Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Most know Linda Gray as Sue Ellen Ewing on Dallas, a role she dominated from the show’s debut in 1978 all the way through its recent reboot, which ended last year. Now she’s a downright delightful 75-year-old (who, hand to God, sounds like she’s about 26 on the phone) out promoting her new book—The Road To Happiness Is Always Under Construction. (Her tour includes stops at signing events that also feature a new whiskey brand called J.R. Ewing Bourbon.) Gray took some time from her book tour to talk to The A.V. Club about various hijinks on the Dallas set, the humble beginnings of her career, and the milestones that many may not know about her: She played TV’s first transgender series regular on Norman Lear’s All That Glitters in the ’70s, and that’s her leg, not Mrs. Robinson’s, on the iconic Graduate poster.
Dallas (1978-91; 2012-14)—“Sue Ellen Ewing”
The A.V. Club: Let’s start with Dallas, what most people remember you from. When we talked to Patrick Duffy for this feature, he just raved and raved about you and said that you and he and Larry Hagman were the Three Musketeers. You guys were best friends.
Linda Gray: That’s what they called us. And I have this wonderful picture of the three of us in London when the reboot happened, that’s framed. It was almost like Larry orchestrated it, knowing that devilish little guy. Ask any actor, and they want to die on stage or doing what they love to do, and I think that Larry held out. And when he got the reboot it was like, “Oh wow, he’s back.” He’s back playing the part he was put on the planet to play, in my estimation, and he did it. It was his; that was the fun part. But the best part was being back with friends after we’d been on hiatus for 20 years. A very long hiatus. That was the cool part.
AVC: Was he kind of a prankster on the set?
LG: The two of them were very bad, Patrick and Larry. Bad in the most adorable way. We had these dinner scenes in the original show, and we never had one in the new show. I think they were terrified of what would happen. Because at these big Ewing dinner-table things, Patrick and Larry would be bored, because it took forever. You know, they’d take the master and then they’d take everybody’s close-up, and it was really boring and it was all day and we were just like, “Oh God, is this thing ever going to be over?” So Patrick and Larry would pick up a dinner roll and they’d put it on the fork and they’d hit the end and it would fly across the table and the other one would catch it. And Miss Ellie, Barbara Bel Geddes, would just always yell, “Stop it. Stop it!” in her very East Coast voice. And then everybody would laugh and the directors would go crazy because there was no work getting done and we were all laughing and behaving like 5-year-olds or 3-year-olds. So it went on and on like this. It was just crazy. Every time we’d see written a dining-room scene, we would cringe, because it was like, that’s going to take all day and we were just going to get nothing done. So they were both pranksters. Things happened every day. People say, “What was the most memorable?” Neither Patrick and I can’t think of one, because it just morphed into many many things, all the time. So that was the fun part for us.
AVC: Duffy also said that since Dallas didn’t have a lot of laughs and the scenes you were doing were so tense and drama-filled, you all had to let off a lot of steam every time the cameras were off.
LG: Oh, yeah. And that’s what made it magic. I think you can’t just be dramatic on and off camera, because I don’t think there’d be any drama. It would be boring. So I think that actors have to have that escape valve, that pressure cooker. Something has to let out.
Because Larry and I would be just silly. He had a scooter. Like an old-fashioned scooter that you would pump with your leg, you know, you stand on the thing and pump with your other leg. We’d be in full makeup, me in hair, and the dress and high heels, and he’d say, “Come on, let’s go for a ride.” And we’d jump on the scooter and around the lot where we were filming, the old MGM studio. I would jump on the back of his scooter and we’d just go around visiting people and then they’d come and get us and say, “Okay, you have to come back now, we’re ready for you.” And I think the director was just staring at us, like, “I will never ever get this scene done because they’re children. They’re children and they’re not behaving.”
So the minute he’d say “action,” we would turn into Sue Ellen and J.R., and the director was in shock. It was like, “Oh my god, they can really act. They can do something.” Because I think the play made it a contrast. It was essential. Like in life, you can’t just be one note all the time, because it would be boring. So it wasn’t planned, but I think it really came across on screen because we weren’t in one mode all the time.
AVC: You two obviously had such a strong sense of trust with each other. You were doing really emotional scenes, and you and Larry Hagman always seemed like an absolute unit, no matter whether J.R. and Sue Ellen were divorced, or fighting, or whatever. You two were solid.
LG: Yeah. You said the right word. It was the trust element. We’re actors, we have to do what we have to do, and you have to be really solid within yourself. But you also have to know that partner that you’re playing tennis with, across, or ping-pong; Larry and I were like ping-pong. We were like, man, it was fast and crazy. But the good news is that’s what kept the magic alive. We never knew what the other was going to do. It was basic chemistry that a lot of people wish for in that partnership; there’s that chemistry that you can’t bottle. You can’t put it in any context other than it is what it is, and I was blessed. I was blessed to have Larry.
AVC: You were brave then to take on directing episodes on that show, knowing all the hijinks that you were going to have to corral by going behind the camera. How did that come about?
LG: I wrote a very long piece about it in my book because I felt that, in the end, that it would help women directors. And it has. I was very truthful in my book. And what happened was, at the end of season eight I went to my producers—it was the time to negotiate for the next two years—and I said, “I would like to direct.” I had been studying with a French woman director, whom I adored. And I said, look, I don’t want to go in there and say, “I want to direct and and you’re going to let me direct, blah blah blah.” I didn’t want to be that person. I wanted to go in with a solid bag of my solid work, my homework, and I did it. I said to my director I was studying with, “Tell me when you feel that I’m ready.” So after a long time, she said, “Okay. You’re ready.”
So I went in at the end of season eight and I said, “I’m really tired of Sue Ellen drinking and having affairs. And the world is changing and women are changing and I really would like to direct.” And I said, “I don’t want money, I’m not asking for money, I’m just asking to direct one in 52 episodes. The next 52.” And they said no.
LG: And they said, “Is that your final negotiation?” You know, it’s a lot more involved, but the bottom line is, I said, “That’s it. That’s what I want. I’m not asking for more money, blah blah blah.” So they said no. And so I said, “Well, okay.” And so basically I was fired at the end of season eight.
So I told Larry, “I’m not coming back.” And he said, “What do you mean you’re not coming back?” So he went in, and he said, “If she goes, I go.” So that’s another Larry Hagman prankster, right? Coming from a good place, but still, Larry Hagman would never have left that show. Even if everybody left. Anyway, it sounded good, it made him feel good, he kind of puffed up, and in my head I can envision him riding in in a white Stetson on a white horse, saying, “I’ll save the day.” And it didn’t matter to me. I didn’t care. I said, “If I’m fired I’m fired. If they take me back, great.”
So they hired me for one. One episode. And so I stepped up, did it, and I felt that it would be great for future young women directors.
AVC: It looks like you did a few more after that?
LG: Yeah! Well, because they liked what I did. It was great for women, because I did it, and that was in the ’80s. I speak to young women directors now, and it’s still a male industry. So they’re inching toward it, but I thought it would be better by now.
Palm Springs Weekend (1963)—“Yellow-Swimsuited Girl At Pool”
Under The Yum-Yum Tree (1963)—“College Girl”
AVC: Well, going back a few more decades…
LG: Oh, going back a few more decades! [Laughs.]
AVC: It looks like you started with a few cameos in some college-themed movies, like Palm Springs Weekend, and Under The-Yum Yum Tree. Were you living out in California?
LG: [Laughing.] Yes. I was. Yeah. I was a model, and I did these little tiny things. And it was kind of like tip-toeing into the water, putting a toe in the water to see if that was really something for me or not or whatever. But I liked it. And they kept asking me to do this little thing, that little thing. They weren’t going to hire me to do something major, anyway—Who was I? I was a teenager. So I did what I had to do and I did it nicely, you know? Like, okay. I’ll keep going.
AVC: And then you landed The Graduate poster. That is such an iconic image.
LG: Well, you know, it was never, ever meant to be. I didn’t know. I was a model, I got paid 25 dollars, and the photographer called and said, “I need your legs.” And we laughed and I said “okay,” and somebody said, “You get 25 dollars for one leg”? I said, “No, no, it’s a package deal, I’ve got two legs for 25 dollars.” Anyway, it was funny, I didn’t think anything of it, I never did. I never honestly thought about it. It was like another little modeling thing, it didn’t take long, and it was done. So there you go. That was my little step into the world of movie posters.
AVC: Did you always want to move onto acting from modeling? It seems like you must have started going to more auditions in the ’70s.
LG: Yeah, I did. I’d always wanted to. But I was raised very Catholic, and my parents didn’t like the fact that I was going that route. They thought that was like a step below a hooker. And so that was not acceptable. Back when I started modeling, I thought, “Okay, I’ll sneak in the back door.” And then when I got married, my husband thought it was kind of fun. He thought, “Oh, she’s just playing around, she’s having fun.” And I was doing commercials. A lot of commercials. I had that California look that people liked. And he was like, “Oh, okay, well she can just do commercials and stay home with kids.” Which I did, and I loved it. It was like, wow, a perfect job.
And then boredom kind of set in and I thought, “Oh, I really want to do more than that.” Because it was a struggle every time I went anywhere, it was like, “Oh, models can’t speak. Models can’t act.” And it was always closed doors and rejection and all that stuff. And you can either say, “Well, I guess they’re right,” or you can say, “You know, I’m going to keep going.” And I did. So I went to acting class and everybody was 10 years younger than me, and I’d go home and pay babysitters. And my husband didn’t like it. [But] it was fine because it wasn’t disrupting the family, and I could only do one day of work and then come home and have dinner. It was like I just went into the office one day. So it wasn’t a big deal. But then it was a big deal when I got Dallas.
AVC: Sure. That would take a whole lot more time away.
LG: That kind of changed the whole family dynamic. He was like, “Whoa.” And then he didn’t like that, he wasn’t supportive of it, and it got messy. Because unfortunately, they were supposed to shoot it in Burbank, which was a half-hour away from my home. And then they called and said, “Well, we’re going to now shoot it in Dallas, and you have to be gone for two months.” And that was horrible. So anyway, it kind of went from there to worse, and, you know, it was not supported. That was it.
AVC: What commercials did you do? Like what kind of products?
LG: I did so many things. I think I did United Airlines and they flew me to Hawaii to do that. Let’s see… oh my gosh. Noxzema, I was riding a horse bareback in Big Sur. I did fun things, and that was the excitement, I thought, “This is great.” It was great fun! I did a ton; I did 400 commercials. So I’ve got them reeled somewhere that I’ll drag out one day and put on YouTube or something. Which was fun, because it was so diverse, and that’s what I like. Because my life has never been… no two days have ever been the same. And it’s kind of like, maybe that’s the way my life was meant to be. I don’t know. I have no idea. But I go with it. It’s like, okay, this is my life. This is the way it’s supposed to be.
The Big Rip-Off (1975)—Actress
All That Glitters (1977)—“Linda Murkland”
AVC: It looks like in your first TV movie, that’s maybe where you met Larry Hagman for the first time. The Big Rip-Off with Tony Curtis and Brenda Vaccaro? You’re both credited in that movie.
LG: We are? God. I didn’t know that!
AVC: [Laughs.] But was he there? Do you remember that?
LG: I don’t know. I don’t know who was there! That’s the best question! It’s The Big Rip-Off. I’ll have to find that out.
AVC: Well, you know, IMDB is not a perfect source or anything.
LG: All right, well, according to me—and I’ll have to speak to the IMDB people, and say, “Who are you and where’d you get this information?”—I met Patrick Duffy first. And Larry was very upset about that. Because [Duffy] was doing Man From Atlantis and I was doing All That Glitters with Norman Lear, in 1977.
AVC: Where you were the first major transgender character on television. It was the first time a transgender character was billed as a series regular.
LG: I was, and Norman was so amazing. He flew down a woman who used to be a man from San Francisco because I said, “Norman, I don’t know about the transgender community and if I’m playing one, I want to know more about it.” So he was fabulous; he said, “Okay.” He flew this woman down who used to be a man, and we sat in a room together, they brought us lunch, and we just got to know each other. I thought, “I want to respect this, whoever this wonderful woman is, and I want to find out her story.” So we sat in the room and I got to know her and found out that she felt, all her life, that she was in the wrong body. And what happened to me was it expanded my awareness. I didn’t know. I didn’t know about transgender people before. I just really didn’t. But I had such respect. And that’s what I love. Because there was just absolutely no judgement. There was compassion and empathy, and when she told me her story about being a little boy and wanting to dress up and being humiliated… It was a heart-wrenching story. But what it did was show me that, you know, there are so many wonderful, diverse people on the planet, and judgement should not be in there in any way. And that was very cool for me.
AVC: All That Glitters was one of Norman Lear’s late-night efforts, like Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, right? The theme was that is was a world where women were dominant and men were objectified. It looks like it was pretty groundbreaking for the time period.
LG: It was. Norman’s brain was like that. Norman’s brain was groundbreaking. He did All In The Family and a lot of people went, “Who wants to watch that?” And so in ’77, that [show] was it. It was magic.
Dogs (1976)—“Miss Engle”
AVC: The year before that, you had been in a horror movie called Dogs.
LG: Oh god, yeah. I was. [Laughs.] Yeah. It was pretty bad. But that’s a full-circle thing. The dogs had killed me in the shower and it was all a mess, and I had this arm that had to be all bloody and a mess. So the makeup artist, one day he said—we’d gone in for some tests or something about the makeup—and he said, “Oh, I’ve got to stop by and drop something off for somebody, would you come with me?” I said sure. So we went, and we came to Patrick Duffy’s house. And he was a heartthrob. So he opened the door and it was Patrick Duffy, Man From Atlantis. I thought, “Oh my gosh,” and had a little pitter-patter, and I met his wife and his children, and it was just lovely. Absolutely lovely.
And so not even a year later, I don’t think, we met in the reading for Dallas. So we had met before. We’d met prior to that. And Larry was mad. He said, “Oh no, I met you first. I should know.” So, anyway, it was one of those Larry Hagman things. He wanted to be first… anyway, that was my sweet Larry.
Melrose Place (1994)—“Hillary Michaels”
Models Inc. (1994-95)—“Hillary Michaels”
AVC: The Aaron Spelling stuff, like Models Inc. and Melrose Place, was a different kind of soap opera for you after Dallas.
LG: Yeah. I wanted to work with Aaron. I liked him. And so that was the fun part. I wanted that job. And I knew they wanted a movie star for Models Inc. So I went in and I was pleading my case, and I said I have television credits to my resume. So I didn’t say movie stars can’t do it, but I said television actors have a different timing. You have to be fast and you have to know your lines, you don’t have two hours in your dressing room waiting for lighting, you have to move. I said, that’s what I can bring to the table. And I think he and his staff liked hearing that because, you know, time is money. So I think that’s what sealed the deal.
AVC: And it must have been fun for you to be the lead, then. You were the J.R. character.
LG: Yeah. And I didn’t have an awful husband…
AVC: [Laughs.] You ran your own business…
LG: Many things about that part appealed to me.
Significant Mother (2015)—“Gammy”
LG: Oh, I love that. I have the best time. I sent the casting lady a thank-you note because I said, “No one will ever cast me in a comedy. I’m the nighttime drama diva.” But the cast was amazing, and it was just like doing something different, and people responded and I was having the best time ever.
Because at 75, it’s an interesting time where people think you’ve either died, they want to know about what you’re doing, and they find that you’re still alive and you’re hanging out and you’ve written books and you’re doing films and you’re doing comedy, it’s like, wow, who am I? It’s a great thing. It really is. It’s just been so much fun.
AVC: You just sound like you’re having a blast, which is awesome.
LG: Well, you know, thank you for recognizing that. Because I am. And the thing that I’ve found, when I’m doing these book signings and, you know, out with the people, and I hear the stories, and it’s amazing how many people have succumbed to, “Oh I’m old, I’m tired.” And I hear it, and I’m looking right at them, and I think, “Wow… Just be calm, get ahold of yourself.” Because in my book I wrote two words that are in the book a couple of times, and the two words together are “Choose wisely.” And I hope people pay attention to that because, you know, I’m not teaching anybody, I’m not doing anything, I’m sharing memories of my life. But in that, I put “choose wisely” because that’s exactly how I feel with everybody. You should choose who your friends are, what thoughts you think, what food you put in your mouth. What you choose: Do you choose to just sit there like a lump and not exercise or do you want to do something with your body? Choose wisely, because as far as I know it’s the only life that we have.
So to choose wisely is kind of across the board for me. It’s like, what am I doing? Is this the way I want to live my life? And I think a lot of things happen and come into focus when you hit 75. You look back and things aren’t as important. There’s no judgment, there’s no criticism, there’s no gossipy nonsense. You just realize we’re all on the planet to do the best we can with what we’ve got. And that’s the end of the story for me, because I get so frustrated when people are just hanging onto old, negative shit. It’s like, come on.
AVC: That’s a great message for everybody. Good luck with the rest of your tour, it sounds like it’s going to be amazing.
LG: Thank you, sweetheart. I just feel like we had girlfriend talk. It was lovely.