BY MARLA CANTRELL
Linda Gray, one of the world’s most recognized stars is the featured speaker for the 30th Anniversary Bolo Bash® Luncheon and Reception on April 16 and 17.
Long before Linda Gray played Sue Ellen on Dallas, she dreamed of Hollywood. As a child in Santa Monica, Calif., while attending a Catholic school, she acted in plays, earning roles that included both a sunflower and the Virgin Mary.
There, on the small stage, Gray’s big plans unfolded. At home, she told her parents she wanted to become an actor. While they were kind in their response, they let her know that it wasn’t an acceptable plan for their devout Catholic daughter.
Modeling, however, was a good alternative, and Gray seemed perfect for it. She walked the runways at bridal shows, modeled for clothing catalogs and posed in bathing suits. All the while, she kept her dream of acting close, although she rarely mentioned it. “I was kind of quiet about it,” Gray says.
At that time, in that world, successful actors were not doing commercials. Gray says there was a belief that models were little more than coat hangers, a means to showcase a beautiful piece of clothing.
“People were very negative. They’d say, ‘You can’t act, and you can’t speak as a model,’” she says.
“I had this little phrase inside of me that I still use; it’s ‘Watch me.’ There was a feisty chihuahua inside of me. I kept thinking, How can they tell me what to do and that models can’t speak?”
Of course, Gray did appear in commercials, and she did speak, quite effectively. In her first, she mopped and promoted a floor cleaner. That led to a long line of work that continued even when she was pregnant (she has a son and daughter). She remembers the tight shot that focused on her face and her hair, which was lathered in shampoo. Her pregnancy was kept under wraps.
She appeared in 400 TV ads, but it was a movie poster that gave her one of her best stories. The 1967 film was The Graduate, starring Anne Bancroft, who played Mrs. Robinson. The poster shows a woman’s legs as she puts on silk stockings. But those aren’t Bancroft’s legs on the poster; they’re Gray’s. She laughed when she said, “I was paid 25 dollars for that project.”
Years later, on a stage in London’s West End, Gray came full circle, playing the role of Mrs. Robinson, enjoying the energy that comes from performing for a live audience.
Of course, most remember Gray in her role as Sue Ellen Ewing on Dallas, a TV series that debuted in 1978 and lasted eleven years. In the beginning, only five shows were ordered. No one understood what a mega-hit it would be.
Gray was cast as Sue Ellen, the wife of J.R. Ewing, played by Larry Hagman. He was a scoundrel. She was an alcoholic. When they were on screen together, sparks flew.
“It was a challenge and a joy to play Sue Ellen. I was never supposed to be an important character, but when they saw the chemistry between Larry and I, that’s when it changed,” she says. “It was supposed to be Victoria [Principal] and Patrick [Duffy] as the main focal point. But when they saw that Larry and I were a little bit crazy together, they started paying attention. We were like five-year-olds together; we would do bad things. Larry would say, ‘You’ve got a button missing from your shirt,’ and I’d say, ‘I don’t sew buttons on shirts.’ CBS saw this and said, ‘These guys are interesting.’
“It was like a sparring match being on camera with Larry. We never knew what the other one was going to do, and that was the magic. Our fights were delicious.”
Those fights drew in fans who watched these stories unfold on a ranch called Southfork. The Ewing clan made their money in oil, working hard and playing harder. Over the course of their 11-year run, Sue Ellen and J.R. married, divorced, remarried and divorced again. The show was classified as a nighttime soap opera for women, due in large part to the couple’s theatrics. But women weren’t watching alone.
“When the men saw the business dealings going on and the corruption, they started watching,” Gray says. “They loved J.R., and they either saw part of themselves in J.R., or they had a boss who was like him.”
The series handled tough topics in a new way and opened the door for healing.
“A lot of marriages had to take a look and say, ‘We may need a little therapy.’ I think a lot of people thought long and hard about their lives. It was the first time they’d really seen a woman alcoholic on film. We talked about Miss Ellie [the matriarch of the family] having a mastectomy. At that time, a lot of things were under the rug, too sensitive to talk about.”
Gray directed five episodes, after studying under a French director, an accomplishment she adored.
“I was getting bored with Sue Ellen,” she says. “I told the producers, ‘Look, I’m getting bored with Sue Ellen. I’m drinking, and I’m having affairs, and then I’m having affairs, and I’m doing more drinking.
“They fired me after season eight,” Gray adds. “They said if that’s all you want is to direct, not more money, nothing else, we can’t have you back. I said, ‘Okay,’ and I left. Larry called and said, ‘I’ll see you next season,’ and I said, ‘No, you won’t because I am fired.’ So Larry went to them and said, ‘If she goes, I go.’ He came in on a white horse and saved me.”
Gray can’t say enough about the cast of Dallas. They’ve stayed in touch, bound together by true friendship. They even mourned together when Hagman died in 2012.
There have been revivals of the show, twice in made-for-TV movies, and a reboot of Dallas on TNT from 2011 to 2013. It seems fans can never get enough of the Ewing family, and neither can Gray.
At least once a month, Gray has lunch with Patrick Duffy. This past Christmas, he gave her a sourdough starter that had been in his family for 105 years. The night of the Oscars, Gray made a loaf of sourdough bread with it, and a pasta dish her 16-year-old grandson loves and took it all to her daughter’s house.
As they watched the awards show, she celebrated all the nominees. Gray knows that the honor of acting cannot be encased in a golden statue. The recognition comes from the knowledge that you created something memorable. That you stayed true to a commitment, you love. And when someone doubted that you could make it, you simply answered, “Watch me.”
For tickets, visit baptisthealthfoundation.org/event/bolo-bash-luncheon-reception.