Linda Grey and Charlene Tilton

This interview with Linda Grey (above right) and Charlene Tilton (above centre) appeared in the Sunday Independent’s Life Magazine on January 14, 2008

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 1980s all over again. Linda Grey a.k.a. Sue Ellen from Dallas is holding forth. She’s telling me about that time she went to a gay bar in Texas called JRs and, 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 mesmerized the world 20 years ago. Meeting her and Charlene Tilton (who played Lucy Ewing a.k.a. The Poison Dwarf on Dallas) is like being reunited with my childhood babysitters. They helped raise a million latchkey kids to aspire to a life of champagne, rich husbands and dramatic nervous breakdowns. ‘Well, you know, like a lot of moms, I always felt a lot of guilt about leaving my own kids to go to work’, Linda tells me, when I express my everlasting gratitude for this. ‘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 though 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 JR is still the most watched television programme in history and for many people in the 1980s the identity of his assailant was actually more important news than the Iranian hostages 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 to 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 tells me. ‘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 2 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, according to Larry Hagman, ‘male chauvinist pigs’, and most of the storylines revolved around the Ewing men. Originally Linda hardly even had any lines on Dallas. But in each scene she appeared in, she made an impression. With those huge, expressive eyes, she could change the whole tone of a scene in a single look. The makers of the show recognised this. Gradually she got more dialogue and eventually the hard drinking society lady, along with JR became Dallas’s most iconic character.

‘I think originally she was like this highly-strung trophy wife for him’ Linda tells me. ‘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 America 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 that were already there were exaggerated. I’m not saying that the show meant the end of my marriage but the situation became more difficult.’ After 21 years of marriage Linda divorced from 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 a 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 (who played JR) and Patrick Duffy (who played Bobby) had directed several episodes of the show the powers that be had refused Linda permission to direct her own episode. It took the intervention of Larry Hagman before they would even consider her. Again the producer’s hesitancy to gamble on Linda was proven ill founded as she directed several of the highest rated episodes.

If Linda Gray had show a bit of fight to make herself a star it was as nothing compared to the tenacity and chutzpah of Charlene Tilton. The 4’11″ 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 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, rooted around in the desk where I thought the script might be. And 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.’

She made the role her own and whilst 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 McBeth-ish scheming lead to Terry Wogan nicknaming her ‘the poison dwarf’ on his radio show in the 1980s. Did Charlene bring much of herself to the role? ‘Oh yeah, 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 focussed 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, a fellow latch-key kid, had never known 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.’

It’s clear talking to them that Linda and Charlene are as different from each other as Sue Ellen and Lucy were back in the day. 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 that 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 ‘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 talking to Charlene 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 didn’t 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 now. ‘But there was supposed to be no photography allowed and somehow someone got a camera in and they printed them.’) Charlene on the other hand 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’s 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 that she had never heard of any of the other F-List contestants (porn star Ron Jeremy and Italian porn star-turned-politician Cicciolina were amongst them). ‘They tried to pit us all against each other and the cameras 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 tells me ‘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 whom. ‘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.’

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, one of her co-stars 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.’
So 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.’

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 that she wouldn’t have strong opinions on who could play Lucy, if younger actresses were 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 (lapses into perfect Barbara Brooklyn drawl) ‘nah you 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.’

Both Charlene and Linda deny that they’ve been under the plastic surgeons knife but Charlene does concede that she did go 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.’ Hmmm 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 and the big loud dresses. It’s all so boring now with the ironed flat hair and all that. I want to be back there.’

Which might explain why they’ve both come to back to Ireland on this cold and grey afternoon. Newbridge Silverware have 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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~ by Donal Lynch on January 21, 2008.

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