Can you believe Charlene Tilton is a grandma? “My little grandson calls me Glammy, as in ‘Glam-ma,’” she exclusively told Closer Weekly with a laugh in the magazine’s latest issue, on newsstands now. It seems like yesterday that the star was playing the troublemaking granddaughter Lucy Ewing on the nighttime soap Dallas from 1978 to 1990.
“Every time I go back to Southfork Ranch, it’s like going home,” Charlene, who visited the set in October to accept a Texas Motion Picture Alliance Legacy Award for the show, said. “I grew up there. The cast genuinely felt like a family. We all love each other and are still close today, but sometimes you go, wow, it’s been 40 years!”
She’s been fortunate, yet life hasn’t been a bed of yellow roses for Charlene. She grew up poor with a mentally ill mother and struggled after her fiancé’s sudden death from heart failure in 2010. But since then, this 4-foot-11 dynamo has found happiness by helping actors with autism and being a loving mom to her daughter, Cherish. We caught up with Charlene to talk about her friendship with Larry Hagman, her recent 60th birthday, and much more — scroll down to read our exclusive Q&A interview with Charlene!
What was like going back to Texas to accept an award for Dallas?
Some crew members from our very first episode were there, and it made me cry to see them. We would film the show three months each year in Texas, and they became our family as well.
And how was the 40th anniversary at Southfork Ranch in March?
Linda Gray, Patrick Duffy, Steve Kanaly, and I were shocked at how many young people were there! I said, “How do you know this show?” And they’re like, “Oh, it’s streaming. I’m just finding it and it’s great.”
It’s a shame Larry Hagman is no longer with us. What was your relationship like?
Larry was a father figure to me. He and his wife, Maj, were two of the most wonderful people. I learned a lot from him.
What do you miss most about Larry?
I think about him a lot because he was so much larger than life. And I know it might sound kind of hocus-pocus-y, but I feel his presence. Before he passed away, my last time visiting him, he was sick in his apartment while filming the reboot for TNT. We sat looking out the window at downtown Dallas, and we just fist-bumped for two hours. He would giggle and we would say something, then we wouldn’t say anything, and he got such enjoyment out of watching the flickering lights. I thought, Wow, that’s how I want to be. Just getting pleasure from the simplest things. It was magical.
That’s so nice. Looking back at it now, how did Dallas open doors for you?
It opened up a whole life for me! From the time I was eight, I was raised with my mom in a little one-bedroom apartment in Hollywood. We didn’t have any money — it was the poor part of town and I was a latchkey kid — so before school, I would look through the gates of the studios and want to be in there so much. I was able to travel the world because of the show and meet thousands of wonderful fans. A kid like me doesn’t get opportunities like that. I still cry thinking about it. Of course, there have been a lot of struggles as well, but that’s life, isn’t it?
Any example of a struggle you overcame?
Just to audition for Dallas was a struggle! It was a six-episode miniseries, and Lucy was described as a manipulative sexpot born with a silver spoon in her mouth whose parents were driven away by her horrible uncle J.R. It said she had everything a girl could want. I said, “No, she doesn’t have her parents!” I clicked with Lucy immediately and said, “This is my part.” But the casting director said, “Nope, we need someone older with more experience.” I’d literally sneak into the studio every day for two weeks and they kept saying no. Finally I got the part after they’d seen, like, 200 actresses.
Why did you relate to Lucy?
I’ve never seen my father or even a picture of him. I know nothing about him. My mother was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. When I was five, I was shipped to relatives in Nebraska and Illinois, and to foster homes. When I was around six and a half, her twin sister took me to see her, and she was in a straitjacket.
I’m so sorry to hear that.
When she was released, she got an apartment in Hollywood and I was sent back to live with her. She held down a job as a secretary for an insurance company, but she battled mental illness her whole life. She would think that the CIA was monitoring her through her coffee cup. And when I was 15, she had another breakdown. We were evicted and got another apartment where the only furniture was a mattress on the floor. I said, “I can’t live like this,” and left.
What did you do?
I got a job at the Egyptian Theatre making $1.70 an hour and found an apartment on Hollywood Boulevard. The manager had an addiction problem and worked as a stripper, but she was the sweetest lady. When I got the part on Dallas, the neighbors put a tinfoil star on my door! [Laughs]
How did growing up like that affect you?
It leaves you with questions like, What happened? Where did it all come from? My daughter [from my first husband, country singer Johnny Lee] is now a mom to my two-year-old grandson, who has a beautiful father. What a blessing it is to see a father take part in raising a child. I take Wyatt to our neighborhood playground, and when I see the fathers there, I tear up.
I hear your daughter, Cherish, is a singer?
She just wrote a song, “Tequila Cowgirl.” I’m the proudest mom in the world.
What else have you been up to?
I did a  movie with Nicolas Cage called Vengeance: A Love Story. I’m writing a book and working on my one-woman show about Tammy Faye Bakker. She gave me the rights before she passed away. And after my fiancé died [in 2010], I began working with the nonprofit Actors for Autism, teaching acting to kids on the autism spectrum. I fell in love with them.
You’ve been through so much, yet always seem to rebound. What’s your secret?
I was not blessed with long legs, but I was blessed with the ability to see the irony in situations and the good in them — even the most dire situations — and a really goshdarn positive attitude. It’s a gift God has given me, and it has served me well in life!
For more on Charlene Tilton, pick up the latest issue of Closer Weekly, on newsstands now — and be sure to sign up for our newsletter for more exclusive news!