BWW Interview: Linda Gray Brings Sue Ellen Ewing Back to the Big D for A DALLAS RETROSPECTIVE at Winspear Opera House
When Linda Gray won the part of Dallas's Sue Ellen Ewing in 1978, she thought she was signing on for a five-episode guest role as J.R. Ewing's long-suffering wife. Sue Ellen's penchant for vodka was rivaled only by her love for younger men, and soon tens of millions of viewers tuned in each week to watch their favorite little Texas Tornado self-destruct.
Gray quickly discovered that everything's truly bigger in Texas, and those five episodes turned into 350 over 35 years. Now, for one night only, Gray will reunite in the Big D with her co-star and friend, Patrick Duffy, to dish on their years playing two of television's most iconic characters.
On March 23, you and your friend Patrick Duffy will sit down with Robert Wilonsky for a Dallas Retrospective. How did this reunion come about?
You know, that's a great question, I have no idea! First of all, I love Dallas, for many, many, many reasons. I have many friends there that I've made over the years that I adore. It's like a second home to me. When we got the call, I was thrilled that after all these years there's still interest in finding out more about our perspective on how it was filming. It's an honor.
I guess people are still fascinated about Dallas, and it representing the city in such a lovely way.
Both Patrick and I are looking forward to it. We'll go and we'll make it magic. Whatever we do, we'll make it magic.
You've had the opportunity few actors ever get - to revisit a star-making role, 20 years after the series has wrapped. What was it like to step into Sue Ellen's stilettos again, and how was preparation different for the reboot?
First of all, [Larry Hagman, Patrick Duffy and I] were absolutely thrilled to be invited [to be in the 2012 Dallas reboot]. Nobody knows this, but was there was a phone call [from another studio] two years prior to that invitation. And we all said, "of course we'd be interested!" Then the three of us called each other and we were like kids sitting on a playground. "Wouldn't that be fun if we did that again and could work together and play together." That was two years prior. Then we never, ever, ever heard again. And we were just devastated.
It turned out the scripts were not of the caliber, you know, and the three of us were, like, "if we're going to do this 20 years later and come back and revisit those magical characters, the scripts better be damn good." And they weren't. So we never heard [more about the opportunity]. Then we got another call, two years later. The script was much better so we said yes, we would like to do it.
Then the producers asked to have dinner with the three of us. I think just to see what we looked like, I'm sure. What we looked like 20 years later. We had this crazy dinner in Los Angeles. There we were, The Three Musketeers and these two, unsuspecting producers. They said, "here's the deal, you're going to have to relocate. You're going to have to get housing." It was a different regime. The business had changed, everything had changed. So we found condominiums and we all moved to Texas.
Larry had an event at his home in Malibu where we met the four young ones, the youngsters. We all got along and everything was great and we packed our bags and went to Dallas.
When we meet Sue Ellen in 1978, she's a former Miss Texas, who you've described as "The Redhead on the couch." When she returns in 2012, we see her running for Governor. Talk a bit about Sue Ellen's journey, and the moments that were the most rewarding to create.
Well, you know, there were a lot of moments. When you have a series that goes on for so many years there's moments every day, because when you're connected so strongly to that character, the moments are there all the time. It's like when people say, "give us one thing that happened with Mr. Hagman," and we all just roll our eyes because he was funny all the time. So it isn't like you can pick out of all those years of working together every day.
So, to answer your question, I always thought and I still think that she was the most interesting female character on the air in the '80s because you never knew what she was going to do. You never knew what crazy thing they had created for her. And sometimes you'd open next week's script while you were in make-up chair and you'd think, "Oh my God."
It would be boring if we created our own little scripts because [we'd be tempted to have our characters] always be nice. We don't want them to be alcoholics and we want them all to have a nice dinner together. That show would last about a week. So, let's tap into all the dysfunction and let's blow it out. That was the fun part. People forget, we're here to entertain you. And sometimes it isn't pretty. But we're going to entertain you anyway. It's like, hang on and stay tuned to your TV, folks. Get a cup of tea and sit down and enjoy these crazy people.
Along the lines of things that aren't pretty, in the series, Sue Ellen hits rock bottom following Bobby's death, ultimately fights for her sobriety, and then relapses following J.R.'s death. And it was so believable and painful at the same time. As an actor - already grieving your close friend and costar Larry Hagman - how did you feel when you read that Sue Ellen would relapse? And did that feel like the appropriate response?
Well, they had told me up front. I was worried about that. That was one of my questions to the producers when we first signed on to do it. I said, "will she be drinking again?" Because she had stopped. And they said, "nope, she's not going to be drinking again." And I said, "great! Perfect." So that's when I suggested that she goes into politics. Because she had to do something. She's not going to, you know, run a boutique.
They started the campaign and then it was, like, "wait a minute. The governor has to live in Austin. We'd have to fly you back to be in Dallas all the time. And then back to Austin. This is a show called Dallas. We can't let you run for Governor." So I said okay, she has to lose the election. But make it quick because I don't want it to last forever. It's a painful death!
I loved running for Governor and I thought that would really be a one-up for J.R.
[Regarding Larry's death], I was grieving, of course, as his friend for 37 years. That was hard. And then they said, "we're going to have to have you drink again." And I was, like, "Oh my God, they told me I never had to drink again." And so I talked to some friends of mine who had been or were in the program. The AA program. And they said that would be a time where she would go off the wagon. When J.R. dies. And so I thought "okay, I will listen to those people." Because they've been through it and they know that if you fall of the wagon there's a reason. So I said, "alright, let's do it because I agree with you. Yeah, she should be drinking. She should take that drink."
I thought they did such an admirable job [handling J.R.'s death]. It was hard for all of us because we'd all been working with Larry. And we knew he was frail. We knew. And Patrick and I knew more than most. So that was hard. The writers and producers were great. They were so sensitive and they listened to us about how it would be. I mean, it couldn't have been more lovely.
[J.R.'s funeral] was a tough, tough scene to get done. And here's a behind-the-scenes thing: when we were filming it, I had asked - I never asked these questions - but I said, "this is really tough - emotionally - for me." This scene at the gravesite for Larry. Or, for J.R. Ewing. And I said, "Could you do me a favor? Could you give me one take and give me three cameras?" So that I didn't have to do it eight or 10 times. Because I knew it would be hard. They're always so accommodating. So we got to the gravesite and everybody got up and spoke and then my turn came. I got up and started my scene and an airplane came right overhead. And they had to cut. And we had to start again. And I think there were interruptions three or four times. So my great idea of filming it one time and being done with it, because it was so emotional, it didn't happen. It made it tougher. But I think they went with a lot of the first take. ... I was just thrilled that it was over.
You've written a lot about gratitude, and about taking daily gratitude walks and staying present and grateful. How did you process that final goodbye to Sue Ellen and to that part of your life?
Well, you know, I didn't say goodbye to her. There's a daily gratitude for whatever happens in my life and we all have so much to be grateful for. So I didn't say goodbye to her because she still lives. To this day, I hear wonderful stories [from fans] of how the show affected their lives. And so I think she just lives on, you know. Because when they asked us to come back, it was as if she had kind of been hanging out for 20 years. And everything fell right into place. I think when you do something for so long, it's kind of embedded in your DNA at that point, and you just sort of step into it.
That actually gives me some comfort to imagine that she is still going strong!
I'm just grateful, always grateful, that Sue Ellen did have that impact on so many people. Globally. And that's a thrill. It really is a thrill.
Tickets to A Dallas Retrospective: J.R. Ewing Bourbon Presents Linda Gray and Patrick Duffy can be purchased here.
8:00 PM, Thursday, March 23
Winspear Opera House
2403 Flora Street
Dallas, TX 75201