John Shearer Charlene Tilton, shot in Nashville in February.
As J.R. Ewing’s scheming niece Lucy on Dallas, Charlene Tilton was one of the most famous faces of the ’80 — 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 popular game shows like Match Game with Betty White. But behind the scenes, Tilton was coping with the trauma of a turbulent childhood and struggling to help her mentally ill mother, a secret she kept even from Dallas co-stars like Larry Hagman. In an interview with PEOPLE’s Eileen Finan, the actress shares the story of her painful past and how, at the age of 64, she’s found contentment in a quiet life in Nashville with her daughter Cherish Lee and grandsons — and a renewed career as a character actress.
Charlene Tilton walks through the doors of a Nashville restaurant, arms open wide. “Can I give you a hug?” she says, by way of greeting, before rapidly chit-chatting about how Nashville has changed in the seven years she’s lived there and which library has the best storytime for her grandsons.
With her wide smile, Tilton still exudes effervescent Lucy Ewing charm, even without the voluminous golden locks that were her trademark as the iconic ’80s darling on Dallas. But dressed in a green chenille sweater, skinny jeans and ankle boots that boost her petite 5′ 1 1/2 inch frame, the 64-year-old actress is now more stylish grandma (her grandkids call her “Glamma” AKA, Glamorous Grandma) than blonde bombshell—and that’s just the way she wants it. “On Dallas, it was such a whirlwind,” she says. “The older I get, the more I’ve learned to be present in the day-to-day. I’m very content.”
Everett Tilton (in red) with the Dallas cast in 1979.
That sense of peace is welcome after a life that has been marked by profound turbulence. Her mother, Katherine, a secretary, became pregnant unexpectedly after meeting an Air Force pilot at the Pentagon, where they both worked at the time. “My biological father didn’t want anything to do with me,” Tilton says. “He had to have known about me—Dallas was so huge—but he never reached out.”
While millions of Americans tuned in every Friday night for the glamour of Dallas, Tilton— who appeared on some 500 magazine covers at the height of her TV fame— kept her harrowing personal life a secret: Her mother struggled with severe mental illness and was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia. “Back then mental illness wasn’t talked about,” says Tilton. “It was swept under the rug.” Today, as she enjoys a quiet life in Tennessee with her daughter, Cherish Lee, 40, and her grandsons (ages 6 and 2) nearby—and a revived career as a character actress—Tilton is eager to share her story: “Bringing things out in the open is so helpful.”
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Tilton’s earliest memories are of instability: Her mother raging while someone repossessed their TV as Charlene watched Captain Kangaroo; being kicked off a train from their L.A. home to Omaha after her mom had a breakdown; police taking her mother away, leaving 5-year- old Charlene alone in a strange city; seeing her mother wrapped in a straight jacket. Movies were a rare escape. “Everything was magical on screen,” Tilton says. “I saw Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music and thought, ‘I want her to be my mother.'”
After Katherine was institutionalized when her daughter was 5, Tilton shuffled between relatives and foster homes. In one home, “I remember the kids saying, ‘When is she going to go?’ and the parents said, ‘We’re trying to send her off but we can’t get anyone to take her.’ I thought, ‘I’m never going to depend on anybody to take care of me.'”
When Tilton was almost 8 her mother was released, and they moved back to California. But despite medication (“There were always a lot of pill bottles around”), her mom continued to struggle. Once when she chaperoned one of Tilton’s junior high dances, “she started fighting with herself, having a full-on conversation,” Tilton recalls. “I wanted to die of embarrassment.” Their apartment was often filthy and her mother refused to urinate in anything other than Tupperware containers: “That went on for years. I could never bring friends over.”
Still a teen when she landed the part as J.R. Ewing’s scheming niece in 1978, Tilton was already living on her own in L.A. after having moved out of her mother’s squalid apartment. “A rat crawled across me one night and I went, ‘I can’t live like this.'”
When Dallas took off, Tilton used her $15,000-per-week paycheck to try to help, but often her mother was out of reach. One day Tilton learned police had picked up her mother walking down a Hollywood street naked, but because she was deemed not a danger, she was released. Her mother would write “crazy” letters to the show’s producers, but Tilton’s costars had no idea what she was going through: “I was all about the work.” On screen, Tilton felt a connection to her character, Lucy, who was raised by her grandparents: “She was desperate to find the love of the parents she never had. I understood what made her tick.”
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Her own search for love led to her first marriage, at the age of 23 to country singer Johnny Lee, 12 years her senior, which lasted only two years. “The marriage was a disaster in the making,” she says. “But we had a beautiful daughter.” Cherish, born in 1982, “went with me everywhere,” Tilton says. “I was a helicopter mom.”
Following Tilton’s exit from Dallas in 1990, “there was a lot of stress. I wasn’t working and I wasn’t taking care of myself.” Instead, she cared for her daughter and her mom, who later moved into a live-in facility, but the cost drained Tilton’s savings. “My house was foreclosed. I left everything except what we could fit in a one-bedroom house.”
After her mother died in 2001, she started dating cinematographer Cheddy Hart and taking on some small roles. But in 2009, when the two were engaged, he died suddenly of heart failure, plunging her into a dark period. “I just sat on the couch drinking and smoking cigarettes,” she says. A friend’s involvement with Actors for Autism inspired her to volunteer. “I fell in love with the students,” she says. “To get out of your own depression or grief, you go help somebody.”
When her daughter moved to Nashville to pursue music, it opened an opportunity for Tilton as well. Now, she splits her time between her grandsons and acting, mostly in TV movies or for faith-based streaming services (her latest film, Heaven Sent, is streaming now on PureFlix). “When I was on Dallas and doing bathing suit magazine covers, I couldn’t wait to get older,” she says. “I always saw myself as a character actress. I’m petite and curvy, not tall and thin. I’m not elegant, I’m spunky. What I love about the age I am now is it brings different characters.”
Courtesy Charlene Tilton Tilton with her daughter, Cherish Lee, and grandsons in December 2021.
She has also made peace with her childhood after discovering about two years ago through a DNA test that she has three half-siblings who, like her, had never met their biological father. When they finally tracked him down, they learned he’d died six months earlier at the age of 93. Still, “I don’t carry a chip on my shoulder. I don’t get into self-pity. I see the bright side of things, and that’s served me well during tumultuous times.”