January 26, 1981 12:00 PM

The suspense certainly hasn’t equaled the hysteria over who shot J.R. so, heck, you might as well know: Dallas’ saucy sexpot Charlene Tilton does wed her medical student suitor this week in a small ceremony expected to be attended by 65 million American viewers. The real question, of course, is whether J.R.’s nubile niece, Lucy Ewing, has met her match—or will the groom be just her latest one-month stand? While she plays perhaps the most promiscuous character in the whole ruttish lot, Charlene remains, at 21, nearly as naive as Lucy is experienced. Of course, the past three years have been heady for a youngster who grew up fatherless on the wrong side of the tracks.

With disarming glee, Tilton exults in her Mercedes, $15,000-per-episode salary and the kind of fame that drew 20,000 to a South African shopping mall appearance. But only this month did she receive what she considers the crowning accolade. “Mr. Blackwell put me on his list of the 10 Worst Dressed Women in America,” chirps Charlene, thrilled that the self-proclaimed fashion arbiter singled her out as “pinup girl for Frederick’s of Hollywood.” “I’m so excited I could die,” beams Tilton, slipping into deadpan. “Now I realize I really am famous.”

Some bluenoses would have said notorious. On Dallas her revealing costumes have become more demure of late, but it’s hard to conceal Charlene’s fulsome figure—and her three hot-selling posters didn’t exactly try. Dallas’ diminutive (5′) darling, of course, realizes the value of trading on her Parton-esque proportions. “It’s part of me, a facet, something that has to be done,” shrugs Tilton. And Dallas producer Leonard Katzman readily admits that he cast the then 18-year-old novice as vampy-but-vulnerable Lucy because “she had a look that was perfect, and a feeling for the role.” The resemblances stop there. “I haven’t gone out with a guy in almost a year,” sighs Tilton of her own arid love life. “My big date of the week is Hollywood Presbyterian Church every Sunday with my mother.”

She isn’t kidding. Intensely devout (she reads religious tracts on the set), Tilton pleads a tenacious ambition that last year even scuttled her romance with brash boyfriend-manager Jon Mercedes, 29, who found her working in a T-shirt shop four years ago. “He pushed me into believing I was an actress and insisted that I learn to trust myself,” says Tilton, who perhaps absorbed those lessons too well to suit Mercedes. “Last year I was about four steps from the booby hatch,” relates Tilton. “I was shooting Dallas days and working all night on a movie project of my own. By March I was exhausted, and I asked Jon to move out of my house. He’d been my manager and best friend for four years,” she continues, “but I didn’t want anyone around who reminded me of work. And he talked business 26 hours a day.”

They have resumed their professional, though not their personal, relationship. “But more and more she’s not listening to my advice,” frets Mercedes, a situation that pleases some of Charlene’s friends. Her co-workers reportedly asked her not to bring Jon to the cast party on the night J.R.’s assailant was revealed last November. Tilton brought him anyway, but Mercedes continues to irk her colleagues with statements like “I’m not particularly impressed with the casting of Leigh McCloskey as her bridegroom—they look like the figures on the top of a wedding cake.” Producer Katzman icily responds, “I’m not very impressed with the casting of Jon Mercedes in the role of Charlene Tilton’s manager either.”

From the beginning, however, Katzman was sufficiently impressed with Tilton to keep her on the show in the face of network misgivings. “When CBS saw the first work I did in 1978, they wanted to give me the hook,” Tilton admits. “I was in over my head. I knew absolutely nothing about how TV was produced or acted. Len stuck up for me.” “I knew she was struggling,” agrees Katzman. “We would write her scenes very carefully so she wouldn’t get overextended. But she was enormously eager.” Still is, says Tilton. “Let’s face it, all I want to do is work, and moving Jon out has freed me even more. I don’t smoke, drink or do drugs—I do classes,” she smiles. “Two tap, two jazz dance, a singing lesson, a comedy workshop and an acting class every week. Sometimes I think I’ll look back on my 20s and say, ‘Wait a minute, can’t we shoot that over?’ ”

She undoubtedly feels the same about her tough beginnings. “My mother, Katherine, emigrated from Yugoslavia when being foreign was not chic,” notes Tilton, who was born in San Diego. “I never knew my father. He left before I was born, and my mother doesn’t talk about him. Sometimes I wonder if the popularity of the show will cause him to contact me,” she muses, “but I don’t have anything to say to him. Where was he when my mother was struggling as a secretary? Where was he when we had to declare bankruptcy?”

When Charlene was one month old, her mother moved them to “the shack city part of Hollywood, the kind of neighborhood you drive through with your windows rolled up. My mother worked very long hours, so I was on my own from the time I was tiny,” continues Tilton. By 10, she was already trying to get acting and dance studio scholarships and “talking photographers into shooting me. Then I’d get on buses to take the picture around to agents I’d found in the Yellow Pages. People thought my mother was taking a chance by letting me do that alone, but she had confidence in me. And she didn’t laugh.”

While attending Hollywood High (she was a cheerleader), Charlene landed “a little part in Disney’s Freaky Friday. I decided it was my big chance and ran from one side of the set to the other on each shot, so you can see me in almost every frame.” Then she made a clothing commercial with Ringo Starr for airing in Japan. But after graduation in 1976, her career dwindled until Jon Mercedes walked into that T-shirt shop. “I wrote two notes and gave her one at a time,” he remembers. “The first asked her out for dinner. The second said, ‘Please circle either Thursday, Friday or Saturday.’ ” Eventually, recalls Tilton, “he talked me into moving in with him, quitting my job and going on unemployment so I could really interview as an actress.” That led to bit parts in Happy Days, Police Woman and Eight Is Enough and the movie Sweater Girls before she landed Dallas in early 1978. “I got a case of pneumonia,” she recalls of her first difficult year, “but I think now it was cold feet.”

After her recovery, it was she who became the cast’s Florence Nightingale. “When I got sick once on location, Charlene spent two days just fetching me things and trying to make me laugh,” recalls co-star Victoria Principal. Katzman adds, “Jim Davis keeled over during one of the heat spells, and Charlene cooked his meals and ran to the drugstore. She’s a super little girl and as generous of heart as she is lovely.” Anecdotes about Charlene’s thoughtfulness abound. For Christmas she gave every crew member an individualized mug glazed with a cast photo. She bought Victoria Principal an expensive Chinese vase for her birthday but was nervous about her behavior on her first visit to Principal’s home. “Charlene never learned how to dress or act while growing up, but she tries so hard to learn how to get on in life,” says drama coach Fred Martin. “Her sweetness is really touching, and I have tremendous respect for her.” The cast and crew repay her with advice. “Len, Larry Hagman, Barbara Bel Geddes, the cameramen, they all spend time teaching me what they know,” says Tilton. “Yet no one has ever made me feel like a dummy.”

She channeled that knowledge and $65,000 of her own money into producing and starring in what she hopes is a “classy” 30-minute experimental film based on Katherine Anne Porter’s 1938 novella Pale Horse, Pale Rider. She is happy with her portrayal of a pacifist wartime reporter, but admits that “everything that could go wrong with the film did. Once we were shooting in an old Army hospital, where the hot lights set off the sprinkler system and drenched our white set in rusty water,” she remembers. “When you get rained out indoors, things are bad.”

But overall things could scarcely be better. Charlene’s not disturbed about her dormant love life. “Why should I waste a whole evening with someone I don’t even know if I’ll like?” she asks, noting the joy of staying home in the $200,000 Hollywood Hills place she bought two years ago. Her rare relaxation time is spent bicycling through the canyons or sunning on the nearby beach. As for Dallas, Charlene promises to “stay as long as it runs. I’m just trying to learn what this business is all about.” In the meantime she confesses to “a fantasy that I’ll receive a Best Short Subject Oscar nomination”—not for her pint-sized self, of course, but for Pale Horse. “But if I don’t make it, I have time,” she sighs. “Even Orson Welles was 25 when he made Citizen Kane.”

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