Linda Gray’s life sounds like the lyrics of a Country song. She endured a potential life-threatening illness, a less-than-satisfying marriage, and also lived through a battle with addiction – only to come out on the other side of the mountain tougher and stronger.
It might seem like those words would make a pretty good description of Sue Ellen Ewing – the fictional character played to perfection by Linda Gray for 15 seasons – 12 on the original run of the CBS iconic hit Dallas – and reprising her role as the long-suffering wife/ex-wife of J.R. Ewing on the recent TNT reboot of the show. But, the same words also apply to Gray. She ended a two-decade marriage to photographer Ed Thrasher (though the two remained close) in the early 1980s, and watched as her mother battled the bottle until later in life.
Linda Gray talks about those life-changing events – and her reactions to them in her new autobiography, The Road To Happiness Is Always Under Construction.
If you’re looking for salacious details about Hollywood life, you might need to skip the book. Instead of a “Tell-All,” the book is more of a “Tell-How” look at how the actress has lived her life inside and outside of the public eye over the years. In an interview for #HeyStar and CMChatLive.com, Gray said she liked that description.
“When they asked me to write a memoir, I first said ‘Oh, no. I’m not old enough.’ Then, we all started laughing because I had just turned 75, so I thought ‘I better write something.’ And, the title says it all – The Road To Happiness Is Always Under Construction. I think that applies to every single person out there. We all have lives which are different, but are all interesting. They are lumpy and bumpy, and there are a lot of speed bumps in everybody’s life, and I shared mine.”
Gray has a couple of ties to Country Music. Her former husband shot album covers of artists ranging from Buck Owens to Dolly Parton, and she served as the female lead in the third installment of Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler movie franchise in the fall of 1987. She has withstood her share of life’s ups and downs, as well – including a polio diagnosis as a child.
“It didn’t bother me at all, which devastated my parents. They were hugely affected by it, because my grandfather had been diagnosed with it. They didn’t know what it was when he was 17, and he was always in a wheelchair. When I was diagnosed, everyone went crazy in my family, but I wasn’t. I thought I could have a wheelchair like Grandpa.”
She overcame the disease to become a sought-after model and commercial spokesperson in the 1960s. A little-known fact about Gray is that it was her legs that were featured on the legendary movie poster for the 1967 film The Graduate. However, not everyone saw her appeal. Included in the book is a rejection letter she received from Glamour Magazine in the early 1960s. She said it was something that has always inspired her.
“It was so funny that I kept that letter. I kept the letter because I realized that we all have rejections, and it was her opinion when I was 20 years old. I could have had it devastate my life. But, I didn’t. This feisty streak came out – ‘Oh, yeah? I’m gonna show you!’ With great love and a lot of humor, I kept that letter. It kicked me from behind, and made me want to go and do something.”
That “something” included her stint as Sue Ellen Ewing – which made her an international sex symbol in her early 40s. She recalls being confused originally when she signed on for the role.
“When I met him, I thought Dallas was a sitcom. ‘Here’s ‘Major Nelson,’ and The Man From Atlantis,” referring to the previous roles for co-stars Larry Hagman and Patrick Duffy.
“We were all in one room together. Larry walked in, and he had these carved leather saddle bags over his shoulder filled with ice, and two bottles of champagne to start the beginning of this new show.”
Initially, the leading roles were that of Duffy and Victoria Principal, but the chemistry between Gray and Hagman quickly began to take shape.
“The executives at CBS saw this thing that started to happen between us – it was magic. We don’t know what happened. We were put together to do this show, and the chemistry was just there.”
However, it wasn’t a sexual chemistry, she insists.
“He was the bad big brother that I never had. He was always doing something in my mind wrong – he was drinking too much, or whatever, and I would reprimand him. He loved that. He loved to do something just to make me crazy. I’d say ‘Don’t eat that. You don’t need that much sugar, and stop drinking.’ I was a pain in the neck – and he loved it. He would do things purposely to get me fired up. The directors were just in awe. They thought we were crazy teenagers, but when they said action, we would become J.R. and Sue Ellen. It was seamless. We don’t know what happened. It was absolute magic. We felt blessed, and we were.”
The role also brought a conversation with her mother concerning her drinking that Gray had been avoiding for years.
“That was a tricky one, because when I look back, I wondered if it started when I was diagnosed with Polio. They didn’t have things like help lines and 800-numbers that you call. People dealt with things so much differently back then. Nobody talked about anything. They swept it all under the rug. In the book, I talked about her being like former First Lady Betty Ford. They had this addiction, but didn’t know what to do about it. That’s the way I grew up. We didn’t get along at all, but later in life, magical things happened that made her see what her addiction was doing to our family, and she stopped. But, it was tricky growing up like that.”
As Sue Ellen’s character began to drift into a battle with bottle in the show’s second season, Gray felt the need to make her mother aware of what was coming.
“She was here visiting, and I delicately put the scripts in front of her. I told her ‘I’d like for you to read these.’ She looked down, and took the scripts home and read them. We had a nice conversation – albeit a tricky one. She knew what was going to happen and said ‘If anyone can do this, you can.’ She was very supportive of me. Sue Ellen and my mom were different. She wasn’t throwing wine bottles at J.R. Ewing, but it was a challenging process for me to portray someone with that addiction, knowing that she was going to be watching. It was the most beautiful healing. It’s interesting when the addiction is out there, and you realize what is happening – how do we correct this as a family, but it was a wonderful healing for us.”
Perhaps the most emotional part of the book is where Gray discusses the special bond she had with her cat Dugie, who lived to be 20 years old – and the void she still feels.
“I was very much a dog person. I live on a small ranch – and we had horses, chickens, dogs, and cats. I was never a cat person, but one day this cat walks up, and we were barbecuing salmon – so of course, he was there. He was a stray, and the next night we had another barbecue – and he came back again. Then, as the days and months went by, I felt sorry for him and fed him leftovers. Then, he came in the house. It was a 20 year love affair. He would sleep with me holding my hand. Then, that time came, and he passed away. He’s buried outside underneath my favorite oak tree.”
She admits that section of the book has gotten a great deal of response – making an emotional connection with animal lovers.
“People who have read the book all cry about that part of it. So many have called me or sent an email. He was a big part of my life.”
As is….Sue Ellen Ewing. Unlike many actors that are known for one specific role, Gray says she welcomes being known as the former Miss Texas on the show.
“She was a part of my life – a huge part of my life. Many years I lived with her. To this day, people share stories about sitting on the couch on Friday night with their families. I love hearing those stories. You may have been watching us, but we didn’t know who was watching. Sue Ellen tapped into so many people for a lot of reasons. Either they loved her, or they could relate to her. A lot of people might have went to AA because of her. I love the stories, so how could I ever deny that Sue Ellen was such a major part of my life? She’ll always be.”
But, if you see the actress in public, don’t be offended if she has forgotten a particular plot-line of the series’ 397 collective episodes and two reunion movies.
“I think they know more details than we do. Patrick Duffy and I talked on Sunday, and he asked me ‘Do you remember this?’ I said ‘No, when did that happen?’ We reminisce a lot about the things that we forgot. We laugh about it. You’ve got to laugh.”
Click on pic to get Linda Gray’s “The Road to Happiness is Always Under Construction” on Amazon.