'Dallas' deserved better, say Dallas-bound Linda Gray and Patrick Duffy

Dallas, the TNT iteration, was canceled officially on Oct. 3, 2014. That was a Friday. The world found out around 3 p.m. Los Angeles time, but a few minutes after the actors were told.

Linda Gray, who on and off since 1978 played a former Miss Texas named Sue Ellen Shepard Ewing, was sitting in her car at a Studio City stoplight when the phone call came notifying her of the abrupt ending. For months, cast and crew were left in limbo, waiting and wondering. They still had leases on their downtown condos. They could not take other jobs, as they were still under contract.

Just days earlier, Dallas had aired the finale of its third season, in which Christopher Ewing — Bobby's adopted son — was killed in an explosion. A fourth season, the show's second full season without J.R. Ewing following Larry Hagman's death in November 2012, had already been outlined. Characters had been added but not yet cast until TNT gave a green light to one more year.

"The way that it was announced," said Patrick Duffy, who, of course, played Bobby Ewing, "nobody saw this coming."

Reeling from the news delivered by Dallas' writer-producer Cynthia Cidre, Gray looked up and saw a billboard for another TV show nearing its end: Mad Men. Its groovy, psychedelic adios bore the message, "The Final Season Begins." Dallas would receive no such send-off. It was, simply, gone. Again. This time, likely, for good. Even now, the cancellation still stings.

Patrick Duffy, left, Linda Gray, center, and Larry Hagman present the award for outstanding performance by an ensemble in a drama series at the 18th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards on Sunday Jan. 29, 2012 in Los Angeles. (Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press)

"Had TNT just said, 'These are the final five shows of Dallas, you'll never see these crazy Ewings again,' that would have been respectful," Gray said a few days ago. "But they didn't. They threw us under the bus. The fans, too. They respected Mad Men and gave the audience a heads-up. That's respect."

"That was the ugly side of this business," Duffy added. Until that moment, he said a couple of weeks ago, "I'd seldom experienced it."

So, given no opportunity to offer a proper farewell almost three years ago, Gray and Duffy return to Dallas this week to give Dallas the fond farewell it deserved. The real reason has something to do with the official relaunch of the locally distilled J.R. Ewing Bourbon. But it's as solid an excuse as any for their appearance Thursday night at the Winspear Opera House, where I will moderate a look-back with the twosome before I turn over the question-asking to the audience.

"It's with great humor we attend this thing and make magic out of it," Gray said.

By way of a sneak peek, this much has been outlined for the night's event: We will begin at the end, with a discussion not about what was, but what could have been had TNT not canceled the series. Duffy said when we spoke recently that he felt Dallas had just begun to hit its stride during its second life on TNT; Gray, too. The show that played like an hourlong sitcom on CBS during its original run had a little more heft in later years; and, slowly, it had emerged from Hagman's estimable shadow.

Then, we will end at the beginning — specifically, that brutal winter 40 years ago, when the cast came to town to film what was believed to be a five-part miniseries and nothing more. Only Hagman, a Weatherford native and, in 1950, a small-timer in Margo Jones' theater company, had been to Dallas before shooting. The rest of the cast, which landed at Love Field in the middle of an ice storm, were strangers to a city they thought they were just passing through on their way to the next job.

The Ewing family form the original Dallas in 1979: sitting, Barbara Bel geddes, left, and Charlene Tilton; standing from left, Larry Hagman, Linda Gray, Jim Davis, Patrick Duffy and Victoria Principal.

Here, a preview of sorts from Thursday night's event, courtesy the woman who will always be Sue Ellen.

"We stayed at the North Park Inn, which is no longer there — thank God," Gray said, laughing. "I was in the Neimans lingerie section early on, and this woman said, 'What are you doing?' I was with the wardrobe lady, and we told her, and she said, 'Well, I hope you're not going to make us look terrible. We already had the assassination.' She went off, she went crazy. And I said, 'Calm down, we're just here buying a negligee.'"

See you Thursday. I was told there will be bourbon.

Plan your life

8 p.m. Thursday, March 23, at the Winspear Opera House, 2403 Flora St., Dallas. $29-$49. attpac.org.

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