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In the 1970s and '80s, Linda Gray became a staple in American households for 13 years as the forlorn and forsaken wife of the most ruthless man on television. Before "Dallas" (CBS, 1978-1991) made her a familiar face, the actress worked prolifically as model in the 1960s and became the answer to a much-bandied trivia question when marketers of the classic Dustin Hoffman film "The Graduate" (1967) used her shapely legs as the frame of its famous movie poster. But it would be on the archetypal primetime soap opera "Dallas" that she found herself transformed into a pop-cultural diva by playing Sue Ellen Ewing, the put-upon, bed-hopping, boozing spouse of venal oil magnate J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman). Winning an Emmy nomination for that role, she would ride her soapy imprimatur through the 1990s, playing a no-nonsense businesswoman on "Melrose Place" (Fox, 1992-99) and "Models, Inc." (Fox, 1994-95). She made a transition to the stage, touring in productions across the U.S. and Europe, most notably a turn as that self-same Mrs. Robinson in a stage adaptation of the "The Graduate." Still, for a career marked by distinct stages across the performing arts spectrum, Gray's veritable tenure as Sue Ellen would...
In the 1970s and '80s, Linda Gray became a staple in American households for 13 years as the forlorn and forsaken wife of the most ruthless man on television. Before "Dallas" (CBS, 1978-1991) made her a familiar face, the actress worked prolifically as model in the 1960s and became the answer to a much-bandied trivia question when marketers of the classic Dustin Hoffman film "The Graduate" (1967) used her shapely legs as the frame of its famous movie poster. But it would be on the archetypal primetime soap opera "Dallas" that she found herself transformed into a pop-cultural diva by playing Sue Ellen Ewing, the put-upon, bed-hopping, boozing spouse of venal oil magnate J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman). Winning an Emmy nomination for that role, she would ride her soapy imprimatur through the 1990s, playing a no-nonsense businesswoman on "Melrose Place" (Fox, 1992-99) and "Models, Inc." (Fox, 1994-95). She made a transition to the stage, touring in productions across the U.S. and Europe, most notably a turn as that self-same Mrs. Robinson in a stage adaptation of the "The Graduate." Still, for a career marked by distinct stages across the performing arts spectrum, Gray's veritable tenure as Sue Ellen would make her perennially synonymous with a relentless and vengeful soap opera queen, as witnessed by her return to the role some 20 years later on the TNT reboot, "Dallas" (TNT, 2012-14), making fans of the iconic show very happy to see Sue Ellen Ewing's story continue for new generations of viewers.
Gray was born Sept. 12, 1940, in Santa Monica, CA, the daughter of Marjorie and Leslie Gray, the latter a watchmaker who operated a shop in Culver City, CA. An introverted child, growing up mere block from movie studios, she would hang around the studio gates and daydream about being a child star. Her Catholic parents, leery of the influence of the seamy spheres of show business, sent her to nearby all-girls Notre Dame Academy, but she nevertheless gravitated to the school's performing arts offerings. Tall and graceful upon graduating high school, she landed work as a model. One of her earliest jobs took her to Capitol Records, then looking for hot new talent to grace album covers. It was there she met Ed Thrasher, an art director with the label, and the two began dating and married in 1962. She moved into TV advertising, racking up some 400 spots. One of her print jobs would be a $20 shoot of her stocking clad legs, which would eventually be chosen to frame an agog Dustin Hoffman in the movie poster for "The Graduate" (1967) - her gams considered shapelier proxies for those of Anne Bancroft as the philandering Mrs. Robinson.
Restless with modeling, Gray had begun taking acting lessons and, in the 1970s, she urged her agent to start looking for dramatic work for her. She began with bit parts, eventually securing her first featured role on the shamus series "McCloud" (NBC, 1970-77), and her first regular TV series work in "All That Glitters" (syndicated, 1977), a short-lived attempt at a soap opera satire produced by Norman Lear. Per Lear's penchant for shock, the show posed a contemporary world with gender roles reversed - women as the movers and shakers and men objectified or subordinated to housework, with Gray's character, a transsexual, caught in between. The job only lasted 13 weeks, after which Gray, worried that she would never find steady work, went on an audition for a minor part on a new show called "Dallas."
Gray was relieved to win the role of Sue Ellen Ewing, even though the character, the onetime beauty queen wife of central oil magnate J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman), was initially written as little more than pretty window dressing for the show, sniping at J.R. from the couch. By her later account, her character initially did not even have a name, and she and Hagman merely vamped their scenes as she played it as a dissatisfied one-time trophy wife. Producers liked their chemistry enough that they began beefing up her part. The show became a major hit, even as Sue Ellen's gross discontentment and her own schemes became one front on which the caddish J.R. did battle, even as he scrapped with business nemeses and his own goody-two-shoes brother Bobby (Patrick Duffy). Gray's character went on a roller-coaster of arcs, including an affair with J.R.'s arch-enemy and possibly having a child by him, being committed to a sanitarium, giving birth to what turned out to be J.R.'s son after crashing her car, suffering post-partum depression, having an affair with a rodeo rider who dies in a plane crash, drinking excessively, divorcing and remarrying the philandering J.R., having an affair with a college student, suffering a miscarriage, and shooting and then blackmailing J.R.
For her work, Gray earned an Emmy nomination for Best Actress in a Drama in 1981, but she very nearly did not make it through the show's long run. Gray reportedly ran afoul of producers in 1986 when she told them she wanted to direct episodes as had co-stars Hagman and Duffy, and, when they fired her, Hagman threatened to leave the show until they hired her back and acceded to her request. "Dallas" went off the air after its 1990-91 season, but Gray would reprise Sue Ellen twice more, briefly reconciling with J.R., then joining forces with Bobby to take over Ewing Oil in the 1996 TV-movie "Dallas: J.R. Returns" (CBS), followed by more wrangling between the two parties for control of the company two years later in "Dallas: War of the Ewings" (CBS, 1998).
In the meantime, she would make a stab at comedy, playing opposite Sylvester Stallone in his attempt at screwball comedy, "Oscar" (1991), star in a flurry of soapy made-for-TV movies, then return to nighttime soaps in 1994 with a recurring role as the mother of Heather Locklear's character on Fox's hit "Melrose Place" (1992-99). That set the table for a new Fox show for the fall 1994 premiere of "Models, Inc." (1994-95), revolving around a modeling agency run by Gray's character and the backstabbing, sexual conquests and power-plays behinds the scenes. The show failed to pick up the "Melrose" audience, however, and only lasted a season. In its wake, she was offered a lead in a production of "Agnes of God" at the venerable English Theatre in Vienna, Austria that would spur a career leaning heavily toward the live stage. She directed an L.A. production of the courtroom drama "Murder in the First," with Kevin Bacon and Christian Slater, and later lured Hagman onstage with her in an L.A. production of the Pulitzer-nominated play "Love Letters," with which they later toured the U.S. and Europe. Gray also did a turn in the ongoing all-star rotation of the off-Broadway institution "The Vagina Monologues," joining the show for its touring stage.
In 2001, in a curious bit of symmetry with her early modeling work, she landed the role of Mrs. Robinson, the randy cougar who seduces a young college grad, in a U.K. stage production of "The Graduate" in London's West End. She reprised the role in the Broadway production in 2002 with a short stint as a fill-in for Kathleen Turner, then in the production's U.S. tour in 2003. In 2004, she returned to soaps for a short run on CBS' "The Bold and the Beautiful" (1987- ), and also affected some curious symmetry starring opposite John Larroquette in the "McBride: It's Murder, Madam" (2005), a Hallmark production conceived as a throwback to the fluffy "McCloud"-type mysteries in which she started her acting career. In 2007, she went back to the U.K. for a stage adaptation of the Oscar-winning tearjerker "Terms of Endearment" (1983). Since 1998, Gray also served as Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations, in which capacity she has appeared as a spokesperson on women's rights, family planning and environmental issues.
After a supporting turn as the mother of a ladder-climbing young professional in the cautionary drama "Flight of the Swan" (2010) - which also featured her old pal Hagman in a minor role - Gray returned full time to the role that made her a star - a "reboot" of "Dallas" (TNT, 2012-14). Picking up 20 years after the events of the original's series finale, the reinvigorated primetime soap opera reunited Gray's Sue Ellen with former cast members Hagman and Patrick Duffy in their roles as J.R. and Bobby. While the elder generation would play a significant role on the show, the main focus had shifted to the Ewing scions John Ross (Josh Henderson) and Christopher (Jesse Metcalfe), sons of J.R. and Bobby, respectively. As their fathers had before them, the young tycoons battled each other for control of the Ewing Empire amidst a backdrop of sex, greed and betrayal. Proving that the concept still had legs, the new "Dallas" ended its season as one of basic cable's top-rated new drama series and was quickly approved for a second season.
By Matthew Grimm
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