The Dallas Decoder Interview: Joan Van Ark

Joan Van Ark

Joan Van Ark

Mark your calendars: The March 18 episode of TNT’s “Dallas” will feature a guest appearance from Joan Van Ark, who immortalized the role of Valene Ewing on the original “Dallas” and its “Knots Landing” spinoff. I was honored to speak recently to Van Ark about her return to Southfork.

You just filmed your first scenes as Valene in 15 years. How did it feel to play her again?

It was so funny. My first scene was with Ted [Shackelford] and Patrick [Duffy] and Charlene [Tilton]. They say it’s like riding a bicycle. Once you get back on, it all comes back. But I felt a huge responsibility to do Valene justice. She’s Lucy’s mom and Gary’s wife, and I wanted to do her proud. I won’t flatter myself and say Valene is iconic – but she’s so established – and so I felt I owed the character that kind of care.

Oh, trust me: Valene Ewing is an icon. I know you can’t reveal any plot details, but can you at least tell me if Val has her accent back?

She doesn’t because it wouldn’t make sense. She had it when she left “Dallas,” but the continuum with Valene happened on “Knots Landing,” and so I needed to continue her where we left her off.

Well, that makes sense, although I always loved to hear Val speak.

Oh, I know! It’s very much who she is. She’s a southern steel magnolia.

Van Ark and Shackelford in “Knots Landing Reunion: Together Again”

Van Ark and Shackelford in “Knots Landing Reunion: Together Again”

You mentioned some of your costars from “Dallas” and “Knots.” What was it like to work with Ted and everyone else again?

Ted called me after we had done our scene that first day and he was so dear. He said, “You still got it. You were great every take.” Ted is brutally honest – and that’s a good thing because I want the truth. So for him to say that meant so much to me. And with Charlene – she’s such a pistol! When I see her now, I feel like she’s the parent and I’m the child because she’s got it going on! [Laughs] She calls it like she sees it, and she was so generous and beautiful to me when we were together. And Patrick Duffy and I had a really nice moment [off the set]. It was totally special, and it had to do with Larry [Hagman]. I shared something with Patrick and he returned it right back. It was maybe the most profound, connected moment I had when I was down there.

Speaking of Larry, I must tell you: I’m sad that Val won’t be at J.R.’s funeral, but I suppose it makes sense in the storyline. When he was shot in 1980, Val famously said something like, “If J.R. died, I couldn’t mourn him.”

That’s right! I forgot about that.

So I guess it’s kind of true to character that she’s not there.

Well, yes. People who are hardcore fans have reminded me that there was no love lost between J.R. and Val. And as an actress, I loved to play that because the tension and the friction made for a fun, interesting scene. It was like Abby and Val. That conflict is gold for an actor. But because I loved Larry so much, I would have loved to have been part of the [funeral] episode. But I think character-wise, it made sense that she wasn’t there.

I so wish we could’ve seen J.R. and Val go at it one more time because next to Linda Gray, I don’t think any actress had chemistry with Larry Hagman like you did.

Maybe that’s the Broadway and theater background in both of us, but I always felt – and I guess because of his death and how it hit me harder than I would’ve imagined – but there obviously was something special between us. I think so much of him. He’ll always be part of me. I will carry that as an actress, gratefully. It’s a gift.

Let’s talk about the original “Dallas.” Do you have special memories from those appearances?

Oh, thousands. Larry and Patrick were always cutting up. Always joking. With Barbara Bel Geddes, I remember her always wanting to borrow my lipstick. She’d say, “Oh, what color is that darling? Could I borrow that?” She was just hysterical. She was the most grounded, funny, warm, fabulous person. Just the way you’d imagine her.

As an actress, did you learn from her?

Maybe not “learned” but “observed” because I was also around Julie Harris [Lilimae on “Knots Landing”], who is another great, amazing Broadway actress. I got the deep, true Broadway sense about them. They were the epitome of discipline. They were always brilliant. Both of them.

I’ve always thought it would’ve been cool to put Miss Ellie and Lilimae in a scene together.

Are you right! That would have been a divine combination because they both knew exactly what they’re doing. I remember when Julie worked with Ava Gardner on “Knots Landing.” Both of them were thrilled out of their minds to work with each other.

Well, now that you’ve played Val again, would you like to see “Knots Landing” come back as a series the way “Dallas” has? Would you want to play Val again each week?

I always get asked this. I love her and loved her and yet … I don’t know. I’ve always said that “Knots Landing” was the precursor to “Desperate Housewives” and so many of the shows with fun, continuing storylines – the better soaps. Alan Ball said “Six Feet Under” was “Knots Landing” set in a funeral parlor. Even “Homeland” is a continuing story. So I don’t know that “Knots” lends itself to rebooting. But if it ever came out, you couldn’t do it without Gary and Val.

Well, count me among the people who would love to see it. I bet there’s still a lot of Gary and Val’s story to be told.

I think all of the core actors from “Dallas” and “Knots” are so blessed that David Jacobs and Michael Filerman gave us these great roles. These are great characters that the audience took to, so anytime we can bring them back and revive them, it’s fun for the audience and a gift to the actor. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

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