Ask Linda Gray what makes the the show Dallas so iconic, and the actress — who played J.R. Ewing's long-suffering, alcoholic wife Sue Ellen on the long-running CBS primetime soap opera as well as its TNT revival — can't fully explain it.
"Sometimes the answer is I have no idea what makes it so iconic and why people still talk about it," Gray says. "It came to television when people had three channels — no TiVo, no 900 channels. You had to be home or wherever you were and had to sit down and watch it because there were no replays or nothing, and if you weren't there when people started talking about it, you'd have to stop them and say, 'I didn't see it.'"
Maybe it's because it harkens back to a simpler time in television history, prior to so-called reality TV, when rich people weren't portrayed as having it all or living problem-free lives. Maybe it's because Dallas touched on issues such as alcoholism and greed, without being overly moralizing.
"It began a conversation," Gray says. "People dream, 'If only I had all that money or that big house and those beautiful clothes and cars ...' and I think the show took them out of their 9-to-5 life and showed them these very rich, dysfunctional people and they would say, 'Our life isn't so bad after all.'"
At 8 p.m. Thursday, March 23, Gray will join actor Patrick Duffy, who played Bobby Ewing on Dallas, at the Winspear Opera House to discuss how the saga of the Ewing Oil empire and the events of the iconic Southfork Ranch left such an indelible imprint on pop culture.
Gray says there was truth to all of the characters and their struggles, even if they sometimes seemed extreme.
"At its core, it's about family and dysfunction at its finest," Gray says with a laugh. "Most families have a tiny bit of dysfunction and things aren't at 100 percent. That's the norm. Nobody had it at 100 percent growing up and it was up to you to make it the best that it could be. Everybody got out of Dallas what they needed. They could find that piece of the puzzle they could fit into their lives."
Viewers also loved the way the cast appeared to be a family off screen.
"The big picture is the friendships we had off camera," Gray says. "A lot of ensemble TV shows, they're not always as close, but we were just blessed in many ways because we got along and loved each other and loved working together, and we were supportive of each other."
Gray says being on a show as big as Dallas can be grueling, but working with people you consider friends can provide a strong foundation for a hectic career.
"The spotlight was on us because we were on the biggest show in the world, and when that happens, all you do is do your job and go home and then there's this spotlight shining on you," she says. "The friendships kept everything normal. It was weird. I'm sure it's not as weird as it is now, but basically, you're very protective of your private life and when people want to know what you had for breakfast, it's just a very odd thing."
Gray says she's not sure what to expect when the spotlight is literally shining on her again at the Winspear Opera House and an entire auditorium full of fans will have all sorts of questions about the show and how it affected her career and her life.
"I don't quite know what the show's going to be," Gray says. "I loved it. I thought, 'Wow, they are still wanting to know things about Dallas.' Because when you think about it, after all these years, I thought we discussed everything. I think people are still fascinated because it made an imprint on their lives. They want to know how was it and want me to tell the story. It's just one of those things, and I'm honored to know that people still want to know more about it."
A Dallas Retrospective with Linda Gray and Patrick Duffy, 8 p.m. Thursday, March 23, Winspear Opera House, 2403 Flora St., $29-$49, attpac.org.
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Danny Gallagher has been a regular contributor to the Dallas Observer since 2014. He has also written features, essays and stories for MTV, the Chicago Tribune,Maxim, Cracked, Mental_Floss, The Week, CNET and The Onion AV Club.