A sly chat with Deborah Rennard

Deborah Rennard who played JR’s infamous secretary Sly took time out to answer questions from Dallas fans on UltimateDallas.com 
How did you get into acting?  How did you get the role of Sly, did you expect to be with the show for so many years?

 I started acting in High School doing musicals and fell in love with it. I auditioned for the executive producer Leonard Katzman to get the role of Sly. I had no idea the show would run for so long or I would get to be on it for so many years.

 Were you told how to play Sly? What information were you given about her as far as a back story?

  No. I was never told how to play Sly and I wasn’t told anything about a back story. 

 Do you recall your first scene with Larry Hagman?

Yes, very well. I think he was surprised they cast someone like me. He called me “the milkmaid” because I was so young and innocent looking. It was a scene where Sly was interviewing for the job of JR’s secretary. 

In an interview with Ultimate Dallas, Deborah Tranelli was quoted as describing the difference between Sly’s relationship with JR’s and Phyllis’ with Bobby as follows: 

“She was working for JR, so if she wanted to or not her job was at stake if she didn’t do something for JR. Whereas Bobby would never of asked Phyllis to do something illegal to support him.”  Do you think that’s an accurate assessment?

Yes.

What was your favorite episode of Dallas for you to shoot?

It’s hard to say, I loved being on the show so much.  One of my favorites was when Cliff Barnes came to blackmail me poolside at my apt. It was the first time I was brought out of the office and got to go to Dallas to shoot so it was very exciting to me.

 What was it like to work with the following people:  Patrick Duffy,  Larry Hagman, Ken Kercheval (especially when he had was blackmailing you to spy on JR & when he came to work at Ewing Oil), Linda Gray, Victoria Principal, Barbara Bel Geddes, Howard Keel, George Kennedy & William Smithers?

 I worked mostly with Larry and Patrick. They were such fun because they both have such great senses of humor and would constantly be playing practical jokes on each other and coming up with ways to top each other.  I worked with Ken Kerchaval when Cliff Barnes was blackmailing Sly. Ken wasn’t into playing practical jokes like Larry and Patrick but he was very professional and lovely to work with as well.

 Were you ever witness to, part of, or god forbid, a victim of Larry & Patrick’s practical jokes? 

I was never the recipient of one of their practical jokes that I can remember. But even if I wouldn’t have felt bad because they were always done in good humor, there was never any intention to make the other person look foolish, just to see who could out wit or top the other. I witnessed so many because I worked mostly with the two of them. They were a delight.

What were the following people like as directors.  Larry Hagman, Patrick Duffy, Ken Kercheval & Linda Gray?

All of them were really wonderful. Being actors they were very  in tune with what an actor needs and so were extremely helpful and patient. They also knew the show so well and had a very clear understanding of what they wanted so that made it easy to be directed by them and created a really good working environment.

Roseanna Christenson she stated that sometimes she was treated rather off hand by crew and a certain director, not the cast. Did you ever experience anything like this?

 That is unfortunate. No, I never experienced anything like that.

 I can imagine that if the secretaries got together with Raul and Theresa they could write a pretty scandalous tell all book about the Ewings.  Any idea what it should be called?  

 

Oh my gosh, I have no idea. 

 

 What was your shooting schedule like?  Did you film many of your scenes in the same day or week or did they call you in every now and then?  How many days a week did you work?  Was it typically an early call time to be on the set?  Did the actresses get paid, if only their voices were heard on the intercom?

 I typically worked one or two days a week. My call time varied. Usually it was some time in the morning. Sometimes it would be first call which meant I had to be on the set at 5:00 or 5:30 to go to make-up and hair.  Yes, if we just had a voice over in an episode we would still get paid.

  I’m sure you were aware that all of the secretaries on the show were named after secretaries who worked for Lorimar. Did you ever meet the real Sylvia Lovegren ?

 Yes, I did meet her. She was a lovely woman who worked as a secretary in Leonard’s office.

 What did you think of the dream season?

 They got a lot of flack for the dream sequence but I thought it was a good solution to the problem of needing to erase so many characters and also bring back Bobby.  It wasn’t an easy problem to solve.

 If you could play any part on Dallas, which character would you liked to have played?

 I never looked at anyone else’s part and wished I could play it. I was always happy to be playing my part.

 In an interview with Leigh McCloskey who played Mitch Cooper he said the feeling on the show changed over the years he came in and out. Did you notice this? He said that things became more hostile as in ‘watch your back’, did you notice this?

 No, I never noticed that. My experience was always positive on the show.

 Who was your favorite other secretary to work with?

 Deborah Tranelli. She and I spent a lot of time in the Ewing offices together. We would usually have lunch together in the commissary along with some of the other actors and our favorite hairdresser Jerry Gugliomotto who has now sadly passed away. Deborah is a fantastic singer and I also am a singer and I greatly admired her work as a singer.

 Most of your scenes took place at Ewing Oil.  It must have been fun to “get out of the office”, and do some location shooting, like the 
Ewing BBQ.  Which brings up the whole question of what was it like shooting the BBQ’s?  I can imagine with that much going on, it took awhile to stage, block and shoot.  How long did it take?
 

 Actually I was only at one or two of the BBQ’s. I do remember the last one was really huge and it took several days to shoot the scenes there, which for television is a really long time.

 Mickey_Fairgate asks: What was the reasoning behind Sly’s taking a leave of absence from Ewing Oil, in Season 7, (the season before the dream season, or DVD season 8), was it because Debbie needed time off, or the producers decided that Sly needed some time off? 

I was offered a movie and needed to go to Turkey for several months to shoot. Leonard Katzman was kind enough to tell me I could go do the movie and when I came back I would still have my job and they would write around my being gone.

 dulcineahk asks Did you like the fact that Sly remained loyal to JR in spite of everything? Also does you think her loyalty was really to JR or was it partly, or more, due to the fact that she was Harry McSween’s niece?

 Yes, I think Sly genuinely looked up to JR and he was a good boss to her despite his less than scrupulous behavior with almost everyone else.  I think she rationalized that he was a good man and that to be in his position in the oil business required him to act the way he did. And I think she was a little intimidated by him being such a powerful boss and for many years a bit blind to how unscrupulous he really was.

 Steven_Wayne asks:  Did you think that there was a tendency on DALLAS to turn women more and more into sexual objects (along the lines of e.g. J.R.s meetings with Detective Ratagan in the strip bar, or the appearance of Rose McKay)?

 Like all shows, Dallas was under pressure to keep up the ratings and I think the shows producers/writers thought that having more sex on the show would do that.

 Pam’s­_Twin_Sister asks:  1) Why was it so hard to find good subplots for the secretaries? Maybe because they did all they could do with Julie Grey?

 

 The secretaries were minor characters and there were so many main characters with so

 many plots, I don’t think it was uppermost in anyone’s mind to create story lines for the secretaries.

2)  Any unused ideas for Sly that you could share with us? By the way, your husband´s movie Crash was great!!

 I wouldn’t know because as actors we weren’t privy to what the story ideas of the writers and producers were until they were written into a script. Thanks re “Crash”, I’m very proud of him!

 3)      Sly´s quitting her job for the last time was one of her (and Phyllis´) best scenes, but it was ruined when she returned on the JR Returns Reunion. Did you have any input in that storyline?

 No, as I answered in the last question, I was never consulted about the story line of my character.

 Wizard62 asks: The amazing thing about Sly was that, unlike all of J.R.’s other secretaries (Julie Grey, Louella, Kristin), she managed to get by all those years without sleeping with J.R.. My question is, how did she then feel when they finally had Sly get in bed with J.R. in the last season. Did she feel it tainted the character? Was she happy about it? From her point of view as an actress did she wish they hadn’t written it that way, because shortly thereafter she left J.R. as the series came to an end.  I’d like to hear her thoughts about that storyline.

 Having gone all those years without ever sleeping with JR, I was shocked when I read the script. But I thought it was fun because it was so unlike my character. I also will never forget when we were shooting that scene.  I was having a little trouble understanding why Sly would sleep with JR after all this time and the producer Leonard Katzman, who was directing that episode, told me to think of Sly like Florence Nightingale, that everyone had abandoned JR and I was the last loyal person he could come to.

 Do you remember how news of the cancellation was delivered and received?  There were many different reports that some were expecting a 14th year, while others knew the end was coming.  Do you remember your last scene?

 I remember we ended season 13 not knowing if we were picked up or not. It was very strange because we went to the wrap party and didn’t know if we would all be working together in a month again or it was all over. I had started working on the daytime soap “Days of our Lives”. I remember I was sitting in my dressing room for “Days” when I found out “Dallas” was cancelled. I had gotten word and called. I was very sad that there wasn’t an opportunity to give a final goodbye to everyone.

 What was your most memorable/favorite moment on the show? 

 My most memorable moment was the episode where JR discovers I am spying on him for Cliff Barnes. He confronts me and I break down in tears. I was very nervous because I had never done anything so emotional on the show and I really wanted to do a good job. Larry saw that and he was directing. I think it was the first time he had directed me. He was so lovely and he took great care to work with me and rehearse extra with me. I will never forget that. It really endeared him to me. 

 

 I just have to comment that one of the things that Dallas really did well, which was never really spoken much about, was to employ a stable cast of recurring characters over the years (from the secretaries to the servants at Southfork and the members of the cartel just to name a few) that gave the show a sense of continuity.  You just knew that these people would turn up throughout the series run.  With the main cast and guest actors turning over so frequently, it was comforting to know that some people were just always there.  Thanks for being part of that fabric of the show. 

 Thank you for saying that. I never thought of it that way, that’s lovely. I actually felt honored to be a part of “Dallas”. I learned so much and had such a great time. And I knew it was television history. When I started it was the number one rated show on TV and had been for awhile. And for a long time it was the longest running show on television and it was the first of a genre, the night time soap. 

 

 Do you have any Dallas memorabilia?

 I have a Southfork watch and the chair from the set with my name on it.

 How was it getting back together in 1995 to shoot JR Returns?  Do you feel that the way things ended for Sly in that movie (turning on JR and ratting him out to Sue Ellen) was a fitting end for the character?

 I loved doing JR Returns because it gave me a chance to work with everyone again. I hadn’t seen any of them since the show was cancelled. It was especially great to see Larry because as you know he had been very ill and almost died. He was quite weak when we were shooting that but he has such a strong spirit and you could tell he was so happy to be playing JR again.

 What have you been doing since Dallas?

 I did a movie with Jean Claude Van Damme. I did a lot of work up in Canada while my husband was producing “Due South”. I started working with my husband, first finding writers for his shows and in development and then as a producer. I was a co-producer on a very critically acclaimed but short lived series for CBS that my husband created and ran called “EZ STREETS”. I also co-produced a pilot for CBS with my husband that was not picked up.  More recently I co-produced my husbands last film “In the Valley of Elah” that stars Charlize Theron and Tommy Lee Jones. I also had a son with my husband and gained three step-daughters with my husband so I have spent a lot of time being a mom. A few years ago I started doing some writing. I wrote a one woman show for myself which I performed at a club in Hollywood. Then I wrote a Xmas show for my sons school and now I am writing a  full length play. It was read last summer at Vassar through the NY Stage and Film Company’s summer program. I am still working on it.

 Were you sorry to leave Dallas?

I didn’t leave Dallas, I could never have left it, I loved the show and everyone on it too much. But I was very sad when it ended.

  What was it like working on Due South?

 That was such a different character for me.  I really enjoyed researching her. I went to the local morgue and got to know the coroners. It was really  interesting. I would come home and tell Paul all about it and he was a little shocked at how easy I could talk about it. He used to tease me that I took to it a little too well.

 For readers that weren’t familiar with Due South, could you please clarify what your role was on the show. 

 

I played the coroner. It was a show about a Canadian mountie who comes to the big city and teams up with a Chicago cop. Together they fight crime, the mountie has some very unusual ways he goes about his detective work. He is a fish out of water, with an alaskan huskie named “Diefenbacher”, an ex-prime minister of Canada. My character was also dating the police chief. 

 You appeared on Days of Our Lives and Sunset Beach.  How was it working on daytime television, and how did it differ from working on a primetime show like Dallas?  It seems as though a good number of former primetime actors/actresses have jumped into the daytime world at one point or another (Linda Gray, Patrick Duffy, Susan Flannery and Ted Shackleford to name a few). 

 

I can really understand why actors never want to leave daytime. I think it ‘s easy to get into that routine and there is security because the shows run for so long. It is a bit challenging learning all those lines but the way it is set up is very efficient in the way they shoot it so you have time during the day to study lines. It is a much faster pace that doesn’t allow for really working on a scene but does develop your ability to go with your impulses and develop your spontaneity as an actor.

 How did you make the decision to leave acting?

 It wasn’t like I just woke up one day and decided not to act anymore. I gradually became less interested in the parts I was getting as an actor and more interested in producing. Also, when I had my son I really didn’t want to spend all that time sitting on a set. However, I may yet be acting again. A friend of mine has written a musical she is trying to get on Broadway and she wants me to play one of the parts. It’s a funny story because she first started working on the show almost 30 years ago and I played the lead ingénue. Now I am playing the ingénues mother!

 You’re listed as a producer of several episodes of EZ Streets (1997), and a co-producer of In The Valley of Elah (2007).  What was it like being a producer, and is this something you’re working more towards now?

 I really enjoy producing. It is so different from acting but really creatively rewarding, as is writing. Right now I enjoy writing the most and have ideas for several more projects.

 You’re also wrote an episode of Due South in 1995, and are currently working on a play.  How was/is the process, and is this something you have wanted to do and are going to continue doing?  Talk about your latest project, and when/where we can look to see it.

 I kind of answered this earlier. I am continuing to work on a play that I started a few years ago. I love writing and now have several ideas for projects. My play was read at Vassar last summer and is being read next month in Hollywood at the Blank Theatre. I am continuing to work on it and then will submit it to various theatres to get it produced.

 Anakin­_Ewing asks:  Should there ever be a third movie and there is a need for Sly, would she reprise the role?

 In a heartbeat!

 Do you ever keep in contact with the other “Ewing secretaries”?

 No, I used to keep in touch with Deborah Tranelli but I moved so much and then I lost contact with her.  I would love to see her again.

 Talk about Sherill Lynn Rettino who sadly and unbelievably passed away so young.

 That is so sad. I didn’t even know that she had passed away. Maybe you can tell me what happened?  I didn’t hear.

 Sherill Lynn sadly passed away in 1995 of breast cancer (although some reports listed Lupus as the cause).  Apparently Leonard Katzman was never the same after that and passed a year later.  What was it like working with her? 

 Oh I didn’t realize it was before Leonard passed away. I went to Leonard’s memorial service. I was so sad to see him go. I admired him so much. He was such a lovely man. When he directed he was so calm and gently and had such a great love of the actors and a humor about it all. 

 

 How was it reuniting with some of the cast members at FanSource?  How long had it been since you had seen them?  How was it meeting the fans?  Would you do another event like that again? 

 It was so great to see the other cast members. I hadn’t seen any of them since we shot JR Returns. I loved meeting the fans. I was so amazed to know Dallas fans still existed! And so devoted, to come from such long distances. I couldn’t believe it.

 How did you feel/what was your reaction – when you first discovered the amazing community at UltimateDallas.com?

 Again I am completely amazed to discover there are so many loyal and devoted fans. It’s really moving to see the devotion and commitment of the fans.

 Any final words for the fans?

 Thank you all for your questions and your continued interest in my character and my career. I was always touched by the fan letters I received while on “Dallas”. I thought I was so lucky to receive so many lovely letters from fans. And your interest now just goes to show you are all still out there. Best wishes to you all. 

 Again, thank you for taking the time to do the interview.  I hope you’ll keep us all updated somehow on your projects.  I’m sure there are plenty of fans out there that would like to come see you perform when you do go back to the stage.  Please be sure to visit UltimateDallas.com and the fan forum for among other things, reaction to the interview.  I hope to see you at another Dallas fan event (perhaps when Linda gets her star later in the year).  

 Thanks Josh, I will. And I would love to come to another Dallas fan event. 

 

 

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