‘Dallas’ star Linda Gray — Sue Ellen herself — recalls the unlikely hit soap opera, and how the city shapes her life and career
Linda Gray still vividly recalls how the TV show Dallas started its life. And it’s probably not what you think. But Gray calls the story “absolutely delicious.”
The show’s creator, David Jacobs, had a pitch meeting with CBS execs, and had a great idea for a primetime soap opera: About the sexual goings-on in a cul-de-sac.
“Pass,” the execs said. “What else ya got?”
“It was not anything near what they were looking for. They were looking for something big, like Giant — a cowboy-y kind of thing,” Gray recalls. “Then they would merge it on the other side with a comedy. They said, ‘We are looking for something bigger.’ So he went home that night and created Dallas.”
The first pitch Jacobs gave them would eventually become Knots Landing after Dallas became “such a huge hit,” says Gray. But no one was really prepared for what Dallas would eventually mean — not only to the actors, but to the greater culture and certainly the image of the city we all call home.
Gray, along with co-star Patrick Duffy (the other surviving main cast-member to star both in the original series, which ran 1978–91, and the reboot that aired on TNT for three seasons starting in 2012) will share stories like that — and no doubt many others — at A Dallas Retrospective, and evening of memories about the iconic TV series at the Winspear Opera House on March 23.
Gray, a Southern California native first got the call in late 1977 to fly to Texas to shoot the first five episodes of a new show intended as a midseason replacement series. She remembers not being all that impressed.
“We landed in Dallas in January 1978. I thought, ‘Where are we going?’ It was like landing on a piece of cardboard: Brown and flat. A total culture shock,” she says. Initially, there weren’t the highest expectations for the series … or much of a budget.
“They put us a place called the NorthPark Inn directly across from NorthPark Mall,” she says. “It was just a motel — not a nice hotel. I can see it now while I’m talking to you: shag green carpeting and a most unappealing decor. David Jacobs and I would sit together and have a cup of coffee every morning.”
Neither of them had any idea what Texas was about — Jacobs confessed to her, “I don’t know much about Texas except everyone has two names.”
The work was taxing for all the actors, who would work six days a week while shooting on location in Texas, usually during the sweltering summer months.
“We didn’t run into many people, we didn’t hang out — we were just exhausted mainly,” she recalls. “But Larry [Hagman, who played her onscreen husband J.R. Ewing] and Patrick had their families there. I used to call Mary Martin [Hagman’s real-life mom] my mother-in-law.”
The show debuted in April of that year, and got picked up for Season 2. It developed a following, until by the summer of 1980 when the clarion call “Who shot J.R.?” kept the entire nation on edge. (The culprit wasn’t Sue Ellen, though Gray jokes, “I should have shot him! He was not a very good husband!”)
It’s strange to think that for the first few seasons, Gray was basically indifferent. “Early on, I had nothing to do — Sue Ellen was never meant to be an important character,” she says. “I was in the background.”
Amazing, then, to realize how much impact the show, and Gray’s own character, eventually had… including the Dallas gay bar named JR.’s and a lesbian club named Sue Ellen’s — clear references to the iconic couple from the juiciest nighttime drama for more than a decade. (“I’ve been to all of those clubs — Sue Ellen’s and JR.’s and the Round-Up Saloon and loved them. They are so great to me!” Gray says.)
They worked their way up from the NorthPark Inn to some “weird condominiums” and finally the Mansion on Turtle Creek. By the time Dallas returned to TV in 2012, the city was practically a second home for Gray, largely for the people she met.
“The most important thing for me is the friendships I have made over the years — people who I adore and stay in contact with,” she says. “I love Dallas and the people there. Now when I am coming back into town, I have to have dinner and lunch and a breakfast [planned]. So when I go to Dallas, I have to extend a few days because I really want to see my friends.”
But she is also fond of stories about how the show she starred on meant so much to generations of TV watchers.
“It was such a global phenomenon — nobody knew it was going to be that huge,” she says. “To this day, people are still telling me stories about ‘Who shot J.R.’ They remember sitting with mom and dad and grandma watching the show. There’s nothing better than that.”
— Arnold Wayne Jones
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition MARCH 17, 2017.