‘We can have as much fun as we did at 25. Perhaps even more so now that we don’t have to worry about kids breaking into the bedroom.’
Linda’s riveting new book, The Road to Happiness is Always Under Construction, are half a practical self-help guide to aging gracefully and half a brutally honest biography.
In a beige silk top and J-Brand jeans, she could pass for a woman in her 50s, her large brown eyes shining, her red hair tied up in a bun. Her face is wrinkled and full of personality, so I believe her when she says she’s never had plastic surgery.
‘I haven’t had anything done because I’m concerned,’ she says. ‘I tried Botox once, and I looked dreadful,’ she recalls, caressing her brow.
Her life’s hardships and successes are recounted in the book, including being briefly disabled by polio as a child, losing her younger sister Betty to cancer, and being imprisoned in a horrible marriage for over two decades.
It also provides new insights into the television show that propelled Linda to international fame: Linda describes her career-defining character as “a mogul’s wife with a sparkling outside and a pickled liver,” who was continuously embroiled in roller-coaster battles with her Machiavellian, philandering husband.
Linda was married to her husband, creative director and photographer Ed Thrasher (designer of album covers for musicians such as Frank Sinatra, Jimi Hendrix, and Joni Mitchell) when she was 21. On the first night of her honeymoon in Acapulco, Linda realized she’d made a mistake.
‘Because we had sex, I thought, ‘Oh, now I’m a genuine grownup, a lady,’ but I didn’t feel loved or nurtured,’ she says.
Instead, she felt abandoned. Ed left her alone in the motel the next day while he was shooting, beginning an emotionally cold and domineering routine that would persist throughout their marriage.
‘It tore me apart, but all I could think was, “Well, I can make this work somehow.” Which she, in some ways, did.
‘It took me 21 years to break up with my husband,’ she admits.
Linda admits that moving away from home was part of the appeal of marriage after a difficult childhood in Culver City, Los Angeles.
She contracted polio at age five and was quarantined in her bedroom for months.
She completely recovered (‘I simply need to stretch my hamstrings, which get stiff,’ she explains). Despite this, Linda and her sister Betty had to deal with their mother, Marge, a former ballerina and artist who enjoyed ‘Rose’s lime juice and vodka gimlets – it being the Mad Men era, everybody had a cocktail hour,’ says Linda.
Marge Gray wasn’t intoxicated – no yelling – and she wasn’t rude – she was simply lost in her world, forgetting to buy food. As a result, I started cooking. ‘Neither my sister nor I were fond of her.’
How much did her mother impact her portrayal of Sue Ellen?
‘No way, no how. “How will I do this right and not embarrass Mum?” At first, I was perplexed. The part, on the other hand, was a gift.
‘When Mum saw me play a character with a condition, she recognized she had a true problem, and it turned out to be wonderfully healing,’ she says.
Her mother, who was 60 then, eventually stopped drinking and joined Alcoholics Anonymous.
Linda believes her mother’s drinking was motivated by dissatisfaction, disillusionment, and a lack of creativity, and she is resolved not to follow in her mother’s footsteps.
‘I was scared that something similar would happen to me if I didn’t pursue my career.’
Leslie, her jeweler father, provided steadiness.
‘He was great; he reminded me of the Dalai Lama, and everyone adored him,’ said one.
‘He didn’t offer emotional support,’ she continues, ‘he was simply there, like a piece of furniture, but it was a different time.
‘You didn’t go to Dad because you were experiencing problems with your boyfriend. But he was supportive of my career.’ God, please!
Linda had intended to study medicine, but her proximity to the MGM film studios lured her to acting and Hollywood.
She and her friends would go to the studios after school and acquire autographs from performers such as Spencer Tracy, Stewart Granger, and Tyrone Power.
She began modeling in her teens for companies such as Noxzema skincare, L’eggs hosiery, and various airlines.
Marriage to Ed terminated a future career because he wanted her to be a wife and mother.
Linda had two children, Jeff (now 50) and Kelly (48), and the family moved to a sprawling ranch in Santa Clarita, north of Los Angeles, where she presently resides.
‘He was like my father in that he didn’t say much,’ Linda explains.
Instead, he would pin notes to the fridge daily with chores for her to complete “like I was a maid.” “Iron my clothes, wash the car, feed the hens, and take the dog to the vet,” he would say.
In the early 1970s, she went to group therapy, frustrated and disillusioned, because she wanted to know, “Who are you, Linda Gray?”
She even persuaded Ed to attend one session, ending the to-do lists. However, “subtle violence,” as Linda describes it, remained. Ed opposed his wife’s work, but he agreed to a part-time job.
‘He’d say things like, ‘We need a pool,’ ‘We need a tennis court,’ and so on. So I’d do a TV commercial to make up the difference.’
She was paid $25 to be Anne Bancroft’s body double on the promotional poster for The Graduate (1967), starring Dustin Hoffman when she was 27.
Linda’s shapely leg is shown in the famous photo. (By chance, she was 61 when she played Mrs. Robinson in the 2001 West End stage version of The Graduate, which featured a full-frontal nude moment.)
Despite her frustration, she loved being a mother and caring for the ranch. She, too, wished to perform. Ed was disappointed when she decided to take acting classes.
“Why don’t you go to college and become an actress?” he said. But she persisted, taking lessons with many younger students at the age of 37.
In 1974, she landed her first acting role as a guest star on the TV series Marcus Welby MD due to actor Dennis Weaver (Gunsmoke and McCloud), who recognized her talent.
Then, at the age of 38, she had her big break, auditioning for and earning the role of Sue Ellen, which would change her life. It required her to leave her two children, ages 11 and 13, in Texas for two months to film.
‘I could have declined because leaving children at any age is difficult, but I did my best to strike a balance. I prepared over 60 freezer casseroles to ensure the family did not go hungry.’
The sitcom, which also starred Larry Hagman as JR, Patrick Duffy, and Victoria Principal, ran for 14 seasons from 1978 until 1991.
It broke global viewership records, but Linda was devastated by her time away from her children.
She missed her son’s high school graduation (he now co-owns an environmental IT company with a friend) because she was filming a crucial scene, and her adolescent daughter Kelly (now a married businesswoman with two children) started skipping school getting into trouble with the cops.
‘She had this jerk of a mother who was a TV celebrity and should’ve been at home making cookies and going to PTA meetings.
‘I was getting a lot of attention, and everyone wanted my autograph, which is tough for a teenage girl to do.
‘The rebellious spirit must be extinguished. She’d take my car, drive about with her friends, and then run out of gas.
‘She was most likely drinking as well. A cop would pull her over and question her, “Why are you driving so fast?” I’d go to the police station and sign glossy photos of myself to get her out!’
Linda’s marriage deteriorated as her career developed.
In 1981, she was nominated for an Emmy for best actress. She recalls that her famed hairstylist José Eber created a fresh wavy hairdo for the gala night.
Ed then arrived in a limo to meet her.
‘I thought I was stunning, but he simply looked at me and said, ‘You look like a hooker,’ she added. I was devastated. I believed I was going to die there and then.
‘That was a stormy night. My theory was that he was trying to bring me down a notch, so when I lost, he perked up.
She pauses to pour some tea. ‘My children are still completely unaware of anything.’
They had to have known you had a lousy marriage, didn’t they?
‘I assume they only saw what they were looking for. He was a wonderful parent to them.’
Did she consider her husband’s actions abusive?
‘There was nothing like it back then. I felt as if I were being dragged through a knothole. ‘I was simply feeling like sh**,’ she admits.
How would she react if her daughter was in the same situation?
‘That’s equivalent to saying, “Divorce papers right now!” But women are making great strides, and I hope no one has to go through what I experienced.’
She thinks her previous experience to be rather insufficient.
‘I was intended to be born in 1940 and go through all I did, wonderful, bad, sad, and tragic,’ she says.
Linda finally left Ed in 1983, two years after the Emmy incident.
‘I developed beside Sue Ellen. I gradually gained strength, and one day I told myself, “I don’t have to put up with this any longer.”
“I can’t be married anymore,” I told him. I was tired, battered, and overwhelmed, and I was raw, raw, raw. He didn’t say much. “All right,” he replied. “Do what must be done.”
‘His words were tinged with disdain as if he encouraged his crazed wife in her petty antics. He anticipated me returning home with my tail between my legs.’ He was, I believe, in denial.
Divorce was simultaneously liberating and agonizing.
‘The neighboring wives treated me like a virus,’ she continues (even though their husbands wanted to come over and lend her a shoulder to cry on!). Larry Hagman and Maj Hagman expressed genuine concern.
‘They encircled me; it was so caring and kind; they cared about me.’
She moved to Malibu while the divorce was completed, then returned to the property when Ed left.
I’m interested in why Linda waited 21 years to divorce.
‘Oh my God, I’m not certain. The best alternative would have been to avoid marriage and keep him as a friend.’
She claims he was friendly and humorous in social situations but not in the marriage.
‘However, I have no regrets: I grew as a person.’ (In reality, she helped her ex-husband when he was diagnosed with colon cancer and was there when he died in 2006.)
Her confidence was growing at work as well. She gave her ill-conceived Dallas character greater weight.
“Who in hell would marry that idiot?” I thought to myself. “Baby, it’s you,” I realize. “How are you going to handle it?” Sue Ellen might have been a bitch, depending on how the character was written, but I decided to make her vulnerable.
‘I struggled with the writers and producers to get her to quit drinking and having affairs because I didn’t want to be stuck in that rut,’ she says.
A decade after the show’s launch, Larry Hagman and Patrick Duffy directed episodes of Dallas. Linda wanted to go, but executive producer Leonard Katzman refused.
‘I pushed myself…
I was also fired. Larry then stepped up to defend me. “If she leaves, I leave,” he explained.
‘I knew Larry well enough to know he wouldn’t attend, but it sounded fantastic,’ she smiles.
Linda’s position was restored, and she cracked her glass ceiling by directing four high-rated episodes of Dallas.
‘I liked it and felt proud of myself for sticking with it.’
What has changed since that time?
‘Things are improving. However, it is still challenging for women.’
However, her directing debut in 1986 was clouded by the knowledge that her sister Betty had breast cancer seven years after losing her 17-year-old daughter [Linda’s niece] in a vehicle accident.
‘I was thrilled to learn about my sister, but I had to lead the next day.’
Betty died at the age of 43, three years later.
‘Every day, I miss my sister because she and I grew up in that insane, dysfunctional family, but we made it.’
Linda has since appeared in Melrose Place (1994), Models Inc (1994), 90210 (2008), and the 2012 Dallas reboot.
She is still working and will be featured as “an eccentric old lady who drinks and smokes” in the upcoming comedy Wally’s Will.
‘I’ve had an amazing career, but I’m not done yet.’
‘I’m having a lot of fun; I love my independence,’ she says. After Dallas was reopened, we were forced to relocate to Texas.
‘Larry and Patrick brought their wives. Me? I brought my cat along. Last year, I didn’t need permission to act in a pantomime [Cinderella in Wimbledon]. ‘However, I’d live with someone,’ she admits.
‘Age is irrelevant. I have no desire to meet a 40-year-old who is boring, drab, and flat.
‘If I meet someone my age who enjoys laughing, going to the movies, swimming, and eating nice food…bring him on!’
‘I never ask them their age. And they’re toast if they ask me my age. ‘Thank you very much, Google!’ With a glint in her eye, she says.
Linda, dedicated to her children and grandchildren (Kelly’s sons Ryder, 23, and Jack, 12), describes her life as “simply beautiful” and feels that gratitude is the key to happiness.
‘In the morning, I get up, place my feet on the floor, and say, ‘Thank you.’
She mentions 60 as a watershed event in her memoir, the age at which she chose to be joyous.
‘I felt like I understood who I was and what it meant to be a woman. And then this great revelation hit me like a bolt of lightning.’
Death is not a threat. Is she a believer in heaven and hell?
‘Of course, I believe in it; I want to see all of my friends and family and give them embraces and dance about. People must, nevertheless, concentrate on the present.
‘It’s a pleasure to be here with you for breakfast. Then I’m out to cook wild fish and courgettes for a friend.
‘Life is meant to be lived right now,’ says the protagonist.