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Stories from a 'Dallas' star in Glendale

Actress Charlene Tilton talks trials and salvation at the Mayor's Prayer Breakfast.

March 13, 2014|By Brittany Levine, brittany.levine@latimes.com
  • Fans met with inspirational speaker and actress Charlene Tilton after the 51st annual Glendale Mayor's Prayer Breakfast held at the Glendale Civic Auditorium on Thursday, March 13, 2014. (
Fans met with inspirational speaker and actress Charlene… (Raul Roa / Staff…)

For Charlene Tilton, best known for her long career on “Dallas,” the popular series from the 1970s and 1980s, life has been a series of struggles. But God and acting have been her safe havens, she said Thursday morning at the 51st Annual Glendale Mayor's Prayer Breakfast.

Each has helped her in a different way. God became her support system and acting allowed her to forget the tribulations of growing up poor with a sick, single mother.

God first became her lifeline when her mother had a nervous breakdown on a train ride from Los Angeles, where they lived at the time, to visit family in Nebraska, she told a room of about 170 people at the Civic Auditorium.

Police escorted her mother off the train at a stop in Kansas as her mother acted uncontrollably, she said. Through a tragic series of events, the 5-year-old Tilton ended up alone on the streets that night only to find refuge in a pastor's home.

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“God introduced himself to me and right then and there I knew God was there,” Tilton said, tearing up as she remembered a blue bandanna the pastor's wife gave to her before she left their home, one she still has.

She spent years bouncing around from family member to family member and finally to foster care as her mother was institutionalized for schizophrenia.

“I was always told I was a burden,” she said. “I was a mistake. I was not lovable.”

When her mother was released, the two reunited and moved to a one-bedroom apartment in Hollywood. They had a small TV with rabbit ears, and shows like the “Brady Bunch” offered Tilton comfort.

“Through movies like ‘Mary Poppins,’ I saw there was a better life,” she said. “But where? In TV and movies!”

At a young age, Tilton talked her way into free acting classes and joined the theater program when she went to Hollywood High School. It was there that an agent saw her in a play.

Tilton didn't have money to pay for head shots — by that point she was living alone in an apartment managed by a stripper and working 40 hours a week at the Egyptian Theater while going to school — so she used her school pictures.

When she saw there were auditions for “Dallas” in a magazine, she knew she wanted the part of Lucy Ewing, a “manipulative sexpot born with a silver spoon in her mouth.” At first the casting agents told her she wasn't right for the part, but she fought for an audition and got the role.

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