Linda Gray: ‘Dallas’ Producers Wanted Another Actress to Play Sue Ellen

Linda Gray in Dallas (Mark Seliger/TNT)

Dallas’s” Sue Ellen Ewing (Linda Gray) was arguably television’s first desperate housewife — a wealthy woman who turned to alcohol to deal with her husband’s infidelities. Fortunately, the 21st century has been very, very good to Sue Ellen. On the new “Dallas” (Wednesday, June 13 at 9/8c on TNT), Sue Ellen is a power player. “She’s now richer than J.R. [Larry Hagman] She’s still trying to make amends with her son who doesn’t want to know about her,” Gray tells “She’s running for governor. So she’ll be in a very influential place. A lot of people  may come to her for favors and she may or may not be able to do those favors.”

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Grey says she was initially reluctant to reprise her signature role.”It’s kind of nice to have an iconic show and then to leave it lovely in everybody’s memory. But if it’s brought back in a tacky way in any way, shape or form, it will taint the original power that we had as a very influential show. So we thought, ooh, we don’t want to do it if it’s tacky… We want to know that it’s dealt with with great respect and with great scripts.”  Gray’s concerns were alleviated when she read the first script. She is thrilled with the woman that Sue Ellen has become, and the input she had into the character’s development. “I sat down with Cynthia Cidre who is our writer and executive producer and she was very open to the ideas that I had, and the ideas she had. So we just threw them in a pot and said, ‘Hey, let’s see what happens.'”

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It was a far cry from Gray’s beginnings on the show. She reminisced about Sue Ellen’s evolution over the course of the classic series.

Digger’s Daughter (The Pilot)

Though it is impossible to imagine anyone else playing the role, Gray had to fight to get an audition. “I was shocked because I had just finished a series with Norman Lear called ‘All that Glitters’ in 1977,” reveals Gray. “Right after that, they were casting a very small role called Sue Ellen Ewing. She was never supposed to be a big, important character at all. [My agents] said, ‘Do you know Linda Gray’? ‘No.’ They wanted Mary Frann, who played Bob Newhart’s wife [on ‘Newhart‘].  But my agents begged and begged and begged. Finally [the casting director said] ‘Let’s see her at about five o’clock on Friday afternoon.’ Well, that’s death because everybody wants to go home. So I went in and there was no script. They had written a one-way television conversation where J.R. calls and says to Sue Ellen, ‘I’m not going to come home tonight. I’m going to a business meeting.’ Well, we know he was going out to be with some woman. So I did my part of the other side of the phone conversation. And they hired me. I walked from that room to the parking lot and I sat in my car and I thought, I’ve got that job.” Gray admits she didn’t understand the gravity of the part at the time. “There was a show called ‘Dallas.’ I didn’t know what that meant. I knew it was five episodes. I still didn’t know what that meant. And they said, ‘It’s shooting in Burbank.’ So I went home to my husband and two kids, fed the kids, the dogs, the cats, the horses. And a week later they said, ‘Well the good news is you have a job. The bad news is, it’s shooting in Dallas, Texas.’ I’m like, ‘I’ve never left my family.’ They said, ‘You’re going to be gone for two months.’ So I started making casseroles and freezing them, doing the Martha Stewart thing before Martha Stewart, and I was freaking out.”

John Ewing IIIPart I

Sue Ellen’s alcoholism was so severe that she did not give up drinking when she was pregnant, resulting in her being committed to a sanitarium in those pre-rehab days. It was unusually edgy for 1970s television. “People on television didn’t show things like that,” Gray says. “Women alcoholics, it was a big deal to show. They didn’t want women to be shown as alcoholics. But then when Betty Ford, our first lady, came out that she needed help, and she founded the Betty Ford clinic in Palm Springs, this was all amazing because ‘Dallas’ had really started all that.”

The All-New “Dallas” Premieres on Wednesday, June 13 at 9/8c on TNT.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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