What is a great way to celebrate and mark your 75th birthday? Well, if you are iconic Dallas star Linda Gray (Sue Ellen), you do it by looking back on your life’s journey filled with its bumpy roads, potholes, wrong turns, and right turns! This month, Gray has released her memoir,The Road to Happiness is Always Under Construction (available on Amazon.com and book stores everywhere) which details her life’s adventures, but also gives to women of any age; wisdom and tips on how to deal with whatever curve balls life throws at you.
In her book, Gray shares some very deeply personal stories and memories including: her early childhood illness, her mother’s battle with alcohol, her stormy marriage to her one and only husband, and landing the role as Sue Ellen Ewing on the original Dallas. She also reveals more about her unique and special friendship with her longtime Dallas co-star, the incomparable Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing). In addition, Linda let’s her readers in on crafting her portrayal of the best drunk on TV, and relates her heartbreak and frustration over the cancellation of TNT’s reboot of the series.
On-Air On-Soaps chatted with the effervescent Gray to get some more insight into the topics revealed in her memoir. For any fan of Dallas, you will love to read how Linda created and revised her portrayal of Sue Ellen Ewing, what happened when she found out Sue Ellen was going to go on a bender after J.R’s Ewing death, and the trauma of being away from America during 9/11 and watching it all play out in London, while performing in the stage version of Mrs. Robinson.
As an accomplished director and her fight to direct episodes in a male-dominated series such as Dallas, to her work as former United Nations Ambassador, and her numerous film, stage, and TV roles, this can be said: Linda takes risks, fights for what she believes in, and has one of the biggest hearts. So, here’s our chat about the life and times of Linda Gray in her own words.
Your life has such an interesting dichotomy to it – early on as a child you were afflicted with polio. Fast forward you became one of the most sought after leg models at the beginning of your career. One of your most notable gigs … was doubling for Anne Bancroft on the poster of the motion picture, The Graduate!
LINDA: The front and the back cover of my memoir are all about legs, and I fought the book publishers on that. But they said to me, “Well, you do talk about polio.” I finally said, “O.K. put them in. Put those little legs on the cover.” Hard to believe I became this leg model. But as far as the polio, I never really talked about it until the book. It never even occurred to me to even talk to my kids about, which is kind of odd, but only because it wasn’t an issue. You don’t dwell on it.
But as a young girl weren’t you terrified learning you had polio?
LINDA: Actually, I wasn’t. Everyone is my family didn’t know what to do and they were so saddened. But I thought: “Wait a minute. Grandpa is doing great. He is in his wheelchair, and I can have my own little wheelchair, and I go around with grandpa!” The family was crazed when I said that. They all were just sobbing and they didn’t want to have to put me in an iron lung. I was just five-years-old. What did I know? I just thought it was cool: “Grandpa was fine, so I can be in a wheelchair.”
You were married to your husband Ed Thrasher for over two decades. He had created some of the most amazing album covers including: “Purple Rain” for Prince. But in your book, you reveal you felt emotionally trapped and unsupported by him, which ultimately led to your break-up. What can you summarize happened there?
LINDA: Ed was a lovely human being, but here is the bottom line: He was an art director/photographer and a really good one, obviously. His dream was to move to the country and build a house, and have horses and live a cowboy life. I was like, “It’s OK to follow his dreams, but what about my dreams?” I thought my dream was never going to happen. So, I thought, “This is not working.” I took acting classes and not being a very rebellious woman about it. I was married and had children, and I was responsible. However, I wanted to fulfill my dream, and so I did. Ed was OK with that, but then I got this job on Dallas and as it progressed, and the show and I became more successful, he hated my success. He didn’t want me to do it, and that was traumatic. I wanted my husband to be supportive of my dream, like I was with him. We were apart emotionally, spiritually, physically, and the relationship was not supportive and loving.
I thought one of the more interesting things about the dissolution of your relationship is that you had secretly gone and gotten another place to live in Malibu.
LINDA: I did! I felt trapped, and I needed my own space to say, “Let’s rethink this thing. I can’t rethink it when I am in the house, and then on the set of Dallas.” I had no escape valve. I needed to take a breath, and a break, and I had to find a place, and I did. I found it in like a day and half.
And somehow the relationship had a full circle moment: when your children, and you, were present at Ed’s deathbed. Were you glad you were there?
LINDA: I felt it was kind of divinely guided – that Patrick Duffy (Bobby, Dallas) and I were at Larry Hagman’s (J.R. Ewing, Dallas) deathbed – and my children and I were together for Ed’s death. It made it so meaningful. There was closure in the most beautiful way. It was saying goodbye and saying, “We will see you when we get there.” It was magical, and things in my life have been magical. A lot of my friends went, “Oh, my God. You were present at your ex-husband’s death bed?” And I went, “Yes! He was the father of my children. Why would I not be there?”
Your memoir draws a lot of parallels in your life including: as the attacks of 9/11 were happening in the United States, you were in London performing in the stage version of Mrs. Robinson. And in Mrs. Robinson, you had a terrifying time having to drop a towel during each performance, in which you are then nude on-stage for a few seconds. How did you get through those moments?
LINDA: When I was performing in Mrs. Robinson in London and 9/11 happened, I couldn’t come home. I was under contract for five months and my children were here in the states. So, I watched 9/11 from the UK. I watched our country ban together and support one another, and be more patriotic that I had ever seen before. I wanted to be part of it, but I had to be part of it from a far. As far as the towel moment in Mrs. Robinson, I did not want to drop the towel during the performances. I loved the movie and the play, and it was an iconic moment. I asked two of my girlfriends in London to please go see the show with Kathleen Turner in the role, and see if that moment is really offensive. If it is, I’m not going to do it. They went and called me and reported back that it is tastefully done and 15 seconds long. They also told me the lighting is beautiful and you are at the very back of the stage, and there are wooden shutters. So, I said I would do the show. I was terrified over that and doing it every night. I never got less terrified. (Laughs) It was traumatic.
In your book, you detail your mother had a drinking problem and that for years you were not close. However, when you received the first scripts from Dallas you shared them with her, because Sue Ellen drank. You went on to relate that this moment brought you closer together than you had ever been. It was then that your mother basically admitted to you for the first time, she did have a problem with alcohol. Did you base Sue Ellen Ewing’s battle with booze at all off of your mother’s experience?
LINDA: First, it was a powerful moment for me. It was almost divinely guided again that I got to play my mother’s life, but it wasn’t hers. She was more like a blurry drinker and was kind not there a lot of times, but she was not the Sue Ellen type drunk. When I play a character, I go way deep into it and try to find the nuggets such as: Why did she marry J.R. Ewing? Sue Ellen and my mother were not the same, and I never wanted the comparison at all. I wanted to create a different character. I didn’t want to emulate my mother.
Were you concerned you would become an alcoholic in real life? You were playing an alcoholic on television, and your mother also had struggled with it.
LINDA: No. I think people forget that alcoholism is a disease that needs to be treated. It can’t be pushed under the rug, but that was the society that I grew up in. Everybody had wet bars and little alcohol bottles, and that was the way it was – it was the Mad Men time. Everybody drank, and some people drank to excess, and some people drank a cocktail, or whatever they did. When you realize you have grown up like this and it is a disease, I went to Al-Anon meetings to find out … how do I deal with this when I got a little older? I realized it is hereditary and you have to be very, very careful. You have to pay attention. You don’t do stupid things.
Every Dallas fan knows you portrayed the best … drunk … ever! Fans couldn’t wait for Sue Ellen to get tipsy, or fall off the wagon hard! In your memoir, you talk about the little things you would do as actress to play drunk. How did you decide how far to go with her when Sue Ellen was inebriated?
LINDA: One of my pet peeves is seeing actors go over the top. For me, when I thought about Sue Ellen, she is a very classy, wealthy Dallas woman. She wouldn’t just go running around falling down drunk and sloppy. I didn’t want that, and I didn’t want her to be portrayed like that. In the first five episodes, Sue Ellen didn’t have that much to do. So, I would go to the mall and check out the women: what did they wear, what kind of purse did they carry, what kind of shoes did they wear, where did they get their hair done, what do they talk about, what do they eat, and what do they drink. There is one night I talk about in the book in a hotel ladies room, and a woman opens her very tiny Judith Leiber purse in there. We are both putting on lipstick. I happen to look down at her purse and I said, “Is that a gun?” (Laughs) And she says with her Dallas accent and beautiful eyes, “Well, yes, Darlin’. This is Texas.” I thought, “Oh, God! Where am I?” (Laughs) It was one of those wonderful moments, and so I even told the producer of Dallas, “Please put this in the show,” and he did!
I remember, and you even addressed this, that when you first started on Dallas, Sue Ellen had a much stronger dialect. However, as the show moved along you softened it.
LINDA: Yes. It was to over the top at the beginning, and I nuanced it. I had never been to Dallas before. I didn’t know, and nobody seemed to be telling me otherwise. I look back at it now and how I sounded, and I just laugh!
What about that final bender on TNT’s reboot of Dallas? Sue Ellen drank up a storm and then Southfork was set on fire! Originally, it looked like she was the guilty party! Later it would be revealed, she wasn’t. However, Sue Ellen was guzzling everything in sight! Are those scenes hard, or fun to play?
LINDA: As far as those types of scenes; my most favorite moment was when Sue Ellen got to play drunk in the alley on the original Dallas with the bag lady! (Laughs) I loved it. The actress who played her was phenomenal. We had the best time working together. I loved the make-up and the hair for the scenes, because they could do it in ten minutes! Normally, the Sue Ellen that we knew and loved took two hours to get ready – one hour in hair, and one hour in make-up. I couldn’t sit that long. It was crazy! But in the reboot version, when I opened one script after Larry Hagman had passed, the script said, “And, Sue Ellen pours a drink.” I thought I was going to pass out. I was so mad. I thought “C’mon!” They told me I was never going to drink again. I have done it well, and as best as I could, and now you’re going to have me drink again? I was not happy. But then they said, and they were very kind to me about it, that when J.R. Ewing dies, we do think it’s appropriate for Sue Ellen to have that drink. So, I talked to some of my friends in AA and I said, “Help me with this. It’s written in the script that I am mad, and I think it’s inappropriate.” They said, “No, no. Hold on. That would be a moment when you would drink, if you were so inclined, and if you didn’t have a sponsor who was babysitting you.” So then I said to the producers, “OK fine.” So that is when they had the fire, and the whole drinking binge.
In your book, you fondly recall working with your longtime scene partner, the iconic Larry Hagman. You share that when on the set of Dallas that once he knew you could ping-pong off of him in scenes, an this dynamic repartee emerged between J.R. and Sue Ellen, he embraced you. What is your takeaway from your experience of knowing this bigger than life man, and the deep friendship you shared?
LINDA: Larry was, and is extraordinaire. Patrick Duffy and I talk about this all the time that he will always be a part of our lives. He’s the magical, mystical, pied-piper as I would call him. He was a party! The minute Larry walked in; the party began no matter what you were doing. He was so generous and kind, and he was so supportive to everyone around him. Larry wasn’t afraid of death. In the book when my divorce happened and I am living in Malibu, Larry didn’t even know that we were a half a mile away from each other. He came to me with the best bubbly champagne, and threw me on his scooter, and he took me around Malibu. It was so beautiful. In kind of my repressed marriage, he was a breath of fresh air, and a gift to me. Dallas was gift to me.
When TNT’s Dallas was cancelled after only three seasons, were you devastated? So many fans of the show hoped it would live to see another day, but sadly it did not happen.
LINDA: I was mad, because I feel like the executives did not give us the respect that the series deserved. It was a generational show, and we were iconic, and one of the most watched TV series ever. I remember I was driving in LA when I saw this billboard saying, “The final season of Mad Men” Now that was respect to me. They gave Mad Men the respect to say, “OK, guys. Set your DVR’s and sit in front of the TV, and do whatever you want. But this is done … this is the finale. So, we want to tell you in advance.” Had they done that with the reboot of Dallas, and given us 5, 8, 10 more shows, and sewn up every plotline, and said, “Goodbye, you will never see these people again so make sure to watch,” I would have liked that. Yes, I know it’s sad, but give us the respect! They didn’t. They waited six months before they told us we were canceled, which I thought was really not nice. I put in the book, because I felt that strongly about it. Not only that; it was the fans they disappointed. I went to London after we were canceled to do Cinderella, and I played the Fairy Godmother. All the fans who came backstage after the play would ask, “Why did Dallas get canceled?” The fans not only were disappointed, but they felt disrespected, too.
So, what did you think about Linda’s life stories including: playing a drunk Sue Ellen, working with Larry Hagman and her enduring friendship, her real-life marriage, her frustration over the sudden ending of TNT’s Dallas, and her iconic run on the CBS hit version of the series? Share your thoughts in the comment section below!