A Chat with Linda Gray (“Expecting Mary,” “Dallas”)

This weekend marks the opening of “Expecting Mary,” a film about a young pregnant girl who ends up having to leave home to truly find a family. (I just made that up. Just now. I clearly should be writing taglines for a living.) The actress playing Mary – Olesya Rulin – is perhaps best described as an up-and-comer, since her highest profile roles to date have been “High School Musical 3” and a 6-episode stint on ABC Family’s “Greek,” but the same certainly cannot be said for many others in the cast: among those who turn up in the film include Elliott Gould, Lainie Kazan, Cloris Leachman, Della Reese, Cybill Shepherd, Gene Simmons, Fred Willard, and…yes, the title of this piece has given it away, but we’re going for the dramatic pause, anyway…Linda Gray, who was kind enough to take a bit of time to tell me about the film as well as to answer quite a few questions about the experience of playing the iconic role of Sue Ellen Ewing on “Dallas.”

Linda Gray: Hello, Will Harris! I was expecting your call!

Bullz-Eye: (Laughs) Well, I’m glad to hear that! It’s a pleasure to speak with you.

LG: Thank you very much!

BE: I must admit that I have yet to see “Expecting Mary,” but based on the cast alone, I’m certainly interested in doing so.

LG: (Laughs) Well, I think it’ll be one of those delightful movies where you laugh and maybe cry, and, you know, you’ll be entertained, for sure.

BE: Well, first off, let me ask you how you came to be involved in the film.

LG: It was because of the writer, Dan Gordon. Dan is an extraordinarily wonderful writer, and if you Google him… (Laughs) …you’ll find out all kinds of wonderful things that he’s written. But Dan Gordon had come to see me in London when I was doing “The Graduate,” and when he saw the play, he gave me a video – at that time, there weren’t all that many DVDs – of “Terms of Endearment,” and he asked, “Would you like to do this as a play?” And I took a deep breath, because I’d already stepped into an Anne Bancroft piece, and I thought, “Oh, boy, how do you go into an Academy Award winning role by Shirley MacLaine? But I said, “Yes, let’s do it.” So he got the rights from Paramount and Larry McMurtry to do it as a play, and we toured it in the provinces of England. It was kind of an off-off-off-off-Broadway kind of a thing… (Laughs) …just to kind of see how it worked, how the scenes played together and how the characters worked. So we did that, and I did it for almost six months, eight shows a week, and cried my eyes out every show, until I came to him and said, “Look, I love your writing, but…can you write me something lighter? This is too heavy for me!” (Laughs) So, anyway, we sat down and started throwing around ideas, and…I didn’t want to have a J.R. guy in my life. I said, “Okay, here’s my wish list: I don’t want her to be the wife of someone like that. I want her to be a little bit zany.” I wanted her to be a little Lucille Ball, a little bit of something that people hadn’t ever really seen me do. I wanted her to have a big heart, and…well, anyway, we hashed it around, and he came up with a former Las Vegas showgirl, and I said, “Yes!” And we kept going, and it was, like, “What if we did this? How about that?” And it was a lovely, lovely collaboration. But he’s the genius with writing. We just bounced ideas around, and he took them in and molded them into the script, which was, well, genius.

Nothing really good happens unless you have a good script, and he orchestrated it beautifully, so that…when you see it, you’ll see that each character has their moment, and they all shine in their scenes. And that’s what attracted all of these wonderful actors. Actors vibe to a script like that, so here comes Cloris Leachman and Della Reese and Lainie Kazan and Cybill Shepherd and Elliott Gould… (Laughs) I was, like, “Oh, my gosh, look at this cast!” Everybody kept saying, “Yes!” Nobody said “no.” It was just all about arranging their schedules. It was an 18-day shoot, which may surprise you when you see the film. It surprised us! (Laughs) And it was just…charming. I think what happens when you get professionals together, really good actors that have been in the business for a long time, and they know there’s an 18-day shoot…Dan Gordon was a first-time feature film director, which was an interesting thing, but the good news is that, as a director / writer, there weren’t many scenes that he had to tweak on the set then and there, but when there were, you didn’t have to wait to find the writer and say, “What do you think of this?” It was instant.

We benefited hugely by that, because…there’s one scene you’ll see where I’m holding this baby pig, walking, and Olyesa Rulin, whom I love and adore…she’s the young girl in the film, and I want to adopt her, but I haven’t told her parents yet. (Laughs) But we’re walking, I’m holding this pig, and she looks at me and says, “I thought we were supposed to walk this pig.” Well, the reality was that the ground was 134 degrees. It was so hot. We shot it last summer, at the end of July and the beginning of August, and the ground was so hot that they wouldn’t let us put the pig’s feet down on the ground! So I had to hold the pig, and it makes my character, Darnella, even more zany. I’m holding this pig as I’m taking her for a walk, and Olyesa says, rightfully, “I thought you were walking the pig,” so I say, “Oh, he hurt his little foot!” That was Dan. He wrote instantly that the pig had a hurt foot, but he likes to be out and about, so I had to hold him and carry him. (Laughs) So there are those kinds of little things that nobody would ever notice, but they’re there because Dan was there to write them on the spot!

BE: I’m suddenly reminded of W.C. Fields’ line about never working with children and animals…

LG: (Laughs) Oh, I think it’s absolutely true! I mean, I’ve worked with a lot of animals, and I agree. It’s, like, “Oh, my gosh, this is crazy!” Because they get all the focus. Everybody that I’ve talked to about the movie, they talk about the pig…and the pig isn’t even in the film very much! (Laughs) But, yes, everybody was just enamored, and they washed him in lavender soap. Actually, it was a girl, but in the film, it’s a male pig. But, yes, they washed him in lavender, and he smelled beautifully, and he was adorable.

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The Biggest Loser: time to break up the alliances

As this season’s “Biggest Loser” on NBC hurtles toward its conclusion, I think we can agree on two things. One, the season has dragged on to epic proportions. And two, the alliances of the yellow team and gray team have gotten a bit out of hand. With that, here is how it all went down last night……

The show began with a clip of last week’s elimination (Victoria) and then host Allison Sweeney telling Koli and Sunshine that everyone would be invited back in for an announcement. That is, that the remaining seven contestants would be headed to Texas this week to help train and educated a population that has the most obese citizens per capita. They would be interviewed on radio stations and then lead anyone who cared to participate in a 5K run at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. There were a few inspiring stories among those who came down, and maybe some inadvertent casting for next season.

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American Idol: stretching big D

Last night marked episode 6 of Season 9 of “American Idol” on Fox, and the auditions this time were held in Dallas, Texas. Of course, Ryan Seacrest kept saying they were returning to Dallas for the third time, the city where they had found so many previous hopefuls and talent. But all they did was show clips of Kelly Clarkson’s audition back in 2001 and a few other contestants nobody remembers. Seriously guys, that was a huge stretch, and there was no need to harp on it. So you found Kelly there, big freaking deal.

On to the auditions, and the guest judges this time were Neil Patrick Harris (NPH) and Joe Jonas. I’m yawning as I write this…give me more Katy Perry! Actually NPH was pretty funny, but Joe…I don’t think he said a word beyond “yeah” a few times. Way to go, kid.

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Dallas – The Complete Eleventh Season

With each new “Dallas” release, I expect the show to finally start sucking, and this was the first set where it seemed like that might actually be the case. Picking up (as soaps are wont to do) where we left off, Pam has been burnt to a crisp in a fiery explosion, because Victoria Principal wanted off the show. But Pam lives – bandaged up and looking an awful lot like Karloff’s Mummy, inert in a hospital bed. Why not just kill her, fer chrissakes? Apparently, after the dream season fiasco, the producers were simply not going to kill off a major player for good, and the first third of the season revolves around this nonsense. Will she live or won’t she? What will she look like beneath the bandages? Will Bobby ever let little Christopher see his mummy again? Is it possible Victoria isn’t gone after all? The first ten or so episodes of the thirty presented here are some of the silliest “Dallas” I’ve ever seen. (Even the producers seem to think it’s all a joke – one of the episodes is actually titled “Mummy’s Revenge.”)

Alongside the Pam drama, the show also presents a lengthy plotline involving Cliff Barnes (Ken Kercheval) meeting an old drunk named Dandy (Bert Remsen) who reminds him of his father, Digger. This tediously goes on and on and on, until it reaches a logical conclusion, which in turn leads to a scene between Barnes and Miss Ellie (Barbara Bel Geddes) that’s one of the most pivotal, moving scenes in the entire series. No, it doesn’t justify hours of watching Cliff hanging with an old drunk, but it does make some sense of it all. It’s somewhere around this point that the season gets back on track and turns into some pretty decent “Dallas.”

Also at the end of Season 10, J.R. (Larry Hagman) lost Ewing Oil completely, thanks to the government and Jeremy Wendell (William Smithers), the head of Westar. He spends all of Season 11 deviously plotting to get it back, and it’s a major highlight to watch this unfold, one sleazy step at a time. There doesn’t seem to be anything J.R. won’t do, or anyone he won’t trample, in order to get his daddy’s company back. As is usually the case, J.R.’s antics keep the series centered, regardless of how numbing some of the proceedings may be. At the same time, Sue Ellen (Linda Gray) is busy furthering her lingerie company with the help of high-powered business consultant Nicholas Pearce (Jack Scalia). For the first half of the season, Pearce is one of the most grating, annoying characters ever seen on this series…and then he suddenly becomes hugely likable, with a pretty damn interesting backstory as well. It’s one of the coolest “Dallas” flip-flops I’ve ever experienced.

In other news, Bobby (Patrick Duffy) finds potential love – not once but twice – after losing Pam, as well as going after something J.R. covets dearly. Clayton (Howard Keel) falls in love with a painting, and Bel Geddes gets to play a ridiculous drunk scene that must be seen to be believed. Ray (Steve Kanaly) and Jenna (Priscilla Presley) finally tie the knot, which leads to endless problems for the couple, including Charlie (Shalane McCall) acting up at school and messing around with a boy – but not just any boy. No, the object of Charlie’s teenage lust in no less than Brad Pitt! He’s got maybe one scene in each of four episodes, and has very little to do, but nevertheless it’s freakin’ Brad Pitt, some 20 years before he became an Inglourious Basterd.

And just in case anyone might think the show is becoming less and less “Dallas” with each passing season, in the penultimate episode, “Things Ain’t Goin’ So Good at Southfork Again,” Lucy (Charlene Tilton) returns to the fold after a three season absence. And she is lookin’ mighty fine.

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Dallas: The Complete Tenth Season

Waking up from a season-long dream, Pam realizes that Bobby is still alive and well, and it’s quickly back to corrupt business as usual at Southfork and Ewing Oil. Season 10 appropriately sees a return to the less flashy template of Season 8, although there is one major holdover from the infamous dream. Steve Forrest was introduced as ranch hand Ben Stivers in Season 9, and he is reintroduced here as a new incarnation of the same character, only this time his name is Wes Parmalee. (Pam’s obvious psychic abilities go unmentioned.)

It doesn’t take long for the bomb to drop: Is Parmalee actually Ewing patriarch Jock, seemingly returned from the dead? While J.R., Bobby, and Clayton are certain he’s a fraud, Miss Ellie is more easily swayed. The Parmalee storyline dominates the first half of the season, and while it’s great drama, it lacks a truly satisfactory conclusion, and the season’s second half is arguably stronger. With the oil business facing tough times, J.R. hires fanatical mercenary B.D. Calhoun (Hunter Von Leer) to blow up an oil field in Saudi Arabia, thus driving up the price of Texas crude. Things don’t go as planned, the CIA starts sniffing around, and Calhoun returns to take bloody revenge on everyone’s favorite oil slick. The situation worsens when J.R.’s botched scheme is leaked to the public, and the government begins an investigation that may bring Ewing Oil down for good.

Season 10 is very traditional “Dallas,” although it clearly signifies a major shift in the series’ mythology. It is not only the final season for both Victoria Principal and Susan Howard, but also the first for Sheree J. Wilson’s April Stevens, who would last through the final season. Further, while the “Dallas” DVDs have never been gold standard, this set is unusually erratic in video quality, and the second episode has terrible audio. Here’s to hoping that Season 11, set for an April release, will at least be of the usual consistent mediocre standard.

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