Steve Kanaly will be in Texas this week to film his latest guest spot as Ray Krebbs on TNT’s “Dallas.” I spoke to him recently about what it’s been like to walk in Ray’s boots for the past 35 years — and what the future might hold for everyone’s favorite cowboy.
I’m so excited you’re going to be visiting “Dallas” again. What can you tell us about this appearance?
I’m only in a single episode at this point. I made this bad joke more than a year ago, before Larry [Hagman] passed away, that they’re going to have Ray and Lucy in whenever there’s a wedding or a funeral. And that’s pretty much been the story. This is another wedding. It’ll be a big Southfork extravaganza.
Do you have a lot of lines? Fans like me want to see more of Ray.
No, it’s not a lot of lines, but that’s heartening to hear. I’m torn. Do you say, “No, thanks”? Or do you say, “OK, thank you. I’ll continue to be part of the background”? So I end up listening to all of my friends who tell me, “Take the money! Go be part of it. Something good might come of it.” [Laughs] But it’s still a thrill to say that you’re part of this phenomenon of “Dallas.” And this is the first year they’re going to have to get along without the J.R. character, so I want to wish them luck and help where I can. If being on the show helps, then I’m happy to do it.
Would you want to become a regular on the new show?
My wife says, “Be careful what you wish for.” They’re now filming the entire series in Dallas. I love Dallas, but I also love living in Southern California. I have a whole lifestyle here that I wouldn’t want to lose. And Dallas is nice, but I’d like to just be there on occasion. I would not want to be a regular character, if they’re listening out there. I’d like to appear more often.
And Charlene Tilton will be joining you again?
Yeah. And Afton [Audrey Landers] is in this show too. I saw the script and she has a nice role. I think the producers are going to stay with the younger offsprings’ storylines and the old guys will come in from time to time. They’re not really interested in going back to what we did before. And I have a lot of people on social networks saying, “We’ve got to get Ray back. Ray’s my favorite.” It’s all very flattering. I just wish somebody at the studio would pay attention. [Laughs]
There’s also been talk about bringing back Priscilla Presley as Jenna Wade. Ray could figure into that storyline.
There’s always talk. The last time we saw Ray, he was married to Jenna and raising Bobby’s baby. So that’s what I keep telling the guys on the new show. What about Bobby’s baby? [Laughs]
Bobby’s baby is probably 25 now!
Right. I’ve got a 25-year-old that I’ve been raising over in Europe. [Laughs] If Ray Krebbs ever comes back in a big way, that would be one avenue they could pursue.
Your most recent appearance on the new show was J.R.’s funeral. What was that experience like?
It was very moving. I had been to two celebrations of Larry’s life — one here at his home in Ojai, where I live, and one in Santa Monica. And they were lovely, beautiful events. But it was not a final closing for me — not like playing that scene. It was really cold that day, and something happened when we filmed that scene that never happened to me at any other time in my 44-year career. I was the first guy to speak, and we had done a couple of rehearsals, and it was real quiet because of the somber nature of the moment. And I delivered my speech and I walk off and the next person comes up, and there are eight of us that do this. Well, it’s an uncut scene that runs for eight or nine minutes. And everybody does this without a flub.
Not one. And the director came up afterwards and said, “OK, that’s great. Everybody stay where you are. We’re going to go again. We’re going to move the cameras and come in tighter.” And you know, I’ll be darned if everybody wasn’t letter perfect again. I can’t explain it. I’ve never seen this before on a film set.
Maybe Larry was smiling down on everyone.
It was my final goodbye to Larry, although I really can’t say my final goodbye. Larry was my neighbor. From my kitchen table, I can look up on this hilltop where his house was. So Larry’s on my mind every day.
That’s so nice. Let me ask you one more thing about that scene. After Sue Ellen gives her speech, she’s upset and as she returns to her seat, Ray reaches out and takes her hand. Did the director tell you to do that?
No, that was something I wanted to do. I feel so often that they don’t write these things as well as they might. There’s a lot of family interaction that should go on — like in real families — and that was just something that I wanted to add.
I noticed it when I watched the episode and thought, “Oh, that’s so sweet.” It was a small gesture, but it says so much about who Ray is.
That was it. You don’t know if they’re going to pay any attention to that or not. You want to make the most out of your moment. That’s the thing: Even when I go back and I’m doing kind of a walk-on, I want to make the most out of it.
Let’s talk about this great character of Ray Krebbs. I’ve got to tell you: My dad loves you. You’re the reason he watched “Dallas.” He grew up loving westerns and considered Ray the last of the TV cowboys.
That’s very flattering. In my first meeting for “Dallas,” my agent told me, “Oh, there’s three male roles that you could possibly play: J.R., Bobby or this guy Ray Krebbs.” And then I saw the script. Well, here’s this cowboy that’s got a girlfriend up in the barn. He runs a ranch in Texas and flies a helicopter, and I’m thinking, “Well, hell, this is my only chance to play a western character. And what a cool one.” Because like your father and a lot of other people my age, we grew up on old westerns. It was Gene Autry and Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy. And of course John Wayne and Gary Cooper and all the big film stars that played westerns. And then suddenly westerns dried up. So this was my chance to play a western character and pay homage to the blue-collar guys who work hard and try hard and don’t always get the attention.
Was that the secret of Ray’s appeal — he was someone the audience could identify with?
Yeah, very much so. And the writers and the producers always wanted to make Ray very vulnerable. Pride was his big hurdle in life. You know, he tries a lot things and he fails many times, but he kind of always bounces back. He’s always a very honest and straightforward guy. You can always trust Ray to do what he thinks is right.
Did Ray change as the show progressed?
I think there were a lot of changes in the character. The arc was over 11 years. In the beginning, Ray was pretty loose and fancy-free. In the first episode, he was J.R.’s buddy and he was up in the hayloft with this teenage girl. And then there’s the period of Ray and Donna, and then he graduates to being a Ewing. That, by the way, was a huge thing for me.
Tell me about that.
In the third year of the show, I was not happy. They were not giving Ray Krebbs anything to do, and the show was moving further away from ranch life. So I’m thinking, “Gee, I don’t need this. I have a film career I can go back to.” And Larry Hagman said, “Hey, whoa. Don’t run off here. This thing’s about to catch on. We need you.” And so we came up with some story ideas. I had one I liked, which is Ray marries a Mexican girl. They didn’t want to do that then. The other one was, Ray was an illegitimate son of Jock. So thank you, Larry, for convincing me.
Were you two good buddies?
Yeah, the whole cast was very familial. Larry, from the beginning, having had another series experience, saw that it was an ensemble show. He was looking to be at the top of the heap from the very beginning, but he also knew that we all had to work together and act as a family to promote the show and to bring out the chemistry. He was a leader in that way. And we all joined the club. We became a family. I had my life at home with my wife and children and I had my life with my “Dallas” family.
Besides Ray finding out he was Jock’s son, what are your other favorite storylines? Mine is Ray’s relationship with his cousin Mickey Trotter, and how he tries to take him under his wing the way Jock did with Ray.
The Mickey Trotter stuff was, once again, a case of: It’s Ray’s turn. When you have a big cast, it can’t always be your turn. And when it is, you can get excited about it.
Do you remember working with Timothy Patrick Murphy?
Well, sure. He was a great young guy. Always prepared. Easy to get along with. He had a nice edge to him at times. I thought he did a great job as Mickey.
I want to ask you about one of my other favorite moments, which is your performance during Bobby’s deathbed scene. There’s a shot of you just standing there, holding Susan Howard and sobbing. It never fails to move me.
For me, it really was saying goodbye to a friend [Patrick Duffy], who you love. It wasn’t hard to find that emotion. We were all pretty upset that he was not going to be on the show anymore.
I mentioned Susan Howard. How did you enjoy working with her?
We got along real well. She’s a very sweet girl. She brought a lot of nice things to the show — and she’s a real Texan. Our families got along well. She was a little bossy. [Laughs] And so I would come home and I would complain to my real wife about my stage wife bossing me around. [Laughs]
Well, you know, Donna was a little bossy.
That was her character too. Ray and Donna became one unit. It was “Ray and Donna.” And you know, you sometimes wish it didn’t quite happen like that. It’s better when they’re struggling in some way.
How did you feel when they wrote her out of the show? Because as you say, you were a pair and suddenly half of you were gone.
It’s just one of those things that nobody could do anything about. There were internal issues that were going on, and from my perspective it meant that there was an opening for Ray Krebbs to branch out and do other things — other business things, a new wife, new storylines. You know, after you’ve been on a show for a long time, you’re looking for those kinds of opportunities, so it was a mixed blessing. I know she was not happy leaving. But that’s just the way it turned out.
Let me get back to one thing. We touched on this briefly, but how are you and Ray alike and how are you different?
Well, I try to be honest with everybody in my personal life. I would say that Ray was like that, a straight shooter. I’m definitely a hard worker, which Ray was. I don’t have quite the amount of pride that he did. I don’t struggle with that. Ray had kind of a violent side to him that I don’t have. But you know, Ray was a guy that I liked to be. It was fun to be Ray. I never wanted to be any of the other characters. I never wished that I was Bobby or J.R. I know Kenny Kercheval wanted to play Ray. I think he was happy to be Cliff Barnes in the end.
I think I’ve read where he auditioned for Ray. I can’t even wrap my mind around what that would have been like.
He would have been good. He’s a wonderful actor. But they let me kind of develop this character. Certainly the story had a lot to do with it, but how I wanted to play it was pretty much was what I got to do and I can thank [producer] Leonard Katzman for that. Leonard trusted me. He was the guy who kind of gave me the nod for the part to begin with. If there was a lot of Steve Kanaly in Ray or a lot of Ray in Steve Kanaly, I don’t know. They got kind of mixed up along the way.
You once did a TV Guide interview where you said people on the set would call you Ray.
Not just the set! [Laughs]
You said that that didn’t happen so much to Linda [Gray] or Larry. No one called them Sue Ellen and J.R. in real life.
Larry would call me Ray sometimes. [Laughs] This was when we were neighbors in Ojai! “Hey, Ray. Oh, I mean Steve.” So it was an enduring character, I think. And I did my homework. I went to the rodeo all the time. And I made friends with all these cowboys. I went into the cattle business. This is funny: The first week I’m on the show, this one guy, who was a Teamster captain and a cowboy, came up and said, “Well, Mr. Kanaly, you’re doing a real good job with this Ray Krebbs, but I’ve got to tell you: Around here, see, nobody wears them damn Levi’s. You got to wear Wrangler’s. You’ve got to wear boot-cut Wranglers. That’s what the real cowboys wear.” So I began to understand that there was a real fashion and you had to pay attention. The cowboys and the people who love the westerns are very critical of what they see. And if you don’t have the right jeans on, or if you wear your hat in some funny way, or if it’s an odd hat in their opinion, they’re going to notice.
Switching gears a bit: You recently filmed a guest spot for “DeVanity,” an online serial.
Yeah. The producer, Michael Caruso, sent me some material and it was a six-page scene. And I read it and said, “Hell, this is good!” And Michael told me, “Well, I wrote it for you.” So I was obligated to say yes. And it’s virtually for zero money. But all the years I ever did “Dallas,” I think the longest scene I ever had was with Barbara Bel Geddes, and it was five pages.
So besides acting, what else are you up to these days?
I’m happily married to my original wife for 38 years. We’re best buds. We’re very invested in being grandparents. We have four grandkids now and they’re all up in San Francisco, so we try to go up there once a month for at least a week or so. One of my other main things is staying healthy, so I work out every day. I do that nearby at a school where I’m a volunteer, teaching a program that has to do with sport shooting. It’s very rewarding. And I paint and play the piano. I’ve done that all of my life.
Tell me about your painting.
I do watercolor, transparent watercolors. It’s something that I’ve done for years.
It’s hard to imagine Ray Krebbs picking up a paintbrush, unless he’s whitewashing a fence maybe.
Yeah, right. I guess there’s one area where Ray and Steve are not at all alike.
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