Every Friday night across America in the late 1970s through the early 1990s, TV viewers poised in anticipation of their weekly tension-packed episode about a family involved in the Texas oil business. The music rises and the theme of “Dallas,” one of TV’s most iconic shows, rolls out. It’s filled with the Ewing clan — Bobby, J.R., Miss Ellie, Jock, Gary, Pamela and, of course, Sue Ellen.
Linda Gray began playing the part of Sue Ellen Ewing when the show aired on April 2, 1978, and reprised the role when the show again began televising a “next generation” series to a more contemporary audience. Sue Ellen was elegant, stunning, a bit troubled and had a problem with alcohol. Even with this, she always was a strong believer in the family.
And that philosophy has carried itself into her personal life as well. Gray has been around the world helping those who seemingly were unable to help themselves.
Different Roads Home saw how much she gave of herself to which end they decided to present her with the 2014 Hope and Inspiration Humanitarian Award at its 5th Annual Evening of Hope & Inspiration on Nov. 15, 7 p.m., at the McGlohon Theatre at Spirit Square, 345 N. College St. qnotes is a media sponsor.
Gray was born in Santa Monica, Calif. She spent time modeling which spearheaded her foray into TV via commercials. Acting gigs came to her in the 1970s, but her popularity did not take off until she took on the role of Sue Ellen Ewing. After the end of “Dallas,” she continued her acting career, but also ventured into serving humanity.
“Linda has always been a supporter of LGBT and HIV causes,” Different Roads Home Executive Director Dale Pierce told qnotes. “While reviewing who we would select, our committee reviewed her accomplishments and saw not only did she work with HIV and AIDS charities in Los Angeles, but also was a UN Goodwill Ambassador and worked with Meals on Wheels, among many other charities. Her vision of humanitarian efforts seemed to align with our cause and we felt that she was extremely deserving of being selected.”
She also has spent a considerable amount of time on the international scene, visiting Africa and other locations where poverty and malnutrition are rampant.
The award she will receive while in Charlotte was a “lovely surprise” for Gray. She said she felt honored to receive it. Previously she served as honorary chairperson for the Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS ceremony in Dallas, Texas. The organization raises funds for HIV/AIDS preventative educational programs, treatment and direct service care.
qnotes recently had the opportunity to speak with Gray about her life and her works.
Gray has been active with global humanitarian work, assisting women and children in particular.
“I feel very blessed,” Gray said. “I worked with the UN for 10 years and I got to travel and go to developing countries. It’s important for me to see and sit with the women and talk to them about their issues, about what they want in their lives. I went to Malawi. I was in Nicarauga. I got to see birthing clinics where women were giving birth. There were rooms full of women. I got to see their little huts, their little homes. We sat on the floor. I listened to the issues that they thought were important and were bothering them and they needed help with. It was important for me.
“The big picture was to see women around the world are the same,” she said. “We want healthy child birth, clean water, education for out children. What I found was that we are not different. What I came home with is that we have one heart. Whether we have no money, sit on the ground, make our own food in our little huts with our babies. I have children and I would want to know how I was going to feed my babies, how I was going to get clean water. We went back to the countries to check on them and see their progress.”
She has had a fascination with mothers and children. As a grandmother she thinks about what is being left for a second generation.
Gray prefers working quietly for others. Her work with Meals on Wheels made a lasting impression on her. While in Philadelphia, Penn., she personally delivered food to those in need. She said that nothing can compare to that and there was joy that filled her heart when she provides services to others.
Compassion and living happy
With her work in the entertainment industry, Gray has been no stranger to loss from the creative community from HIV/AIDS. Even now some of them are holding their own.
“It’s so overwhelming the struggles they go through,” Gray said. “Why is this still a problem? How can we get a hold of diseases that take our loved ones?”
Her arts and entertainment life is one in which she feels blessed. She keeps herself vital and youthful by choosing to be happy and passionate for what she does.
“I literally sat with myself and said you have choices. You have one life,” Gray said. “This time around I want to make sure that I live a life I want to live, that reflects the way I want to be and the person I want to be. I don’t want to hurt anybody. I want to make sure I live a life that is as rich as possible. Thank God, I have this innate curiosity. We are blessed with the internet. You can search for everything. These were clear choices I made. I choose not to be a victim. We are all responsible for everything that goes on. Get up and say thank you that you are on this planet another day, make it the best.”
Gray’s portrayal of Sue Ellen Ewing has been her most memorable acting role. Her elegant stature and ageless grace have been stunning to watch. And, over the decades, her character certainly came solidly into her own, even with the immense challenges that she had to endure.
She was humbled that many from the LGBT community have been enamored with her over the years.
“I had kind of heard rumors,” she said. “Honestly, it is beyond my wildest dreams. I embrace the fact that you have been such fabulous followers.”
Like the other issues she’s taken to heart, Gray is a support of LGBT equality and inclusion, too. She’s thrilled to be visiting North Carolina, which recently received the green light for marriage equality. “How dare anyone to tell us who to love?” Gray asked, adding that judgment had to stop and that love had to be embraced.
Like her all of her fans, Gray’s Sue Ellen is human — a complex person with highs and lows and, yes, flaws. Gray played Sue Ellen for the character she was: “I would not play her as a one-note bitch. I wanted to layer in the vulnerability she possessed. I think it brought Sue Ellen a richness and wholeness and exemplified fragility.”
Having to play someone who had issues with alcohol presented her with abundant accolades from her fans. “I heard on the street all the time that people went to AA because of Sue Ellen,” Gray said. “I really take no credit for that. They [the writers] wrote it that way. You can play a character that can change people’s lives.”
She was honored and blessed to play the character. Gray was “beyond honored” to be invited back 20 years later to play her again.
“I thought it was time in society to show that there should be no judgment. We should be accepting, perhaps help people,” Gray said. “When Sue Ellen took that drink when Larry Hagman (J.R.) passed and there was a memorial scene, the writers chose to have Sue Ellen take a drink. It was like ‘Oh, my God,’ taking a look at that script. Oh, no, not again. And, I talked to my friends who were in the program and they said that was when someone would take a drink and fall off the wagon. This is what people feel when they hit an emotional wall. They do not know what else to do. They go back to the crutch that supported them.”
Embodying her character
Getting into character was a process for Gray. It began in stages. She would go to the makeup trailer first and begin the transition from Linda to Sue Ellen. Then she would be coiffed and then head to wardrobe. When she stepped into high heels, the magic really happened. She embodied Sue Ellen fully and began to channel her. She knew the script writers’ words were perfect and she allowed the words to touch her in a deep place within her, especially when she has tender or painful moments.
Inspiration for playing Sue Ellen came from God, Gray said. The character was so different than the real-world person. In performing the role, she saw to it that she brought passion to what she gave to it. Gray said that spending time re-evaluating one’s choices is imperative and that most people get stuck in fear. “There is love and there is fear. We want love.”
TNT recently decided not to renew “Dallas” for a fourth season. The cast and crew were “devastated.” It came down to dollars and cents and the network found that it did not match it’s current demographics of viewers. Patrick Duffy, who played Bobby Ewing and was instrumental along with Gray and Hagman in spearheading the reprise, said, “It’s show business and not friendship business.” They understood why the show was cancelled, but it still had a sting to it. In the Monday time slot, it was up against powerhouses like “The Voice,” “Monday Night Football” and other offerings. They had hoped that TNT would have moved it to another night instead of axing it.
Now, Gray said that they are not sure who or when, but they felt that another network would pick them up. They are currently shopping it.
As qnotes ended our chat with Gray, she paused to share words of wisdom — the importance for everyone to explore for the rest of their lives, to remain inquisitive about life, to be happy and to find joy.
That’s a wrap. : :