Whether or not you grew up watching the mega hit TV show “Dallas,” it’s impossible not to know actress Linda Gray. Synonymous with her ever-popular character of Sue Ellen Ewing, Gray is one of those actors who has established longevity in a profession that can be fleeing.
Raised in a strict Catholic home, Gray’s dreams of becoming an actor were really just that. Acting as a profession was not quite acceptable in society at a time when women didn’t have the types of choices they do now. “It wasn’t cool to say you were going to be an actor,” Gray explains. “The professions for women were more limited.”
Embracing Her Dream
While Gray had to initially temper her dream, her fiery streak was not going to quiet down easily. “I thought to myself, ‘How do I get there without disturbing the whole family DNA,’” she recalls. As luck would have it, a local photographer noticed the beautiful teenager while still in high school, which led to small modeling jobs and TV commercials.
Her passion for acting intensified and left the aspiring actress with a desire to do more. Frustrated with the lack of dialogue she was being given, Gray made it known she wanted to speak. “I was taken aback after being told models don’t talk. That ignited the ‘watch me’ feeling I get when someone tells me I can’t do something,” she says.
A rejection letter from the editor at Glamour magazine for a photo contest propelled her even further toward her dream despite the negative responses she received. “Instead of throwing away that letter, I framed it and have kept it on my desk ever since,” she says. “It’s always been a reminder to keep moving forward.”
A Television Phenomenon
Gray’s acting career began with guest stints on various TV shows and feature films, but it wasn’t until the late 1970s —when she signed on to “Dallas”—that stardom would be right around the corner. “I didn’t get the show until I was 38, which by Hollywood standards is old,” she says. “But it never fazed me; this was my dream.”
What was originally supposed to only be five shows turned into something Gray and the cast could have never imagined. “When we did the first five shows we were all unemployed actors,” she recalls. The show was picked up, and off to Dallas they went.
As a mother of two, she says it was challenging being away from her family, but they did the best they could. “I loved being in Dallas, but my children were not with me,” she says. “I had never been away from them and I wasn’t sure how to deal with that.”
Gray continued to follow her dream and the show became a global phenomenon, especially after the, “Who shot JR?” episode. “That summer was crazy because you couldn’t go anywhere without people asking who shot him,” says Gray. Without the luxury of DVRs and other streaming services, it was appointment TV that had everyone on the edge of their seat.
And while the show was a fan favorite, the actress says it wasn’t hers. “I loved the scenes where Sue Ellen was drunk because as an actor I would only have to spend 20 minutes in hair and makeup as opposed to the hours it took to create Sue Ellen’s look,” she says jokingly.
The show tackled “firsts” like alcoholism at a time when the issues behind women who abused alcohol were swept under the rug. “I think many women were uncomfortable because they saw themselves in Sue Ellen,” says Gray. “It stirred the pot.”
At the beginning of the ninth season, Gray succeeded in her efforts to direct, although initially, it was a struggle to get the powers-that-be on board. Her original request was denied, and she was let go from the show [for a brief period of time] but was shortly re-hired and given the opportunity to step behind the camera. “I didn’t back down, and I showed them I could do it and do it well,” she says. “There was a certain level of respect there because of it.”
After spending 14 seasons on the air, the show ended in 1991. While the actress went on to other projects, 21 years later she would revisit the character that made her famous. The TNT network reprised the show and introduced a whole new generation of the Ewing family with Gray, Larry Hagman, and Patrick Duffy invited back to reprise their roles.
“We were beyond thrilled,” Gray says. “For us to be together again all those years later was exciting.”
Although the reboot was canceled after the third season, Gray describes the time they spent together as “magical.”
Stepping Out of Sue Ellen’s Shadow
In 2015, Gray published her first book, “The Road to Happiness is Always Under Construction,” a memoir in which she is openly candid about her life through personal stories.
“Everyone knew about Sue Ellen because we came into people’s homes each week, but they didn’t know a lot about me as a person,” she says. “The fascinating part has been the conversation that came afterward; the book opened up a dialogue with people that has continued.”
In addition to her work on-screen, Gray has focused her efforts for many years on humanitarian work. For 10 years she was a Goodwill Ambassador to the UN, working with women and children in rural areas of developing countries. She visited birthing clinics in Nicaragua and was taken aback by her experiences. “When you haven’t been around situations like this it takes your breath away,” she says.
The opportunity to spend time with such women was eye-opening. “In spite of everything, I always saw an element of joy,” says Gray. “They have nothing and we have so much; it makes me even more grateful for the opportunities I’ve experienced.”
The Next Chapter
These days the actress is focusing on what she likes to call “Act Three.” While roles for older women aren’t as abundant as they should be, it hasn’t stopped her from slowing down, says Gray. Instead, she’s creating her own opportunities by reading books with strong, female characters in the hopes of securing the rights to produce them herself.
“I’m excited, and it’s taking my life in a whole other direction, one I find interesting,” says the star. “I’m not known as a producer but I’m going to forge ahead and learn; now I’m in charge!”