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Say this for the actors' strike: If it had not happened, the world would already know who shot J.R. Ewing, or at least the accused perpetrator. Instead it meant an extra seven tantalizing weeks for the producers of CBS' Dallas to prolong the suspense, the climax and, of course, the Big Sell. Commercial time on the November 21 revelation episode, which will likely be the highest-rated series episode in TV history, is commanding the biggest price ever—nearly $500,000 per minute. J.R. buttons, jeans, Ewing beer, bibelots and quickie books are grossing millions. A branch of the University of Texas is offering a course titled "The Making of Dallas."

The one Texan who really has the dirt, Joe R. Duncan, whose Southfork Ranch is the Ewings' TV home, is dishing it out in square-foot plots for $25. (Tell your friends, advises his ad, "that it's just a little ol' spread over by Dallas.") Desperate to keep control of its golden goose, the TV production company, Lorimar, smacked real-life Dallas businessman Bobby Ewing with a $1.5 million lawsuit for marketing unauthorized "Ewing Oil Company" T-shirts. And when it comes to secrecy, well, Lorimar is about as ambivalent as the Carter administration was said to be on the "Stealth" bomber. A little leak and a whiff of red herring couldn't hurt. On Stage 23 on the MGM lot in Culver City, Calif. the Dallas set is closed tight. Lorimar reportedly will edit the climactic scene just hours before jetting it to the New York transmission center.

Meanwhile, as the speculation boiled over, PEOPLE readers in a special survey produced some intriguing and shrewd solutions to the whodunit (page 116). Most readers dismissed the suspect with the greatest motivation as just too obvious. Besides, their favorite show would hardly be the same with J.R.'s dipso-nympho wife, Sue Ellen, in the slammer. Her flesh is deplorably weak but delectably lovely. The cast and crew regard the actress who plays her, Linda Gray, as a model of sanity on a set threatened with lunacy. She is everyone's favorite colleague.

Linda Gray: She's coming into her own and loving it

"I am learning to love my celebrity. I love the money. I love all those funny letters from gentlemen who want to come take me away from J.R.," laughs Dallas' pistol-packin' mama. "I want to do theater. I want to sing. I want movies. I want to build an empire and have T-shirts and everything." If Linda Gray is beginning to sound like a true Ewing, who can blame her? At 39 she is what she describes as "an 18-year overnight success. All the fame was part of my fantasy," she says. "I had therapy earlier so now I can enjoy it."

But in fact, the change from homebody to humdinger has been as wrenching as it has been exhilarating. "For the first couple of years of Dallas there was a strong adjustment problem for all of us," recalls Linda, who credits the invaluable support of her art director husband of 19 years, Ed Thrasher, and their children, Jeff, 16, and Kelly, 14. "When the kids were little, it was very important for me to be a good mommy. I judged myself by that standard. Now," she continues, "the house is run by committee. I'm terribly proud of the way they've taken over." It helped that the series came along "just as the kids were at an age when they needed more independence and responsibility."

The children participate in her fame (Jeff traveled with her to shoot exteriors on Dallas location), but only when they want to. "Kelly went on a talk show with me," Linda recalls, "and was asked if she resented my success because of the time it took me away from home. She answered that she was very proud of me, that I was doing what I was meant to do." Says Gray: "I needed to hear that."

Right now she also needs a 30-hour day. To make up for delays caused by the strike, cast and crew are working long hours daily six days a week. Linda rises at 4:30 each morning at her three-acre canyon mini-ranch 60 miles north of L.A. to wheel her cream Mercedes 450 (she doesn't have a driver) toward the studio. She usually doesn't return until after dinner. Sometimes the family is already in bed, but when husband Ed hears her wheels crunching up the gravel drive, he lights the candles, fires up the redwood tub and starts pouring bath oil. "There's something wonderfully therapeutic about the water. It calms and soothes," Thrasher finds. "We sit and communicate, sometimes with words, sometimes just enjoying the quiet." Sighs Linda, "I'm never home in the daylight except on Sundays. Ed and I cherish that day."

Not that they're necessarily alone. "She's very warm and really loves meeting people," says Ed, "but sometimes I have to put them off. My God, we'd have 180 people living with us who would all think they were her closest friend." Appropriately, a doorway window at their glass-and-redwood home is engraved "Hotel Entrance," and a semi-antique switchboard decorates the foyer. They have virtually quit dining out because of intrusions. Even while vacationing in Fiji last spring, tourists swam alongside to ask the inevitable question about J.R.

Gray is not complaining. The daughter of strict Catholic parents, a jeweler and a housewife, Linda began modeling in her teens. At 19 she met Thrasher at an audition, and they married two years later. They abandoned L.A. eight years ago so their kids "could grow up in the country away from Beverly Hills," notes Linda. "The only star in our family is my horse. I didn't have time to ride him, so I sent him to Lindsay Wagner's stable in Oregon. He has piped-in music, forced-air heat and air conditioning. That horse is living."

Not that she's doing badly herself. After years of scrambling for commercials and TV guest shots, she's reaping a reported $50,000 per episode (Hagman's take is said to be $75,000 to $100,000). "I never knew what having money was all about. I still don't really. My business manager invests the checks [in shopping centers]," reports Linda. "Do you know what's wonderful about having a business manager? When April rolls around you don't have to collect those little piles of paper for income taxes. The manager does it. Oh, God, it's heaven."

She is forming her own production company, has taken voice lessons to sing on an upcoming Mac Davis special, and on November 26 has her first starring role in a TV movie, CBS' The Wild and the Free, as a Jane Goodall-type expert on primates. "I was told that to get the chimp's approval, I had to get him to offer me food and eat it the way he did," recalls Gray. "The chimp sat with his finger holding my mouth open to watch me chew. I hope I never see another banana."

Otherwise, Linda has digested her new status. "The benefits far outnumber the costs. Don't all girls fantasize about becoming a rich and famous actress? Well, it happened to me, and at first I wasn't sure if I should feel guilty about it," she continues. "But I have finally come to be who I am with no apologies. I have a lot of skinned knees from trying to get to this point, but I've always picked myself up. Now," she smiles, "I'm enjoying it all."

The results: 35,625 readers can't be wrong, but who would have guessed Clark Spangler was the triggerman?

All right, pardners, who really did ventilate that varmint J.R.? PEOPLE asked its readers that question in July and obviously twanged an international nerve—35,625 ballots came in from spots as distant as Japan and Saudi Arabia. Respondents fingered such disparate triggermen as the Ayatollah Khomeini (he wanted to dispose of a rival oil man) to President Carter (J.R., no doubt, was a GOP fat cat) to Fred Silverman (the CBS drama shows even less mercy to NBC than J.R. does to a Barnes). But when all the entries were counted, the results were ingenious and may even be helpful to Dallas' high-priced scriptwriters.

Dusty Farlow (played by Jared Martin): Sue Ellen Ewing's former cowboy lover, who supposedly died in a plane crash, though his body was never found, was the clear winner with 21 percent of all votes cast. As one letter put it, "Murdering J.R. is the way a Texas gentleman would handle himself." The demographic breakdown of those who accused Dusty varied more by age than by sex (21 percent of the women thought he did it versus 19 percent of the men). Fully 25 percent of readers under 18 named Dusty, whereas only 12 percent of those 35 and over thought he cared enough to do the deed. Maintains actor Martin, 35: "I'm not filming any episodes right now, so it's obvious that I didn't shoot J.R. I think Kristin did it." Here's a further rundown of the results:

Kristin Shepard (Mary Crosby): A lot of outsiders agreed with Martin. J.R.'s spurned mistress (she also happens to be Sue Ellen's sister) was favored by 14 percent of the survey and finished second. "No one likes to be an ex-anything," conjectured one observer. Kristin, interestingly, was far and away the first choice of readers 35 and over—those presumably wiser heads who have learned a bit about the fury of women scorned. Did she do it? Well, Crosby reportedly is being written out of the show after the fourth episode, though she is expected back next spring. Would that absence correspond to a prison sentence?

Vaughn Leland (Dennis Patrick): The suave banker J.R. swindled out of $20 million was picked by 13 percent as the guy most likely to terminate J.R.'s account. Greed was his motivation, but one kibitzer had a more personal explanation: "I don't like his face!" Only 7 percent of our youngest readers could understand why a man would kill for money, while 18 percent of those between 18 and 34 years thought it the best reason of all. Are they the hardest hit by inflation?

Sue Ellen Ewing (Linda Gray): J.R.'s wife was indicted by 8 percent to rank fourth. A typical comment: "If my husband were as much of a bastard as J.R., I'd kill him too!" The fact that she'd packed a pistol in her purse was enough to convince fully 14 percent of gullibles under 18 that she got square with her cheatin' spouse. By contrast, only 5 percent of those 18 to 34 thought Sue Ellen did it. Husbands take note: Nearly 50 percent more women than men thought Sue Ellen pulled the trigger. When asked her opinion, Gray gasped in mock shock, "J.R.? You mean somebody's shot J.R.!"

Miss Ellie Ewing (Barbara Bel Geddes): Surprisingly, the saintly matriarch of the clan, Miss Ellie, placed fifth with 7 percent of the vote. "She gave birth to him, so she felt an obligation to get rid of him," said one fan.

Of the rest of the possible assailants, those J.R.-crossed lovers, Lucy Ewing and Alan Beam ("The most crooked critter"), tied with 5 percent of the vote. J.R.'s hapless archrival, Cliff Barnes, drew a piddling 4 percent, even after swearing revenge on his daddy's grave. Hellfire, even Sue Ellen's shrink and J.R.'s pa, Jock Ewing ("He finds out J.R. is actually the son of his old rival, Digger Barnes"), drew 3 percent each.

Another 2 percent, double-doming it, tabbed brother Bobby Ewing ("He's too good") and J.R. ("He's so bad he had himself shot so he could frame someone else"). One fan from Big D claimed he personally plugged J.R. because "He always finds a parking spot in downtown Dallas, and I never can." Perhaps the most imaginative, if implausible, answer placed the blame on J.R.'s year-old son, baby John. After all, if Dallas proves anything, it's like the reader says, "Bad blood runs deep."