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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An A to Z of Last-Minute Gifts for the TV Geek in Your Life

Got a TV geek on your Christmas list but don’t know what to get them because you’re petrified that they might already have all the obvious picks? As someone who falls into that demographic (and therefore has to make a very explicit list for my family every year), I understand where you’re coming from, so please allow me to do my part to help but you and the poor bastard you’re waiting ’til the last second to shop for. Sure, the list is a little all-over-the-place, but all of these items have landed in stores since last Christmas, and…hey, at least it’s in alphabetical order!

1. Adam 12: Season Two – Rescued from Universal’s indifference by the good folks at Shout! Factory, it holds up about as well as any show produced by Jack Webb (which is to say that the acting is more than a little stilted), but it’s been tricked out with commentaries from actual Los Angeles police officers, which make for entertaining and interesting listening.

2. Beauty and the Beast: The Complete Series – Ron Perlman may be best known these days for his work in FX’s “Sons of Anarchy” and the “Hellboy” franchise, just as Linda Hamilton is probably destined to be remembered as the definitive Sarah Connor, but once upon a time, they were the stars of a rather unlikely romance on CBS. This complete-series set offers little new for those who’ve already purchased the individual season sets except an interactive trivia game, some “newly reconstructed love letters” from Vincent which don’t sound like they’re being read by Perlman, and a nice looking box, but it’s a strange, fanciful, and romantic show that your mom, wife, sister, or…oh, hell, even you might like it.

3. Comedy Central’s TV Funhouse – Given that it takes the style of a kids show from the early ’70s and blends it with dark, surreal, and sometimes downright filthy humor, it’s only halfway surprising that this series didn’t find a following, but it will undoubtedly come to be remembered as one of the great lost comedy classics of the decade. Robert Smigel obsessives will notice that a few things are missing from the show’s original airing, but there’s still plenty here to make you laugh and groan for hours.

4. Drak Pak: The Complete Series – Sometimes, you include an item for personal reasons, but the idea of the kids of Dracula, the Wolfman, and Frankenstein’s Monster teaming up to form a crime-fighting team that battles against a guy who looks suspiciously like Vincent Price is one that had me watching every Saturday morning. Sadly, it only lasted a single season, and watching it now, I can kind of see why, but it’s still a fun flashback for those who remember the show from its original run.

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