The tragedy that led me to Dancing on Ice: Her fianc’s sudden death plunged Charlene Tilton into depression – but now she is embracing life again
Charlene Tilton says if she’d been asked to take part in Dancing On Ice two years ago, her reply would have been, ‘Not in a million years!’
‘I’d have been content to sit on a couch with my wine and a cigarette watching it,’ says the diminutive Dallas star, who’s fresh from rehearsals for the ITV1 show with skating partner Matt Gonzalez.
‘But before they called I’d just come to a point in my life where something had clicked. I’d thought, “Life’s too short. You’re not guaranteed your next breath, so you need to make the most of each opportunity that comes your way.”’
Moving on: Charlene Tilton is one of the big stars of this year's series of Dancing on Ice
Two years ago, on the day before Christmas Eve, her world had been turned on its head when fianc Cheddy Hart died suddenly from heart failure at the age of 54. ‘He was gone, just like that,’ says Charlene, 52. ‘I was in such shock. I still am. I was an absolute mess.
‘I couldn’t get off the couch. I couldn’t do anything. Then, about seven months later, something clicked. I thought, “What am I going to do Just lay down and join him” He wouldn’t have wanted that. My daughter [28-year-old country singer Cherish] wouldn’t have wanted that either. Somehow I had to get out of that depression, so I changed everything. I don’t drink any more. I don’t smoke. I try to be really healthy and grab any opportunity that comes along with both hands. That’s not to say I’m not still affected by it. But hey, I’m coming out the other end.’
LA-based Charlene had two failed marriages behind her, but had truly believed Cheddy, a cinematographer, was ‘the one’ when she met him eight years ago. They shared their lives and homes, spent weekends on his ‘un-fancy’ boat and laughed at just about everything. She says he made her feel ‘cherished’ and ‘adored’.
Her grief is still raw as she recalls the day Cheddy died. ‘We were talking about what I was going to make for Christmas dinner when he suddenly said, “Something’s not right.” I felt, “Oh God,” and got him in the car and took him to hospital.
They told me it was pneumonia at first. I said, “I know he doesn’t have pneumonia.” We’d been waiting two hours when they admitted him. He said, “I’m so sorry I’m ruining Christmas.” I said, “Honey, it’s fine. I’ll be with you, we can have Christmas here. We’re going to get you better.” He just looked at me and said, “Thank you for being there.” I said, “Where else would I be”
Making a comeback: Two years ago, on the day before Christmas Eve, Charlene's world had been turned on its head when her fianc Cheddy Hart died suddenly from heart failure at the age of 54
‘Looking back, I think “Wow”,’ she says.
‘There was something already happening. The dying process was taking
place, but I didn’t know it. I said, “I’ll just run to the shops to get
you some underwear. I’ll be back in 20 minutes – or do you want me to
wait until you get to the room” He knew. I know he knew. The way that
he looked at me and said, “You should go now.”’
Charlene had been out of
the hospital for just a few minutes when she received a call urging her
to return as fast as possible.
‘I got there and they said, “Here’s doctor so-and-so, here’s nurse so-and-so and here’s the chaplain.” When I saw the chaplain I knew he was gone. I just collapsed and screamed. I was delirious.’
The dreadful days following Cheddy’s death are a blur, she says, adding, ‘I drank to try to stop feeling anything.
I had a moment when I thought, “I’m either going to live or I’m going to join my man.” But then I thought about my beautiful daughter and knew that there was a lot I still wanted to do. I knew I had to pick myself up.’
Charlene, 4ft 11in, is known to millions as Dallas’s ‘Poison Dwarf’, Lucy Ewing, a character who ricocheted from one disastrous love affair to another and was finally written out of the series a year before it ended in 1990. This year she is part of a long-awaited Dallas revival, together with Larry Hagman (JR), Patrick Duffy (Bobby) and Linda Gray (Sue Ellen), but says the programme makers ‘haven’t quite decided yet’ what her character will be up to.
History repeating itself: A new series of Dallas will hit TV screens later this year
‘Being Lucy, she’ll have to start some
sort of trouble,’ she smirks. And this is the thing about Charlene –
for all the stuff life has thrown at her (an absent father,
schizophrenic mother, a childhood spent largely in foster care and an
accountant who robbed her blind, for which he was jailed for seven
years), she remains a warm, down-to-earth woman without an ounce of
‘I’ve never once
said, “Why me” Obviously, when things happen it’s tough, but I don’t
know one person who hasn’t had something they’ve had to overcome,’ she
says. ‘I’ve had a lot of c**p, but I’ve also been very blessed.
I’ve met wonderful people, I have a lovely daughter and I do a job I love.
‘I never knew my father and my mother was in and out of mental institutions.
When she was crazy she’d tell me I was her cross to bear. She tried her best to take care of me. It was sad. It’s not that she didn’t want me – she was crazy – but I was kind of on my own.’
Charlene was six and in foster care when she fell in love with acting. ‘I remember the first time I stood on stage like it was yesterday. I was in a foster home in Illinois. I’d gone from one family to another and just started a new school. I had to sing the song Oh, Christmas Tree. The lights came on and I was lost. I was transported to another place. It was magic. I felt safe.’
Tragedy: Charlene with her late fiance Cheddy Hart
She set her heart on becoming an
actress and worked her socks off to realise her dream. ‘I didn’t want to
stay in the neighbourhood I grew up in. I knew there was a better life
for me and I had to work for it. I’d take myself on the bus as a
nine-year-old, go to the theatre and offer to work if they’d give me
was just 17 when she landed the role in Dallas, for which she earned
28,000 an episode. ‘Suddenly I was on the number one show worldwide and
people were telling me things I hadn’t heard before. It was unreal. My
self-esteem was terrible. Playboy magazine named me sexiest TV star for
several years in a row, but I didn’t see that at all. Now I look back at
clips of Dallas and think, “Oh my God, you look beautiful.” I was just
attracting the wrong kind of men.’
first boyfriend was her manager, who was ‘quite a bit older’ than her.
Then she met and married country singer Johnny Lee. It wasn’t a
particularly happy marriage – apart from the birth of Cherish. ‘The
divorce was devastating. I knew it had to happen.
There was no other choice for my sanity and safety.’
Her second marriage, to Scottish singer Domenick Allen, finished after seven years (Charlene blames the pressures of being the main breadwinner, but remains close to Allen), and she was forced to move from her Beverly Hills mansion to a tiny apartment because of financial difficulties.
‘My accountant ripped me off, and my mum was ill for ten years and the doctor’s bills were so expensive,’ she says. ‘We were down to, “Do I buy dog food or do I buy food” But I was still able to take Cherish to school almost every day, see all her shows and do her homework with her. She says now I’m the strongest person she knows.’
'I couldn’t get off the couch. I
couldn’t do anything. Then, about seven months later, something clicked.
I thought, “What am I going to do Just lay down and join him”'
Charlene’s mother had been dead for four
years, her daughter had graduated and Charlene was beginning to ‘get her
life into shape’ when she met Cheddy at a read-through for a TV sitcom.
‘He used to say, “You’re the most amazing person I’ve ever met.”
He always called me his hero,’ she recalls. ‘I had thought he was the person I was going to spend the rest of my life with. But, hey, you know it’s never over. This isn’t it.’ She forces a smile. ‘That’s why when Dancing On Ice came up, I said to myself, “Go for it.”
Not everybody’s going to be given such a grand opportunity to skate on television, but whether it’s to learn a new language, go out and meet new people or read a new book, you’ve just got to do it – get off the couch.
‘I remember as a kid I was always a fan of ice skating and we loved watching it on TV. But I have to toughen up. I don’t like the cold! I’m not an athletic person at all, so this is really out of my comfort zone.
I’m not competitive either. I don’t have the mind-set to learn a sport. It’s such an intense experience, but I’m looking forward to surprising people. With concentration and hard work you can accomplish anything. My real goal is to have Jayne Torvill’s bum. I’m going to put a picture of it on my refrigerator. All skaters have toned bottoms. It’s fantastic, they all have it!
‘I’ve just turned 52 and I’ve always had a sense that my big success would come at 50, even when I was on Dallas. I always felt that I was going to end with a flourish.’ Which I truly hope this tiny slip of a woman with a huge heart does.
Dancing On Ice, tomorrow, ITV1, 6.30pm; the new Dallas series will be shown later this year.