02/13/2013 at 03:00 PM EST
Linda Gray is walking into the Mansion Restaurant in Dallas when a valet calls out her name, runs over and gives her a warm hug. In minutes, other staffers join in, laughing and chatting with the actress.
"I knew all these people," she explains, referencing her first stint of fame in these parts, when she originally played Sue Ellen Ewing on the 1978 CBS series Dallas, a role she's now reprising on the TNT reboot. "It's wonderful to see everyone again. I feel so lucky. I feel so blessed."
The feeling is mutual. It's been 35 years since Gray was introduced to the world as Sue Ellen, the alcoholic former wife of J.R. Ewing, made iconically dastardly by the late Larry Hagman. Returning to Dallas – both the city and the series – "is a gift," says Gray, 72. "What would be my dream? It would be this: getting to spend the last days of Larry's life with him, working."
Hagman's death at 81 on Nov. 23 after a long battle with cancer was devastating for Gray and her Dallas costar Patrick Duffy, who were at Hagman's side for his final moments. Filming J.R.'s farewell episode last month (it's scheduled to air on March 11) "was hard," says Gray, "because it was so close to his actual death."
Today she says she finds joy in her memories of a man who loved making his friends laugh. "I remember him wearing a monk costume with the robes and rope to set," she says. "He was hysterical. Life was joyful for him. He made it that way."