‘Dallas’: Sue Ellen Wasn’t Supposed to Last Past the Pilot

Although Linda Gray’s Sue Ellen Ewing had no lines during that April 1978 pilot episode of Dallas, she didn’t need them. While the rest of the characters sparred on camera, Sue Ellen sat on the couch and filmed the reaction shot that floored CBS execs. Gray recalled using her eyes to project her deep-seated distaste regarding her TV husband, oil and cattle magnate J.R. Ewing, played by Larry Hagman.

Without saying a word, Gray launched Sue Ellen into prime time history. So much for not lasting past the pilot. Gray’s chemistry with Hagman lasted decades, even after Hagman’s death in 2012. Soon the world watched Sue Ellen soon become a vulnerable, depressed alcoholic, a mistress a few times over, and a mom to J.R.’s only legitimate son, John Ross.

(L-R) Christopher Atkins as Peter Richards and Linda Gray as Sue Ellen Ewing
(L-R) Christopher Atkins as Peter Richards and Linda Gray as Sue Ellen Ewing | CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

Who is Linda Gray?

Actor, director, and producer Linda Ann Gray was born on September 12, 1940, in Santa Monica, California, according to IMDb. After starting out in commercials in the 1960s, Gray didn’t land a major role until Dallas. The award-winning actor spent most of her early years guest starring on 1970s TV before landing the part of Sue Ellen.

The former model did however earn $20 for her body-double work on 1967’s The Graduate, lending her legs to the infamous publicity poster that aroused a young Dustin Hoffman to new heights of fame. Gray worked in the theatre post-Dallas. After a brief hiatus from movies and television, she returned to the small-screen in 2004 and hasn’t stopped acting since.

Dallas: putting prime time soaps on the map

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When Dallas debuted in 1978, no one expected it to be the biggest prime time soap since Peyton Place (1964-1969). The explosive rivalry between oil and cattle barons Jock Ewing and Digger Barnes started out as a trusted partnership. Long story short, they had a major falling out, cultivating a hatred that passed to their sons, J.R. Ewing and Cliff Barnes. Needless to say, when J.R.’s brother, Bobby, brought home his new wife, Pam, Digger’s daughter, the soap set up a scenario that fans the world over tuned into every week.

The series starred Hagman, Gray, Patrick Duffy (Bobby), and Victoria Principal (Pam) among the ensemble cast. The Ewing-Barnes saga didn’t strike a huge chord with American audiences the first couple of seasons. It wasn’t until the cliffhanger, “Who Shot J.R?” that, according to History, 83 million Americans — that’s 3 out of 4 TV sets in the United States —tuned in for the big reveal, making Dallas — and Gray — an “overnight” worldwide sensation. Even the Queen of England couldn’t get Larry Hagman to reveal who shot J.R.

Dallas resulted in the spinoff, Knots Landing, which became the longest-running prime-time soap opera in history, according to PBS. It outlasted Dallas and ran for 14 years.

Shades of Gray?

Sue Ellen was an unpredictable, embittered diva and a bit of a train wreck in the original Dallas. Sue Ellen’s redeeming work-in-progress in the Dallas reboot (2012-2014) marked her with a confidence she hadn’t tapped into in the original, pursuing a career in politics by running for governor, according to Parade. That confidence is where the similarities between Sue Ellen and Gray end.

Gray is a former United Nations Good Will Ambassador who loves charitable work. Gray may be 80 years old, but she’s far from retired, still making herself available for the craft that she loves. Gray is divorced from art director and photographer Ed Thrasher, with whom she has two children, Jeff and Kehly Sloane. Her son, Jeff, died of leukemia, November 2020.