You can take the girls out of 'Dallas'...
You may have forgotten who shot JR, but you haven’t forgotten his hard-drinking wife, Sue Ellen, or the spiky Lucy, aka the Poison Dwarf. Donal Lynch tracked down the stars of ‘Dallas’ on a recent visit here and found them as entertaining, bitchy, camp and indiscreet as ever. No wonder shoulder pads are back. Photography by Sarah Doyle
Recession is looming. House prices are falling. And shoulder pads are back. In a vast room of a plush Dublin hotel it could be the Eighties all over again. Linda Gray, aka Sue Ellen from Dallas, is holding forth. She's telling me about a time she went to a gay bar in Texas called JRs and had the disconcerting experience of running into a drag version of herself. Did he do a better her than her?
"Oh no!" Linda laughs. "Came close, though. Hair wasn't big enough. Mascara wasn't running down face enough. Nobody could fill my shoulder pads." She was flattered, though.
"It's an homage," she purrs. "I appealed to many different men on many different levels."
We both know what she means. At a youthful 67 (and no Botox or surgery apparent) Linda, in town to celebrate the six-month anniversary of the opening of Newbridge Silverware's fabulous Museum of Style Icons, still exudes that combination of Mrs Robinson-esque sexiness and frayed vulnerability that mesmerised the world 20 years ago. Meeting her and Charlene Tilton (who played Lucy Ewing, aka the Poison Dwarf on Dallas) is like being reunited with my childhood babysitters. These two helped to raise a million latchkey kids to aspire to a life of champagne, rich husbands and dramatic nervous breakdowns.
When I express my everlasting gratitude for this, Linda tells me: "Well, you know, like a lot of moms, I always felt a lot of guilt about leaving my own kids to go to work. So it's good to know I was helping out with someone's kids."
The very strange thing about Dallas is that most of us look back on it so fondly, even if it reminds us of the bad old days. You only have to hear that famous, sweeping theme tune to be transported back to another time, another place: poverty, marches, unemployment, bad hair, deathly quiet Sundays, two channels. A show about an oil-rich Texan family represented a glittering alternative to our grim reality and it was this, as much as the riveting storylines and iconic characters, that made it compulsive viewing.
The episode which revealed who shot family bad-boy JR (played by Larry Hagman) is still the most-watched television programme in history. For many people in the Eighties, the identity of his assailant was actually more important news than the Iran hostage story or the fall of communism. These days, all light television is creatively edited reality. Dallas was glamorous, high-camp escapism.
You might expect Linda and Charlene to be weary of the questions about their soap-star pasts, but they seem totally comfortable with the bubble of nostalgia they live in.
"Oh yeah, I miss all the clothes, the lip gloss, the heels. They were great," Charlene tells me. "And the hair! Down South, we have an expression, honey: 'The higher the hair, the closer to God.'"
"It was a magical time," Linda says. "I wasn't a young starlet, though, so I got to see it as an adult."
In fact, Linda was already 36 years old and married with two children when she won the part of Sue Ellen. Her greatest claim to fame before that had been that her leg was used in the shot for the poster of the movie, The Graduate.
"Sue Ellen was my first big role, really. They wanted a blonde to be a rival to Victoria Principal's character. Word had gone out that the show had been commissioned and the established divas were circling. I won the part against all the odds."
Sue Ellen was not originally supposed to be a very big character on Dallas. The show's creators were, Larry Hagman has said, "male-chauvinist pigs", and most of the storylines revolved around the Ewing men. At first, Linda hardly even had any lines. But in each scene, she made an impression. With those huge, expressive eyes, she could change the whole tone of a scene with a single look. The makers of the show recognised this.
Gradually, she got more dialogue and eventually the hard-drinking society lady became, along with JR, Dallas's most iconic character. "I think originally she was like this highly strung trophy wife for him," Linda says. "And he wanted her by his side, like a possession. But then, as the years went on, something very solid, a mutual respect, grew between them. They were one of the all-time great TV couples."
Linda was elevated to rock-star status in the US, but the pressure and fame took its toll on her marriage.
"How can I explain it? It's like turning up the heat and the light on something. Any problems already there were exaggerated. I'm not saying the show meant the end of my marriage, but the situation became more difficult," she explains.
After 21 years of marriage, Linda divorced her husband, Ed Thrasher. At the age of 41, she was on her own once again and although she has since remarried, she still looks back on it as a difficult time.
"That was scary, really. I was always protected. I had gone from my mom and dad to my husband. My bubble was burst."
There was little time for reflection, however, as the show scaled even greater heights. Dallas was syndicated around the world, airings became must-see events and Linda, who by now had moved to Malibu with her two kids, collected a slew of awards, including an Emmy for her performance as Sue Ellen.
Even with this level of recognition, Linda still had to fight her corner for her rightful share of the pie on Dallas. While Larry Hagman and Patrick Duffy (who played Bobby) had directed several episodes of the show, the producers refused Linda permission to direct her own episode. It took the intervention of Hagman before they would even consider her. Once again, their reluctance to put their faith in her proved ill-founded as she directed several of the highest- rated episodes.
If Linda Gray had shown fight to make herself a star, it was nothing to the tenacity and chutzpah of Charlene Tilton. The four-feet-eleven, smoky-voiced starlet, who had already danced with Fred Astaire when she was 15 years old, was weary of casting calls and smaller roles and when she heard about the role of Lucy Ewing, a bitchy, vixenish granddaughter of the Ewing dynasty, she was determined to do anything to get it.
"They wanted someone older, with more experience. They wouldn't give me a script to practice. They said I was too young. So I went into the office the next day when I knew they'd be at lunch, and rooted around in the desk where I thought the script might be. When I found it, I took it, and went to my acting coach and we worked on it together. Daring? I know! Any young actresses reading this, do not attempt this at home. You will be arrested," Charlene says.
She made the role her own and while Lucy never achieved the notoriety of Sue Ellen, she was an essential part of the high-glamour power play on Dallas. She was one of the villains of the show and her acid tongue and Lady Macbeth-ish scheming led Terry Wogan to nickname her "the Poison Dwarf" on his radio show in the Eighties.
Did Charlene bring much of herself to the role?
"Oh yeah, I slept around with loads of men while I was on Dallas, just like Lucy did," she cackles. "No, just kidding. I wasn't like that at all. I was quite focused back then, to be honest.
"In fact, if anything I'm wilder now. And I have to tell you," she adds, laughing, "it's not so pretty."
Charlene never knew her father growing up and she felt sure that once he saw her on Dallas he would come forward and they could meet. "I mean, I'm sure he saw me. He'd want to have been living on Mars or dead not to have seen it," she tells me now. "His name was Tilton as well. I'm sure he is dead now. We missed our chance," she says.
It's clear, talking to them, that Linda and Charlene are as different from each other as Sue Ellen and Lucy were back then. Linda is regal, elegant and softly spoken whereas Charlene is a little more bawdy and funny, always with a wisecrack on her glossy lips. She tells me a guy came up to her in Dublin and confessed that he used to play dress-up when he was little and pretend he was Lucy. "And I turned to him and said: 'Honey, that's cute, but you would've made a better Sue Ellen.' He was a bit annoyed. He said: 'Maybe now, but when I was younger, it was you.' I thought that was quite funny.''
There's a sense that she doesn't want to be seen as Linda's Dallas sidekick. A minor hissy fit is thrown when she's left on her own for too long on one of the styling days and when outfits are being chosen, she continually asks: "What is Linda wearing?"
If there's any insecurity there, it might be because their careers took quite different paths after Dallas, which had not set either of them up for life, financially speaking. Linda won parts on the hit show Melrose Place -- "I was Heather Locklear's mother, it was the first time my kids actually watched me and thought I was cool" -- and Models Inc, a short-lived spin-off of Melrose Place, as well a recurring part on that other favourite of students and housewives, The Bold and the Beautiful.
She also did a stint in the West End replacing Kathleen Turner in the play of The Graduate, in which she had one nude scene. "It was fine and it was all tastefully done," she tells me. "But there was supposed to be no photography allowed and somehow someone got a camera in and they printed them."
Charlene has had a more muted post-Dallas career. She played herself on Married . . . with Children, starred in an infomercial for the sinister-sounding Abdominizer -- "you can do it at work . . . while watching TV" -- which she'd rather forget. "You'd wanna see my abs now," she laughs. She agreed to do a reality TV programme called The Farm in Britain "because I'd never seen a cow and I thought it could be fun," but she was the first to be voted off and admitted she had never heard of any of the other F-List contestants, porn star Ron Jeremy and Italian porn star-turned-politician Cicciolina were among them. "They tried to pit us all against each other and the cameras were on you all the time -- it was creepy."
For a few years, she also lent her name to a gossip column with the Boston Globe, a job she has mixed feelings about.
"I tried to make it a positive column," she recalls. "Not like the usual ones that report on scandal or whatever. I wanted it to be nice things, like Brad and Angelina saved a baby deer, or something. I wasn't into the dirt."
She vetoed a lot of pieces, something she says her editors at the Globe weren't too happy about. Some things got through, though, and there is at least one major celebrity who doesn't speak to her, although she won't say who.
"It was around the time my mother passed away and something went across my desk and I didn't get a chance to look at it properly," she explains.
Her name was in the papers again a few years ago when OK! magazine printed an explosive interview with Charlene in which she allegedly called Victoria Principal, who played Pammy on Dallas, a bitch. Charlene denied having ever done the interview. "I had done pictures with a German publication. And there was supposed to be an interview, but we never did it. And one day, my phone starts ringing off the hook and a friend of mine, who is also a publicist, called me up and said: 'Charlene, what have you done?' And there were eight pages of questions and answers in OK! in which I talked about Patrick Duffy's parents, who passed away, and said that I hated Victoria and that she's a bitch. And I never said those things. And I supposedly said I hate America and it's way too conservative and that's not true either. I'm proud to be American."
Why didn't she sue?
"Well, I made it be known and it was taken care of. But they know you can't sue them because you don't have the money or the time and they have both," she says.
Over the years, a movie version of Dallas has been discussed and it had been suggested that the original cast members could reprise their old roles. Charlene screeches with laughter when I tell her this.
"Oh honey, at this point, if they ever make that damn thing I could play Miss Ellie. Me in the hayloft? Honey, I go back to it, that's not so pretty any more."
That's not to say she wouldn't have strong opinions on who could play Lucy, should a younger actress be required. Paris Hilton, she feels, wouldn't be up to the job. Jessica Simpson, she tells me, would be "too old". When pressed for a name she giggles and suggests the Olsen twins, "because it would take two women to fill my shoes".
Unlike Linda, Charlene was very impressed with the drag versions of herself she has met: "You know, I love Barbara Streisand, but I heard her criticising the 'Barbaras' who do her. She's like [lapsing into a perfect Barbara Brooklyn drawl] 'Nah, you the got outfit all wrong.' But, I mean, if you could see some of those guys who've done Lucy. They look gorgeous. I'm like: 'Yes, please, be me.'"
Charlene and Linda both deny they've been under the plastic surgeon's knife, but Charlene does concede that she went for Botox once. "But, to be honest, they put the needle in me and I knew this wasn't for me. I was too scared. I'm going to get older gracefully." Hmm . . . the juicy couture tracksuit she's wearing as we talk tells a different story. On the back it reads: "The joy only bling can bring."
Both Linda and Charlene admit that they're still very much Eighties girls.
"Yeah, you know what they say," Charlene adds. "You can take the girl out of the Eighties, but you can't take the Eighties out of the girl. I miss the lip gloss and the big dresses, the big, loud dresses. It's all so boring now, with the ironed-flat hair and all that. I want to be back there," she says.
Which might explain why they've both come back to Ireland on this cold and grey afternoon. Newbridge Silverware has organised a charity ball in aid of the Irish Sri Lankan Orphanage, which they will attend as guests of honour. They will also visit the company's Museum of Style Icons; an acknowledgement perhaps of the fashion debt the world owes these women. Because, as one dedicated fashionista told me when I mentioned that I was meeting Charlene and Linda: "If any of us think we look good now, it's because we are standing on the shoulder-pads of giants".
And what better way to ward off the return of the bad old days than a double dose of Eighties nostalgia?
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