Film and TV

As the Ewings Return to Dallas For a Second Shot, Linda Gray on Sue Ellen Then and Now

Larry Hagman's already in Dallas -- downtown, to be specific, where the once and future J.R. Ewing will speak at 11 this morning and again at 2 this afternoon during Earth Day Dallas doings. (Jock would be so ashamed.) Then, tomorrow night at around 8, Hagman is scheduled to stop by the Texas Theatre to introduce those early-days episodes of Dallas being screened weekly at the reanimated Oak Cliff institution.


That's Linda Gray's reaction to that bit of news, shared over a phone line a few days ago. Mostly, she just can't believe there's a theater in Dallas screening Dallas. She tells Unfair Park maybe she'll tag along with Hagman tomorrow. "Wouldn't that be fun?" She digs the idea. Digs it. But. It just depends. Don't get your hopes up. "But I'd love it."

Gray should be here any moment; so too Patrick Duffy, Charlene Tilton and Steve Kanaly, all returning to Southfork one more time for TNT's next-generation reboot of Dallas also starring lesser-known fresh faces as the Ewing spawn. They begin work on Wednesday and will go for 11 days on a pilot episode; a few weeks after that, network bosses and studio executives will decide whether there's still something left in the well.

"And it's almost surreal, frankly," Gray says about her return to Dallas and the role of Sue Ellen Ewing, the former Miss Texas last seen in a television movie running Ewing Oil with former brother-in-law Bobby. "Is this really happening? Are we really reprising the roles we began in 1978?  Other than it being surreal and joyous, I feel blessed. Our business is wonderfully weird and wacko, and to be chosen to be one of the ones that are coming back was really a gift. I look at it like that."

Our lengthy Q&A follows, in which Gray talks about having a woman writing the series (finally), meeting "the kids," the time Dallas fan Bette Davis told her how to behave, and how nice it'll be to actually shoot Dallas in Dallas for a change. Jump. But make sure you don't crash the car.

You and Larry and Patrick remain close -- the three of you were all but joined at the hip at that 2008 reunion at Southfork ...

When I look at it, in all honesty, I look at the fact I didn't know anyone in 1978. I knew Larry from I Dream of Jeannie and Patrick from his swimming around as The Man from Atlantis.To know 33 year later we're still friends is quite a tribute to the character of everybody. They're hugely talented actors and incredible human beings. We've been like a family all these years. There have been marriages and divorces and babies and funerals.

For years there had been talk of of a big-screen Dallas, with several directors and dozens of actors attached -- including Travolta as J.R. and Jennifer Lopez as Sue Ellen. At what point did you discover that, no, this would in fact be a next-gen reboot for television starring several from the original cast?

It was a couple of years ago. I remember driving in my car, and I got a call from a wonderful woman at Warner Bros., and she said, "Would you be interested in reprising the role of Sue Ellen Ewing?" Would you be interested. That was the operative word. And I said, "Of course I would, that would be neat." Then a year went by, and I never heard another word. Did I say something wrong? Still, the rumors were around about the movie, and I thought, "Oh, well, that was somebody inquiring, and nothing would be happening." Then things started heating up: There would be a show, and the three of us were going to be invited back, and it would be the next generation. They called again: "Are you interested?"

And then the momentum started building, and we found out it was Larry and Patrick and me, and I was thrilled because we're very close. We have that level of eccentricity that bonds us. We were just ecstatic. We scratched our heads: "Are they kidding?" And you're a little hesitant. You hope they treat it with a lot of respect. We didn't want it to be a T&A show where a lot of young kids take off their clothes. We didn't see a script. We didn't know anything. And then it blossomed after that. I found out Cynthia Cidre was writing -- for me, a woman writing Dallas was, like, such a blessing. For years and years and year it was all male. Dallas was all about the men We were bookends. We were there. We were reactors to whatever J.R. did. I thought, "This is great -- we have a woman. This is wonderful."

Then a script came out, I had lunch with her, I shared thoughts about women and Dallas and exactly where I thought Sue Ellen would be all these years later. And she was so gracious, listening to a woman who had played this role for many years. And it formed a wonderful bond. And the three of us had dinner with [exec producer and director] Michael [Robin] and Cynthia, and we bonded further. They took the time to show us respect. They wanted to hear our thoughts about the characters, and they couldn't have been more cooperative with working with us, which we thought was just wonderful. And they thought it would be great if we met the young people -- not in a restaurant, but where we'd be comfortable.

We had a wonderful get-together at Larry's condo. We got to meet the kids, and they got to meet us. And that was a great. Rather than just coming on the set and going, "Hi, I'm Linda, this gave us a great chance to actually meet them.

Josh Henderson, who's playing your son John Ross, was born in Dallas in 1981 -- two years after Sue Ellen gave birth to the character in the series, which is a pleasant coincidence. [Editor's note: I had to look all this up before the interview. Swear. I was more of a Lynda Carter fan back then.] So I assume you had to explain the show to the kids -- it certainly isn't something any of them grew up watching.

We gently let them ask the things they were interested in. We didn't say, "Sit down, here's the history." What we wanted to do was let them know we weren't scary. We're actors who loved our roles. Honesty, in the '70s and '80s, when we were the biggest show in the world, it was a phenomenon that hit at the right time. There weren't satellites, cables and Netflix on your laptop. When you have three networks and when you're on one, the focus is much more narrow. So now it's hard for them to relate. They don't know that world. They don't know it existed. It's hard for them to fathom. So we wanted to be us and show them there's love and respect and we are human beings and actors and there's not a diva among us. We wanted to lead by example. We wanted to get to know them.

And it was nothing more than that. You can't explain to somebody what it was like. Back then my kids thought it was a pain in the neck, all these people wanting my time. For us it was passion. We loved it. We didn't know what to say. And that's how we left it. They were wonderful, and I thought they thought we were nice people -- that we could be their great-aunts. [She laughs.] We got along. They probably didn't know what to ask.

I imagine it was like meeting Bette Davis, which I did once, during the show. I was in awe. She invited me for cocktails in Malibu.She stared at me and said, "If I like you, I'll invite you for dinner." She told me she was a big fan of Dallas. That floored me. I'm standing in front of her telling me this. She looked me in the eyes and said, "You're too nice. Go back on that set and don't talk to anybody." And I said, "But Miss Davis, with all due respect, we're a series. It's not like being a star in the '40s. I've been with these people for years." She said, "Well, then, on your next film. That way you'll be known as a bitch and you can bring people into your area gently, when you want to." I ended up asking her a few things, like how was your life and what was it like to be raised as a movie star and did you go to the market by yourself? And so I don't know what these kids would have asked or will ask us. They have to be scratching their heads: 'We don't know who they are. We didn't watch their show."

For all the excitement -- for you, for the cast, for fans -- there's still the very real possibility this is a one-shot reunion. There's a chance TNT will pass on the pilot. I can't imagine that happening, given the fact it could run forever around the world -- this, after all, is the show that ended the Cold War. But do you come back to this with any trepidation, as in: This could be it.

When they made the announcement we were coming back, it went out around the world, and the world got so excited, because they wanted to see their old friends. There's something very lovely about your old friends coming back. I don't know a lot of people on television anymore, and there's nobody who's my friend. There are some great shows out there, but I don't have time to watch things week after week. And I think they'll be very, very happy about seeing us. We'll see. I don't know if they'll like what they see. I think they will.

I think it's so hard to do what Cynthia did. She's got to introduce four new characters and give us some idea who they are and how they fit into the Ewing family and then what have we been up to. She's got so much on her plate -- reintroduce us, give everyone a back story -- it's so daunting. With all she's got on her plate, I applaud her.

Now, you guys didn't shoot much of the original show here, as I recall ...

When we shot, we were in Dallas two months a year. And then we were in L.A. eight and a half months. Which is why the Ewings were sitting outside having those dreadful breakfasts in the middle of a windstorm. Well, that's because there was no inside. We didn't have an inside set! Those scenes, we wanted to give the grandeur of being in Texas, but the reality is there weren't sets down there. We'd shoot in restaurants or jails or hospitals. But that was it.

We shots bits and pieces there. We had to come back to L.A. and match emotions. It was crazy-making. I had notes: I storm away from J.R. when we're sitting out by the pool, and then three months later I had to re-enter the house with the same attitude after the same argument. You couldn't change your hair or gain weight because you knew three months later you're coming in from the pool. We'd have to look at the video and go, "Now where were we?" But I can't wait to come back to Dallas, which is constantly changing. I just want to submerge myself in Dallas again -- the city, I mean. All those beautiful museums and great restaurants.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky