When the actress Linda Gray, a native Californian, was cast as Sue Ellen Ewing in the late ’70s, her character was a bit part on what was supposed to be a five-episode miniseries. But Dallas exploded, becoming one of the most popular and iconic shows in the world. Gray became famous, Sue Ellen—the well-coifed, long-suffering, and perpetually drunk wife of Larry Hagman’s devilish J.R.—became notorious, and the Ewings and their home on Southfork Ranch became synonymous with the city. Gray’s memoir, The Road to Happiness, released this month to coincide with her 75th birthday, reveals details about her first and only marriage, her sister’s death from cancer at age 43, and the sexism she faced on the Dallas set. We chatted with Gray about her lasting friendship with her co-stars, the joy of returning to Dallas in 2012, and when it’s time to put a beloved character away.
What inspired you to write a memoir?
I was approached by a few people to write a book, and I was like, “Write a book? What do you mean?” My first comment was that I haven’t slept with a Hollywood movie star, so it won’t be interesting, because there won’t be any of those kinds of stories. And they all laughed. And then I said, “I’m not old enough!” And there was this big silence. And I thought, Oh, my God, I’m going to be 74. I guess I’d better rethink this. And I thought, like most women, we have—I called them my speed bumps—we have our little speed bumps in life, some bigger than others.
You wrote about dealing with your mother’s alcoholism, as well as struggling with the fact that your husband didn’t support your career. You went through a lot to get to Dallas.
The reason I called them speed bumps is that you run up against an obstacle, and you do your best to get over them, and the other side is healing. My mother was never like Sue Ellen. She wasn’t crazy and throwing bottles at the wall. But I think she was medicating herself for an unfulfilled life. When Sue Ellen came along, I said, “Oh, my God, not only am I fulfilling my dream, I’m portraying a portion of my mother.” It wasn’t easy, with kids and a husband who didn’t like what I was doing.
You pushed for Sue Ellen to become a larger presence, and then you pushed to direct. How did you eventually get what you wanted?
I was persistent. I was a female in a male show. I was a bookend. J.R. would do something, and Sue Ellen would react. I think a lot of women were like that. I think when you have a camera, and you’re focused on a particular dysfunctional family, it shone the flashlight on what was wrong. I kept going in and saying, “The world is changing. You have to change with it, because we’re the biggest show in the world.” So when they fired me when I wanted to direct, I thought, You know what? It’s okay. I don’t care that I’m not on the show, because if they’re going to continue to use me as a victim and a reactor, I don’t want to be on the show.
But Larry Hagman wouldn’t let that stand.
He did come to my rescue. And I didn’t know whether that was a good thing, bad thing. I just had told him what happened, and he said, “If you go, I go.” Mr. Hagman would never have done that, but it sounded good.
I loved your description in the book of Hagman’s tradition of toasting the sunset.
When I was talking at Larry’s funeral, I told everyone at Southfork, where they had the memorial, I said, “I want you all, at sunset tonight, to go outside, have a glass of champagne, and raise your glass and have a toast to Mr. Hagman.” I said, “I don’t know what it means, I don’t know where it came from, you just toast the sunset and say, ‘Gonggggg bong,’ like you’re hitting a gong.”
What was it like returning to Dallas after almost 25 years with the reboot?
I was so excited. Patrick and Larry and I called each other, and we were like 5-year-olds. We were crazy. I’m so sad and disappointed that it’s not on the air anymore.
Would Hagman have wanted Dallas to carry on without J.R.?
Absolutely. Well, he loved Texas, obviously, and J.R. Ewing was the character that Larry was meant to play. He embodied that character, and he loved it. And Larry loved attention. I remember being in Hong Kong with him and his wife. He was wearing a white Stetson, a white suit, and a cane. And he said, “Well, why are people staring at me?” And I said, “Larry, you’re 9 feet tall with cowboy boots, dressed in white. You look like Colonel Sanders, and you have a cane. Why do you have a cane?” And he said, “To beat off all the women that are going to be running after me.” I said, “I don’t see anybody running after you.” And he said, “Well, you never know.” And that was Larry. He was a party. Always. But he was generous and kind.
What’s next for you?
I did a really interesting festival film. I’d never done one. They said, “You don’t look your age.” I didn’t wear makeup, and I wore a gray wig. So it was very funny. But you’ll not see Sue Ellen there. You’ll not see the character, which is what I wanted to do. Not that I wanted to get rid of Sue Ellen, but I needed to show people that I can do other things.
Is that still a concern?
I think it’s more comfortable for them to put you in a pigeonhole. Especially as a woman over 40, you’re kind of disposed of. So the good news for me now is that I think I’ve passed the point of no return. It’s like, “Oh, she’s alive! Wow, then cast her!” But I think there’s a really odd, weird area in there from 50 to 70, where it’s like, Oh, boy, what do we do with them? If you can get yourself through that weird place, you’ll be okay. It’s just hanging in and keeping healthy.
A version of this Q&A appears in the September issue of D Magazine.