What made you decide that it was time to go?
LG: I was contracted through year 11 and Mr. Katzman and I talked about it. Sue Ellen had come more than full circle. She was her own person, she was standing up to JR, she had her own company, a wonderful man from London, she had all the right things going for her. To continue after this upswing would have been where do we go from here? I thought I'd rather end on a high upbeat note than try to rehash something and have Sue Ellen start drinking again or whatever they might do to me. I thought it was just time to bail out of here.
PB:Today it seems common for television actors like Helen Hunt, Ellen DeGeneres and Fran Drescher to cross over and do feature films. Movie actors like Glenn Close, Meryl Streep and Alfre Woodard are doing television. When "Dallas" was at its zenith, were feature films an option for you or is it a relatively new trend?
LG: Actually we were before our time because we said "you should put us in feature films." As a matter of fact, Dan Gordon who is a big feature writer, had him come see Larry, Patrick, Victoria, and myself at out homes to discuss what he would do for Dallas: The Movie like they did X-Files. Because it was then, people went, "oh, they're television," and the cross over wasn¹t as smooth. We kept telling them that we could bring people into the theatres. Someone had suggested why don¹t we do "Dallas", like The Naked Gun, do it as a huge comedy. Then they said "great idea, but then nobody will take you seriously when they see you on television." Now you have Jennifer Aniston and everybody is doing everything. I think we were at a time when they just wouldn't buy a premise.
PB:How did you get involved with the United Nations?
LG: I had been to Kenya and done an environmental program for the BBC. When I came back from Kenya, I met a wonderful woman named Mary who had just been there. It turned out that we had met the same Masai woman. Mary said "I'm doing this script and the United Nations is involved, would you like to read the script?" It was two stories about woman in Kenya and these abusive things that were happening to young children in Thailand. Young girls were being sold into prostitution to bring money to the family to feed the other children. These were huge issues and as a woman, I didn't realize these problems were going on as rampantly as they were. I said "what can I do to help." Mary called the UN and said "I've shown the script to Linda Gray and she wants to help." They flew out and we had lunch, they shared what they had and I suggested some ideas. They told me Richard Dreyfuss company was going to produce it and I thought that was wonderful. People should know about this, it was like AIDS, knowledge is power. When you are educated then you know what you can do. When I said I'd like to help, I thought they'd say that I could make coffee on the set but they asked if I would be the goodwill ambassador to the United Nations. I thought, "Whoa, I didn't expect that." The campaign is called Face to Face and that is what we do, we go to these countries and talk to women face to face about their problems and what they can do.
PB: Last two questions. I hope this isn't a sore subject but what happened to Models Inc?
LG: It isn't a sore subject. It's what we all asked. We needed great scripts and we needed great scripts from the get go. Brian Gaskill played my son and I just adored him and those kids. I think they were given too much responsibility too soon. Instead of letting them walk through the paces and gradually building up their parts, they gave Brian too much responsibility too soon. Then they said "oh he doesn't work," and threw him away like an old Kleenex, which I thought was not cool. I feel had we been given better scripts and kept the core small and then expanded as they got more confident, then it would have been better. As big as "Dallas" was, "Models Inc."was humungous. I had never seen anything like it in my life. If they had taken the focus and hired good script writers from the beginning, to grab everybody from the start, it would have worked. Instead they relied on the beauty of the people rather than substance.
PB: What is your current project?
LG: The thing I`m excited about is I'm co-producing and co-directing a feature film in Tuscancy this summer.
PB: Are you going to be in it or just behind the camera?
LG: Small part, small part.
PB: Feature film?
LG: Yes, and its behind the camera and I love it. I love it when we go through our transition stages.
PB: That was the last question. Thank you so much for doing this.
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