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.
"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.
"Dallas," about a feuding rich family in Texas, was one of the most highly rated TV shows of its time and Tilton had a line of fans waiting for her autograph. The show returned to television on TNT in 2012.
But the highs of life deflated when Tilton's mother got sick. Her mother had a double mastectomy and a pacemaker before she died, and Tilton said she sold two houses to pay for the medical bills.
Following two divorces, Tilton met the love of her life, a director of photography named Cheddy Hart. But Hart had a heart attack just before Christmas four years ago.
"That was the final wave that came crushing down," said Tilton, who began drinking from her depression.
Then one day, sitting on the couch watching a Lifetime movie — she's going to star in one herself soon — Tilton said she heard a heavenly voice that encouraged her to get her life on track. She said she felt the only way to help herself was to help others, so on the recommendation of her friend she started volunteering for Actors for Autism, a nonprofit that teaches creative arts to individuals with the disorder.
Tilton hasn't had a drink or cigarette for years.
"Because God is with us, we can live without fear," she said.