Dallas returns - but how will it fare without JR?

Linda Gray.

Linda Gray.

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Dallas star Linda Gray is thrilled that the glamorous soap is set to return, despite the death of Larry Hagman. Roger Crow reports.

For the first time in Dallas history, the cast and crew have created a new series without its most formidable character - J.R. Ewing.

Actor Larry Hagman died, aged 81, during production of the last run, and as Linda Gray - known to millions of fans as his long-suffering ex Sue Ellen - remarks, his loss has left a huge void on set.

“His presence is everywhere,” explains 73-year-old Gray, who admits it was daunting stepping foot in his old dressing room.

“I looked at the door and I thought, ‘Oh boy, this is hard’. I couldn’t go in. I just stopped. Then I thought, ‘OK, all right, I’m taking over your dressing room’, and said, ‘It’s an honour to be in your dressing room. Let’s continue...’.”

She pauses, a little choked by the memory. “That’s what you do, you go on, and he [Hagman] would be furious if he thought we were sad about his passing. He’d say, ‘Come on, get over it. Move on!’”

Over the years, Sue Ellen Ewing’s battle with the bottle has helped make her one of the soap’s most endearing characters.

Gray discovered the secret to playing her inebriated alter ego in a book by acting coach Uta Hagen.

“I remember she suggested crossing your eyes just a tiny bit so everything was a little out of focus. So you don’t just reach for the glass, you slow it down and kind of casually reach for it, so that’s what I started doing.

“It worked well, I guess, because comments from people who were alcoholics said, ‘Hmm, that’s the way you do it’.”

Over the decades, Dallas has proved as intoxicating as some of Sue Ellen’s liquid lunches, with audiences hooked from the day it arrived on screens in 1978.

The dirty dealings of J.R. Ewing and his war with rival Cliff Barnes were a welcome slice of escapism.

The fact the tycoons at Southfork Ranch only had one phone, used cheap wire coat hangers and often had breakfast on a wind-lashed patio only added to the charm.

Later it faced stiff competition from the likes of rival US soaps Dynasty and Falcon Crest, and as interest waned, it was eventually cancelled in 1991.

Fans naturally hoped Dallas would resurface. At one point, it looked like a movie version (with John Travolta as J.R.) would breathe new life into the saga.

That fell by the wayside, but in 2012, the new TV Dallas was born, with old favourites J.R., brother Bobby, Sue Ellen and Cliff adding old school continuity to the slicker, sexier saga.

The fact it’s been resurrected after all these years, and has found a new audience, has left some wondering why Dallas succeeds where other shows fail.

It was appointment television back then, says Gray

“ Nobody had TiVos and VCRs, and people have great stories about the memories they have watching the show, which are very endearing to me.”

Born in Santa Monica, California, in 1940, Gray started her showbiz life as a model, and appeared in hundreds of commercials before finding fame as an actress.

More than a decade before Dallas, her leg was arguably more famous than she was, having doubled for Anne Bancroft’s on an iconic poster for The Graduate.

However, years later, theatre-goers got to see a lot more of Gray when she actually stepped into Mrs Robinson’s shoes in the West End version in 2001.

“I shot that poster in 1967 or something; a very long time ago, and then to do theatre in the West End was so exciting,” she enthuses. “To me, the epitome of an actor’s career is when you get to hit the stage in the West End. That was amazing, and flattering and so fulfilling. I loved being there.”

Disrobing for the role of a mature woman who seduces a young man turned out to be one of the most challenging aspects of her career.

“Beyond terrifying!” Gray exclaims. “There is not a word that’s appropriate - it was awful, and it never got comfortable, ever. I just kept doing it.”

Before agreeing to the role, she sent two London-based friends to watch the play, to see what she was letting herself in for. When they reported back that she would be partly in shadow for her nude scene, she relaxed a little.

“They said, ‘It’s fine, do it’. So that was trust - trust of friendships. So I said, ‘Yes, I will do it’, and I thought it was tastefully done.”

While she’ll always have fond memories of the West End, it’s undoubtedly Dallas that remains closest to her heart.

“What other actress or group of actors have been invited back 20 years later to play the same role?” says Gray, laughing. “It’s still a surreal experience.”

* The series, created by David Jacobs, was loosely inspired by 1978 movie Comes A Horseman starring Jane Fonda. Set in the Forties, it featured Jason Robards as Jacob ‘J.W.’ Ewing and Jim Davis (who later played Jock Ewing in the series).

* In the early years, Sue Ellen was barely mentioned by name, or said a word. “Nobody knew in the very beginning whether she was a masseuse, or a tennis pro, or what,” explains Gray. “She was just sort of there, sitting on the couch.”

* When it first aired in 1978, it was planned as a five-part miniseries, but it proved so popular that it was extended.

* The new run of Dallas features a host of familiar faces, including Lee Majors (as Ken Richards, an old admirer of Sue Ellen’s) and Mitch Pileggi as sly transportation executive Harris Ryland.

Dallas returns to Channel 5 on Wednesday, September 3.

THE SHOW’S SUCCESS

“I think it’s the luck of the draw,” says Gray. “The timing was appropriate. People that had seen the original show were excited that it was coming back, and people that had never seen it were like, ‘Whaaat?’

“[They’d say] ‘Our parents used to watch it. We used to sit on the sofa with grandma and my mother’.

I love hearing those things. There’s a wonderful nostalgia attached to it.”

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