Start reading Linda Gray’s new book, “The Road to Happiness is Always Under Construction,” and you might be struck by how much the actress has in common with her most famous character, Sue Ellen Ewing. Each woman’s life was touched by alcoholism (Sue Ellen suffered from the disease, while Gray is the daughter of an alcoholic), both had unhappy marriages, and professional success didn’t come easy for either of them. By the time you finish the book, though, there’s no mistaking this fact: While Gray and Sue Ellen had similar experiences, they came out of them as very different people.
Unlike her fictional counterpart, Gray learns from her mistakes — and she’s eager to share those lessons with her readers. This is what makes “The Road to Happiness” unique. To describe the book as a memoir doesn’t do it justice. Yes, Gray writes about her ups and downs, but she also tells you what she took away from each experience and offers advice on how you can apply her wisdom in your life. If the concept sounds preachy, don’t worry: Gray is remarkably down to earth, so her lessons come off more like helpful reminders than commandments from Mount Celebrity. This is a self-help book from an author who isn’t self-important.
True to its title, “The Road to Happiness” covers Gray’s 75-year journey. You’ll read how she overcame polio as a child and extreme shyness as a teenager to become a top model in advertising. You’ll also learn about her troubled marriage to album designer Ed Thrasher, including how she defied him by enrolling in the acting class that eventually led to her casting on “Dallas.” (Gray’s lesson here: Never ask permission for something you really want.) Not everything in the book is flattering — Gray concedes she was driven by ego when she took a starring role on the ill-fated “Models Inc.” — nor is everything serious. I won’t give away the details, but there’s an excellent reason Gray’s impromptu lunch with Elizabeth Taylor yields this bit of advice: Always check your face before you sit down to eat with people.
Of course, the book has plenty for “Dallas” diehards too. You’ll read how Gray aced her audition for Sue Ellen and how growing up with an alcoholic mother shaped her portrayal of the character, as well as her four favorite “Dallas” moments. There’s also quite a bit more to one of the topics Gray discussed in our recent interview: her behind-the-scenes campaign to direct an episode of the series. In fact, a lot of the “Dallas” material in “The Road to Happiness” was new to me. I didn’t realize, for example, that Gray knew Patrick Duffy before doing the show. (This always irked Larry Hagman, she jokes.) I also was surprised to learn the actress has no qualms about dating younger men, another point of departure from Sue Ellen. Gray describes filming the 1984 scene in which Sue Ellen is mortified to be mistaken for the mother of her college-age lover, Peter Richards. “Yup, this is called acting,” she writes.
The biggest surprise of all — for me, anyway — is how much I enjoyed the non-“Dallas” stuff. I’ve spent a long time admiring Gray’s acting talent. Now I appreciate her on another level. This is a smart lady with a lot of wisdom to share, and it’s easy to see why she bonded with the Zen-like Duffy and the free-spirited Hagman. In fact, reading “The Road to Happiness,” my mind kept drifting back to Hagman’s famous mantra: “Don’t worry, be happy, feel good.” I’ve always admired that sentiment and wondered how to achieve it. Now here’s Gray to explain it.
Make no mistake: Although the September 8 release date for “The Road to Happiness” is timed to coincide with Gray’s 75th birthday four days later, there’s something serendipitous about the fact that the publication date also falls during what’s traditionally back-to-school week. Linda Gray, it turns out, is a hell of a teacher.