“I’m a believer. I don’t wallow in self-pity,” the 64-year-old actress adds.
Charlene Tilton was one of the most famous faces of the 1980s as J.R. Ewing’s scheming niece Lucy on Dallas — her 1981 TV wedding on the top-rated nighttime soap drew 65 million viewers, she appeared on more than 500 magazine covers, and she was a regular on famous game shows like Match Game with Betty White.
Nevertheless, behind the scenes, Tilton was dealing with the pain of a complex background and trying to aid her mentally ill mother, a secret she maintained even from Dallas co-stars like Larry Hagman.
The actress discusses her traumatic history and how, at 64, she’s found contentment in a tranquil life in Nashville with her daughter Cherish Lee and granddaughters — and a resurrected career as a character actress.
Charlene Tilton enters a Nashville restaurant with her arms extended wide. “May I hug you?” she asks before quickly chatting about how Nashville has changed in the seven years she’s lived there and which library offers the finest storytime for her grandkids.
Tilton oozes effervescent Lucy Ewing’s charm with her wide smile, even without the enormous golden curls that were her trademark as the iconic ’80s darling on Dallas.
Yet, dressed in a green chenille sweater, thin jeans, and ankle boots that accentuate her small 5′ 1 1/2 inch frame, the 64-year-old actress seems more like a sophisticated granny (her grandchildren call her “Glamma” AKA, Dazzling Grandma) than a blonde bombshell—and that’s exactly how she wants it.
“It was such a frenzy on Dallas,” she says. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to be more present daily. I’m quite happy now.”
“My biological father refused to have anything to do with me,” Tilton explains. “He had to have heard about me because Dallas was so big,” she says, “but he never reached out.”
As millions of Americans tuned in every Friday night for the glitz and splendor of Dallas, Tilton—featured on 500 magazine covers at the height of her TV fame—kept her horrific personal life hidden: Her mother suffered from severe mental illness, eventually being diagnosed with schizophrenia.
“Mental illness wasn’t discussed back then,” Tilton adds. “It was brushed under the carpet.” Today, as she settles into a tranquil life in Tennessee with her daughter, Cherish Lee, 40, and her grandchildren (ages 6 and 2) nearby—as well as a resurrected career as a character actress—Tilton is ready to share her story: “Getting things out in the open is very therapeutic.”
Tilton’s earliest memories are of instability: her mother raging while someone repossessed their TV while Charlene watched Captain Kangaroo; being kicked off a train from their Los Angeles home to Omaha after her mother had a breakdown; police taking her mother away, leaving 5-year-old Charlene alone in a strange city; and seeing her mother wrapped in a straight jacket.
Movies were a rare form of escape. “On screen, everything was amazing,” Tilton adds. “When I saw Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, I thought to myself, ‘I want her to be my mother.’”
Tilton was moved between relatives and foster homes when Katherine was institutionalized when her daughter was five. “I recall the kids saying, ‘When is she going to go?’”
‘We’re trying to send her out, but we can’t find anyone to take her,’ stated the parents. “I told myself, ‘I’m never going to rely on anyone to take care of me.’”
At approximately eight years old, Tilton’s mother was released, and the family relocated to California. Her mother’s health deteriorated despite medication (“there were usually a lot of pill bottles around”).
“She started battling with herself, having a full-on conversation,” Tilton recalls when she chaperoned one of Tilton’s junior high dances. “I wanted to die of humiliation.” “It carried on for years,” she says of her mother’s refusal to urinate in anything other than Tupperware containers. “I’d never invite friends over.”
Tilton was still a youngster when she earned the role of J.R. Ewing’s conniving niece is 1978, and she was already living on her own in Los Angeles after moving out of her mother’s filthy apartment. “One night, a rat crawled over me, and I thought, ‘I can’t live like this.’”
Tilton used her $15,000-per-week wages to try to help after Dallas took off, but her mother was frequently out of reach. Tilton discovered one day that police had apprehended her mother while wandering down a Hollywood street naked, but she had been freed because she was deemed not a danger.
Her mother would send “crazy” emails to the show’s producers, but Tilton’s co-stars had no idea: “I was all about the work.”
“She was anxious to find the affection of the parents she never had,” Tilton said of her character, Lucy, who her grandparents raised. “I realized what made her tick.”
Her search for love resulted in her first marriage, at 23, to country artist Johnny Lee, who was 12 years her senior, but it lasted barely two years. “The marriage was destined to fail,” she says. “But we had a lovely daughter. Cherish, born in 1982, “went everywhere with me,” Tilton adds.
“There was a lot of stress” following Tilton’s departure from Dallas in 1990. I wasn’t working and wasn’t looking after myself.” Instead, she cared for her daughter and mother, who later moved into a nursing home, although the expense depleted Tilton’s money. “My house was repossessed. I left everything save what might fit in a one-bedroom apartment.”
After her mother died in 2001, she began dating cinematographer Cheddy Hart and taking on little parts. Nevertheless, after the two were engaged in 2009, he died abruptly of heart failure, sending her into a deep depression.
“I just sat on the couch and smoked,” she explains. Her work with Actors for Autism was motivated by a friend’s involvement with the organization. “The students smote me,” she adds. “You go help someone to get out of your depression or grief.”
Tilton saw an opportunity when her daughter traveled to Nashville to pursue music. She now divides her time between her grandchildren and acting, primarily in television movies or for faith-based streaming services (her latest film, Heaven Sent, is streaming now on PureFlix).
“I couldn’t wait to become older when I was in Dallas and doing beach suit magazine covers,” she adds. “I’ve always considered myself a character actress. I’m not tall and slim, but I’m small and curvy. I’m not graceful; I’m brash. What I like about my current age is that it brings out diverse personalities.”
She has also come to terms with her childhood after learning two years ago through a DNA test that she has three half-siblings who, like her, have never met their biological father.
When they eventually found him, they discovered he’d died six months before at 93. “I don’t have a chip on my shoulder,” she insists. “I don’t wallow in self-pity. I look on the positive side, which has served me well during difficult times.”