HOW I’VE STAYED SEXY AT 74
By Dallas star Linda Gray
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