It won’t be as dramatic as Patrick Duffy’s shower-scene resurrection. But when Charlene Tilton sashays into the entry hall at Southfork this Friday and calls out, “Anyone home?” fans who love Lucy will be forgiven if they stand up and holler. Five feet and 95 lbs. of bosom, boots and blond hair, J.R.’s Mae Western style niece is coming back to Dallas for the first time in three years. “It’s not poor, pitiful Lucy this time,” says Tilton. “She’s coming back to take charge of her life.”
Suddenly reappearing in the final two episodes of this season, Lucy will explain that she has been off in Atlanta trying to save her marriage to Mitch Cooper. She’ll butt heads with J.R. in next week’s cliff-hanger and might be around to clash with him next season now that CBS has renewed Dallas for its 11th year. “We’ll see,” Tilton says cautiously. “I’m not depending on it. Anybody who does that in this business is in for a lot of trouble.”
The shrug may be calculated, but the wisdom is hard won. Maybe she still looks like a teen at 28, but the Tilton who left Dallas is not the same one who’s returning. After a troubled marriage to country singer Johnny Lee, with whom she has a 5-year-old daughter, Cherish, she has found some maturity—and a happy union with composer-singer Domenick Allen. She has also learned to count more on herself than on the vicissitudes of TV fame.
A 17-year-old newcomer when she talked her way into a Dallas casting call in 1978, Tilton had a high-flying ride for eight seasons. She earned $15,000 a week at her peak, posed for 500 magazine covers and had 65 million viewers at her 1981 TV wedding to actor Leigh McCloskey. Not bad for a former bit player in Disney’s Freaky Friday. But the bubble burst in 1985. Producer Leonard Katzman called her in to say she was being written out of the show at the end of the season. “He told me they were going to focus on the older cast members,” she says. “They didn’t know what to do with my character. Leonard’s a very dear man, and when he told me, he cried and I cried.”
Nevertheless, Tilton soldiered on through the final episodes. When Larry Hagman finally heard about her being cut, Tilton recalls, “he called me and said, ‘You’re certainly a good actress—we never realized.’ I think Larry went to bat for me to come back on the show.” But Katzman says bringing Tilton back was simply part of a “trend to return to the family.” Also, he says, “Charlene has become a much more grown-up woman, and that gives us more to do with her character.”
Tilton’s work away from Southfork had been scattered—a guest shot on Murder, She Wrote, seven months touring with a stage farce called The Foreigner and an upcoming theatrical film, Loner. But her personal life has become more stable since leaving the show. Born in San Diego and raised in a seedy Hollywood neighborhood, Tilton never knew her father, who left home before she was born. While her mother, Katherine, worked as a secretary, latchkey kid Charlene would watch The Brady Bunch and fantasize about a sitcom-style family. “I used to dream about having a father,” she says. “One day when I was about 9, Sen. John Tunney was campaigning door-to-door in my neighborhood. I opened the door and saw this handsome guy standing there with this gorgeous suit, and he was my movie image of the perfect dad. He asked if my mother was home. I said, ‘No, but won’t you come in and wait for her?’ ”
Her later misunderstandings with men were more serious. She met Johnny Lee in 1979, while he was filming Urban Cowboy, and married him in 1982, when she was pregnant with Cherish. “It had its bad moments,” she says of the two-year marriage. “He did some drinking. When he was on the road, there was no way I could control what he did. There were a lot of people in his life at the time who were detrimental to our relationship. There was a complete lack of communication between Johnny and me.”
Things haven’t changed much. Lee—who, according to Tilton, pays child support and no alimony—isn’t close with his ex. “We don’t socialize,” she says. “I have sole custody of Cherish, but the two of them are close, and I encourage that.”
Charlene had just filed for divorce in early ’84 when she met Domenick Allen, a Glasgow-born entertainer who worked as Liberace’s opening act for five years. “I wasn’t thinking romantically at that point,” says Tilton, who was recording one of Allen’s songs. “I was about ready to join a convent.” But Allen waited her out and married her a year later. “She has immense strength,” says Allen, 34, “and immense faith.”
No, despite published reports, the two are not overly religious—they simply “go to church on Sundays,” says Charlene. But yes, confirming published reports, Tilton was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving in February 1987. “I goofed,” says Tilton, who paid a $390 fine. “I’m not a drinker. I was exhausted and had two wine spritzers. It was quite a nightmare, but I think the laws about drinking and driving should be tough.”
That incident aside, says Allen, “we have a very stable home life.” Tilton, Allen and Cherish live in a three-bedroom, Tudor-style house in suburban Tarzana, Calif. The furnishings—thick white carpeting, floral drapes, family photos, china purchased from Mary Pickford’s estate—are uniformly cozy. It’s like a scene from a TV show. But not Dallas. More like The Brady Bunch.
—By Jane Hall, with Suzanne Adelson in Los Angeles