By Dal­las star Linda Gray

The Irish Mail on Sunday - TV Week - - FRONT PAGE - By Jenny John­ston

Since day one on pi­lot episode Dig­ger’s Daugh­ter, Linda Gray has been part of the Dal­las epic. She re­calls co-star Larry Hag­man and how, at 74, she still looks as good as in her Sue Ellen hey­day.

How fit­ting that their last ever real-life con­ver­sa­tion, in Novem­ber 2012, could have been lifted straight out of a Dal­las script. It was emo­tional, dra­matic – and char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally con­fronta­tional. It was ac­tu­ally a deathbed scene too, although nei­ther Linda Gray nor Larry Hag­man, her friend and co-star, knew this at the time.

‘Larry was in hos­pi­tal and Pa­trick Duffy [who played Bobby Ewing in the fa­mous TV show] and I went to see him. The three of us were great friends. We were like a lit­tle unit. We walked in the room and Larry said, “They’ve given me two weeks.” I said, “Bulls***” – very la­dy­like, I know, but I did. I couldn’t be­lieve it. I said, “We’re film­ing on Mon­day. We have a scene to­gether. And you’ve just bought a new car, a Tesla, and you promised me a ride in it. You have to get out of this hos­pi­tal now.” Larry laughed – I al­ways did tell him what to do – and then we spent two hours chat­ting and gig­gling.’

She says she gen­uinely did not be­lieve that Hag­man – for ever JR Ewing in our hearts – was dy­ing be­cause, even to those clos­est to him, he was one of life’s great sur­vivors. Some 17 years pre­vi­ously, when he last seemed to be on the way out, he’d un­der­gone a liver trans­plant – a legacy of his heavy­drink­ing life­style.

But on that Novem­ber day two years ago he was, she says, if not in rude health then cer­tainly ‘on top of the world’. Dal­las, the show that had made them house­hold names around the globe – Linda will eter­nally be Sue Ellen to his JR – had re­cently been re­vived, 21 years after the orig­i­nal ended, and a sec­ond se­ries had just been com­mis­sioned. Hag­man could not have been hap­pier repris­ing ‘the role he was put on Earth for’, she says. ‘He’d been so chuffed to be back play­ing JR. It meant ev­ery­thing to him, and we were hav­ing a blast. We’d slot­ted back into our parts like we’d never been away.’

That’s why it was such a shock to get the call say­ing Larry was in hos­pi­tal. ‘But we still didn’t think the worst,’ Linda re­calls. ‘I re­mem­ber when we went to see him he was sit­ting up in bed with a base­ball cap on – Larry loved his hats – and he looked so cute. He hadn’t looked great on film but that day he looked fab­u­lous. He was on good form too. When we left, I re­mem­ber say­ing to Pa­trick, “He’s so amaz­ing. Larry’s like the cat with not nine lives, but 12. He’s just go­ing to go on and on.”’ She pauses and her eyes fill up. ‘The next morn­ing I got the call...’ Hag­man died the fol­low­ing day and Linda was in­con­solable. She still is. ‘He was a true friend, and such a big part of my life,’ she ad­mits. ‘He was fam­ily, ba­si­cally. I think he and his wife thought I was their teenage daugh­ter. He was like a dad to me, or maybe more an older brother – a bad- boy older brother.’ She jokes about how she’s prob­a­bly sin­gle to­day be­cause of Hag­man. When she went through a painful di­vorce back in their Dal­las hey­day, it was Hag­man who pulled her through. She didn’t tell any­one on the set what she was go­ing through at first, but when

‘Larry was like an older brother... a bad older brother’

he found out she was rent­ing a prop­erty in his neigh­bour­hood in Mal­ibu, hav­ing moved out of her fam­ily home, he turned up un­in­vited.

‘That was Larry all over. I re­mem­ber open­ing the door and he was there on the doorstep, in a hat, bot­tle of cham­pagne in one hand and one of those bot­tles of bub­bles – those kids’ toys you blow through – in the other. He blew bub­bles into the air, then made me get on his Vespa scooter and gave me a tour of the neigh­bour­hood. He showed me the mar­ket, the dry clean­ers, ev­ery­thing.’ Later, he made it his business to vet her boyfriends. ‘None of them was ever good enough,’ she says, cry­ing with laugh­ter. ‘He’d meet them all and say, “No, get rid,” and I’d say, “But Larry, I like this one, he’s nice,” and Larry would say, “I don’t care, get rid.” Pa­trick Duffy used to joke that I’d never find any­one he ap­proved of. I got to the point where if I gen­uinely did like some­one, I’d try not to let them meet Larry.’

While he was big-hearted and loyal, Hag­man ob­vi­ously had demons too. He him­self talked about his drug and al­co­hol strug­gles. He sounds like a very com­plex character, I say. ‘Oh he was, com­plex is ex­actly the word.’ Did she beg him to stop drink­ing? ‘All the time. I re­mem­ber be­ing there when he had the liver trans­plant. He had to stop then. He did so well.’ What hap­pened? She sighs. ‘He started again, a lit­tle bit here and a lit­tle bit there.’ He thought he could con­trol it? ‘Yes, I think he did. He was al­ways the bad boy.’

On-screen, of course, they were one of the most fa­mous cou­ples in TV his­tory. The Sue Ellen and JR rows were ex­plo­sive and grip­ping. ‘It

was a great love story – although the most dys­func­tional one ever,’ she gig­gles. ‘The only thing you can say about Sue Ellen is that she mar­ried badly. But peo­ple iden­ti­fied with her. I lost track of the num­ber of peo­ple who got in touch with me to say, “I left my abu­sive hus­band be­cause I watched you play her.” That still hap­pens to­day.’ Hag­man’s own mar­riage was solid. Linda says he adored his wife Maj and asked Linda to look after Maj after he’d died. Sadly, Maj too is fail­ing. ‘She has ad­vanced Alzheimer’s. She doesn’t know who any­one is,’ Linda says. ‘It’s very sad.’

This isn’t, how­ever, a down­beat in­ter­view. I’m not sure Linda Gray does down­beat. At one point she says, ‘ I choose to be happy – and be­lieve me it is a choice.’ She was 38 when she landed the part of Sue Ellen, late by Hol­ly­wood stan­dards. She was just start­ing out in act­ing, hav­ing de­fied her then hus­band Ed Thrasher, who thought she should wait un­til their chil­dren – Jeff, now 50, and Kehly, 48 – were at col­lege be­fore tak­ing act­ing lessons.

This year, amaz­ingly, she turned 74. I meet her back­stage in Wim­ble­don where she’s pre­par­ing for her first panto role. ‘We don’t have panto in the States, but Pa­trick Duffy told me he did one and he’s never had so much fun. I thought, “Why not?” That’s the thing about this business. You never know what’s around the cor­ner.’ The panto in ques­tion is Cin­derella, in which she plays the Fairy God­mother. ‘It’s bril­liant. We’ve been in re­hearsals and I’m ab­so­lutely loving it. I get to wear some great out­fits! I know so many peo­ple who say panto was part of their child­hoods, how they went to see it with their par­ents or grand­par­ents. It’s the loveli­est tra­di­tion.’

She does look im­pos­si­bly young. When the new se­ries of Dal­las be­gan in 2012 there was much spec­u­la­tion about whether her face – so fa­mously mal­leable (who can for­get Sue Ellen’s wob­bly lip) – moved as much as it used to. She lets me peer at her fore­head up close, and yes, it does move. She jig­gles her eye­brows up and down, pulls down the cor­ners of her mouth. We look in the mir­ror to­gether, and I mar­vel while she says, ‘Look, wrin­kles, laugh­ter lines, it moves.

‘To set the record straight, there’s no Bo­tox in here. I did try it once and it was a dis­as­ter. My eye­brow stayed up. My daugh­ter said, “What have you done?”’ Facelifts? Fillers? ‘No!’ she says. ‘I do take care of my skin, I’m a stick­ler for that. And I’m care­ful about what I eat. But I won’t go down that other route.’

Isn’t it just ex­pected in Hol­ly­wood, though? ‘This is the thing. It’s re­ported as be­ing an LA thing or a Hol­ly­wood thing, but it isn’t. It’s all over the States. It’s ram­pant! My daugh­ter has friends who can’t come out be­cause they have bruises from fillers. I don’t judge them. If any­one wants to have their nose done, or boobs done, then fine. But it’s not for me, no.’ She leans in, con­spir­a­to­ri­ally. ‘A fringe hides a mul­ti­tude, though. And some­times I put a lit­tle hair­piece in each side, just to pad ev­ery­thing out.’

We talk about al­co­hol – Sue Ellen was one of the most fa­mous drunks of all. On set, Hag­man used to start the day with cham­pagne for break­fast, and top up through­out the day. She says she never did – partly be­cause her mother had been an al­co­holic and she knew it could be ge­netic, partly out of pro­fes­sion­al­ism. ‘I couldn’t drink and act. Larry could. Also there was a bit of van­ity there. I wanted my skin to look good. I wanted to be healthy.’

Good health came to the fore when her sis­ter Betty died of breast can­cer aged 43. ‘That was dev­as­tat­ing. We were very close as there were just two of us. Betty had two kids. I re­mem­ber think­ing, “That could have been me.” I think my ap­proach to a lot of things – life it­self, I sup­pose – changed then.’

She’s had quite the life too. One of the startling dis­cov­er­ies about her is that, in the days when she was a model as well as an ac­tress, it was her leg, not that of the ac­tual Mrs Robin­son ac­tress Anne Ban­croft, that fea­tured in the fa­mous pub­lic­ity pho­to­graph for the 1967 film The Grad­u­ate – mak­ing her an ob­ject of lust for a whole gen­er­a­tion of men. A few years back Linda was asked to play Mrs Robin­son in The Grad­u­ate on the London stage – a role that fa­mously in­volves be­ing naked. She didn’t ex­actly jump at the op­por­tu­nity to shed her clothes.

‘Be­fore that I’d never even done a wet T-shirt contest. I nearly didn’t take the part. I sent two girl­friends to watch the show be­fore I agreed to do it – and had them re­port back on how harsh the light­ing was. I only did it be­cause they said it was soft! I was still pet­ri­fied ev­ery night.’ Not least when Larry Hag­man came to see it, she gig­gles.

She’s in­cred­i­bly proud of her Sue Ellen role – and par­tic­u­larly how Sue Ellen came back in the re­make stronger, less of a vic­tim. ‘It had been a man’s show from the off. The writ­ers were men. The lead char­ac­ters were men. Women were just in the back­ground. Sue Ellen was cer­tainly a re­ac­tor. JR did some­thing – she drank. He did some­thing else – she had an af­fair.’ For the re­vival she in­sisted Sue Ellen should be ‘a strong woman, def­i­nitely not a drunk’. It was her idea that Sue Ellen should run for po­lit­i­cal of­fice. ‘If she’d con­tin­ued to drink she would have been dead. I said she should run for of­fice. They looked at me. I said, “Why not?”.’

The writ­ers – headed by a woman this time, she points out, while punch­ing the air – agreed, although there was one pro­viso. ‘They told me she couldn’t win be­cause the Gov­er­nor of Texas would have to be based in Austin, and the pro­gramme was called Dal­las. They also couldn’t af­ford he­li­copters to ferry us be­tween the two. I just laughed then.’

Although the rat­ings were good and au­di­ences loved to see Dal­las back, the show was pulled after three se­ries. Linda was dis­ap­pointed, she ad­mits. ‘I was sur­prised, we all were. Maybe it was a money thing, but I still don’t un­der­stand it.’

Maybe it’s for the best, though, now that Larry Hag­man has gone. ‘The bless­ing for me is that we got the chance to come back, to act to­gether again and to have a blast. He went out on a high, and you can’t ask for more than that in life.’

‘I take care of my­self. I won’t go down the other route’

Linda to­day and (left) as Sue Ellen with Larry as JR in the orig­i­nal Dal­las

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