J.R. Ewing Takes Another Shot
As Dallas returns to TV, a look at how the iconic character came to define our city and the way people think of us the world over.
But the main thing I think Mike Filerman was picking up on was the zeitgeist of the Dallas go-go ’70s. While most of the country was slowly emerging from a recession, Dallas was in full-bore Mardi Gras mode, a magnet for hustlers and libertines from all points of the compass. Some came for the business climate, others came for the climate climate, and still others came for the nonstop party. The core of the old Caruth farmhouse still stood across from NorthPark Center, but all of the prime black-earth cotton had long since been sold off, notably to create the Village Apartments, known far and wide as the largest singles complex in the country at a time when the word “singles”—as in singles bars, singles ads, and singles clubs—had heavy sexual connotations. Greenville Avenue was going through the first of many transformations that would make it a synonym for clubbing. Developers from Toronto were busily knocking down everything south of Lemmon Avenue to create room for more skyscrapers. Brennan’s of New Orleans opened a branch downtown that doubled the business of the original Brennan’s, and it was just one of hundreds of restaurants that opened, closed, and opened again. The city was in a youthful spending mood, and that carpe diem feeling no doubt filtered down through the cosmos to infect the otherwise uninformed minds of Jacobs, Filerman, Katzman, and the other East Coast and Hollywood types who discovered the magic of the name.
Then came the final piece of the puzzle: Larry Hagman. There may be an example somewhere in thespian history of a better fit between actor and part. Perhaps Joseph Jefferson, who played Rip Van Winkle for 40 years in the 19th century, or Yul Brynner, who did The King and I 4,526 times, or James Arness, who did 20 seasons as Marshal Matt Dillon. But in all those other cases, the actor was working from a script or a tradition that had already been established. Larry Hagman came into Dallas with fifth billing and an underwritten part. Hagman wasn’t even the actor they wanted; the role was offered to Robert Foxworth, but Foxworth thought the character was too mean-spirited. In early TV Guide listings, Hagman’s name wasn’t even mentioned. The stars of the show were Victoria Principal—because Linda Evans didn’t turn out to be available for “Untitled Linda Evans Project”—and Patrick Duffy. The story was Romeo and Juliet, the Montagues and the Capulets, with Bobby Ewing marrying Pamela Barnes and having to break the news to Jock and Miss Ellie. As originally envisioned, all the dramatic action would revolve around the tragic love match.
Fortunately for Larry Hagman, Patrick Duffy’s agents screwed the pooch. In the original script, Bobby Ewing was kind of a charming bum. He was the PR guy for Ewing Oil, which meant he was responsible for plying all their customers with booze and women and whatever else they wanted. He was one of those slackers who plays golf in Cabo and calls it work. David Jacobs modeled him after Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. But the management of the 29-year-old Duffy didn’t like the way the part was written. Duffy had been clean-cut and heroic in his previous series, Man From Atlantis, and they wanted him to stay that way. After some negotiations with the network, Bobby Ewing became the “good” brother. Consequently he became boring, and it became very difficult for the writers to find anything for him to do. Instead of being a thorn in the side of Miss Ellie and Jock, he became the man who marries for true love and tries to carry on the legacy of the family. He was a do-gooder. Suddenly J.R. became the engine of all action.
Within a few episodes, Romeo and Juliet had become Cain and Abel, and Larry Hagman moved up into the starring credits. A lot of that had to do with how he played the role. First of all, he was the only actor who had spent any time in Texas, having been born in Fort Worth before being sent away to various military academies and boarding schools on both coasts to accommodate the busy schedule of his musical-comedy-star mother, Mary Martin. At one time, hatred of his stepfather caused him to return to Texas in an attempt to be a cowboy, but the drudgery on his father Ben Hagman’s Weatherford ranch soon sent him back to the theater. He cut his acting teeth at the Margo Jones Theater in Fair Park, that strange 1950s theater-in-the-round experiment that attracted Tennessee Williams and others but couldn’t survive Jones’ untimely death. Hagman actually felt more at home in London than in Dallas, but he knew the accents and the rhythms of the land. He also had the instincts of a wily veteran and knew that drama is about sin, not virtue.
While Linda Gray was flirting with David Jacobs in the Northpark Inn bar, trying to get more lines, Hagman was taking over the show. During the first season of Dallas, Hagman would have people call ahead to Dallas restaurants to tell them that Major Tony Nelson from I Dream of Jeannie would be coming in. By the second season, he didn’t have to do that anymore. Every maitre d’ knew who J.R. was.
Hagman bonded with producer Leonard Katzman and became the natural leader of the whole production. His trailer, always equipped with chilled Champagne, was the gathering place for the cast. He knew and revered Barbara Bel Geddes as the queen of Broadway, and when she talked about leaving the show because it was making her tired, he intervened and got her more money for less work. He was very close to veteran B-western star Jim Davis and helped him continue in the role of Jock Ewing almost literally to the day of his death from brain cancer. When Patrick Duffy left the show to pursue a film career, it was Hagman who became alarmed by the drop in ratings and prevailed on him to come back. Then, after Katzman left, he blackmailed Lorimar into firing Katzman’s replacement, bringing back Katzman, and turning an entire season into “it was just a dream” since Bobby Ewing had already burned to death in a fiery car crash. Hagman was a master of the work slowdown and the contract renegotiation, cooling his heels in London or the Bahamas until Lorimar came up with what he wanted. His fee at the height of the show’s popularity was $250,000 per episode, a record at the time, up from the initial $7,500 he received the first season.
But the main thing he did for Dallas was create the Iago of Texas, J.R. Ewing. It wasn’t just that J.R. was a conniver; it was the scale of his conniving and the delight he took in it. His talent was to always know what the other person wants, and then turn that desire to his own advantage. He was a pitiless seducer and back-stabber, one of the great alpha males, created at a time when the species was under fire from feminism, political correctness, and the administration of Jimmy Carter. He was such a selfish bastard that the audience could be constantly tantalized with the prospect of his ultimate comeuppance, only to be amazed when he would rise again like the phoenix.
The reason the “Who shot J.R.?” controversy became such a worldwide phenomenon is because behind it was the real question “Is it ever possible to kill people like this?” And when it was finally answered in Episode 58, on November 21, 1980, 76 percent of all television sets in the United States were tuned to the show. Eighty-three million Americans and 300 million people in other countries saw a program that got a 53.3 rating, which was higher than the best night of Roots, the previous standard of mega-success. What CBS and Lorimar had was a show that reproduced Roots numbers every single week. No wonder they had suddenly ordered four extra shows at the end of the 1979-1980 season. Since the serial plot had already been resolved, a special writers meeting was called to figure out how to create a new cliffhanger for those four shows. It was story editor Camille Marchetta who blurted out, “Why don’t we just shoot the son of a bitch?” And television history was made.
Dallas was the first American show that dominated prime-time lineups in foreign countries. There had been international syndication successes before, but they were treated like Saturday-afternoon movies, something to watch in Japan after you’d watched all the Japanese stuff first. The success of Dallas was then repeated for Knots Landing, Falcon Crest, the eerily similar Dynasty (Denver stands in for Dallas, and Joan Collins stands in for J.R.), and even the occasional daytime soap, like Santa Barbara, which became a prime-time hit all over Europe a full decade after it was canceled. Like it or not, more people heard the word “Dallas” for the first time from this TV show than had known it in all of our previous history.
Sometime in 1989, when the money was still rolling in but cast members were starting to leave and the show was starting to seem creaky and repetitive, Dallas passed Bonanza to become No. 2 on the list of longest-running one-hour dramas. Its eventual 357 episodes didn’t come anywhere close to Gunsmoke, at 635, but it survived well past the time when network executives had stopped using the word “epic” and moved toward making hit shows about neurotics in small urban apartments.
In the final episode, J.R. goes through It’s a Wonderful Life in reverse, realizing what the world would have been like if he had never lived, with Joel Grey as the not-so-benevolent angel. J.R. has lost Southfork, Ewing Oil, his wife, and everything else he once valued, so in the final frames he puts a gun to his head. We hear the gun go off, but we don’t see what happens. (The episode was shot before Katzman knew for sure that it was the last season.) By then the show had run out of steam anyway, and the once mighty Lorimar Productions had vanished. After a merger with Telepictures, the company was sold to Warner Bros. in 1989, and the name was retired.
And so the story would end, were it not for DVDs, the internet, and a legion of fanboys and (especially) fangirls who never let the show go away. It lived on in the form of three TV movies, in a frequently renewed syndication life, and for a while was even considered as the material for a blockbuster feature film starring John Travolta as J.R. (I’ll wait while you take a deep breath and contemplate the horror.)
Fast-forward to 2009. Cynthia Cidre, a veteran Hollywood TV writer, gets an email one morning from Craig Erwich, an executive at Warner Horizon Television. He tells her Warner is thinking of taking another shot with Dallas and would she like to do it? Cidre, a Cuban-American known for TV movies and family dramas, especially Hispanic-themed dramas, was inclined to give him an immediate no, but she had errands to run all day and didn’t get to her email until later. Throughout the day, she kept thinking about it, and by the time she’d finished her errands, it had become “a cool idea.” She called Erwich to say she couldn’t start on it for eight months, because of a commitment at CBS, but she wanted to educate herself. That education consisted of watching every Dallas episode, going to all the scary websites run by Dallas obsessives, studying the Ewing family tree, and finding herself perfect for the assignment. It was a raw, emotional show about blue-collar people.
“Yes, they’re billionaires,” she says, “but they’re still blue collar. I’m Cuban. We’re emotional. I don’t like introspective shows.”
And it was set in Texas, site of one of her biggest successes, the 1990 TV movie A Killing in a Small Town, based on Evidence of Love, the account of the Candy Montgomery murder case in Wylie that I co-authored with Jim Atkinson, and recipient of several Emmy nominations. (It starred Barbara Hershey and Brian Dennehy, who no longer had to take gang-rapist roles, as her lawyer.)
By the time Cidre said yes, TNT was already interested. The executive in charge of programming there, Michael Wright, at first had “a great deal of trepidation” but was intrigued by the sheer history of the show. “The pitfall,” he says, “is that you overestimate the value based on the iconic title. It’s not like a feature film, where the name alone is good for presales on the first two weekends. Series television has to run for many years to be profitable, so you don’t get that much of an advantage from just having the brand. It would be very easy to think, ‘Oh, okay, we have Dallas now. Our work is done.’ It doesn’t work that way. In fact, the fact that it is Dallas raises the bar a bit, because you know you’re going to have greater scrutiny. The original is so highly regarded that people expect it to be very, very good.”
Wright’s decision came down to the script—“and Cynthia wrote a fantastic script.” Wright ordered 10 episodes—double what CBS had ordered in 1977.
When Cidre put together the six-person writing staff, she had one criterion: “I wanted blood on the page. Emotional writers. I did not want any urbane dialogue. These are people of action. We tell the story as fast as we can. It’s very heavily plotted. No one’s gonna be bored. Every episode has two to four cliffhangers. As it turned out, four of the six I hired are comedy writers. And, yes, J.R. is larger than a character in a normal drama, but he’s not crazy. It’s still a family drama.”
With such a large cast and a sprawling back story, Cidre begged TNT to change the typical one-hour structure from six commercial breaks to five—and TNT agreed. Then she made one ironclad rule for the writers: “We will never violate the established mythology of the show. If it happened in the past, it is the history of these characters.” Well, except for Season 8, when Bobby Ewing was dead and Miss Ellie was played by Donna Reed, universally despised by the lovers of Barbara Bel Geddes. Fortunately, because of the Good Morning episode starting Season 9 (officially called “Return to Camelot”), you can just treat Season 8 like a Soviet textbook in which Donna Reed is the liquidated party secretary officially erased from the collective memory of the nation, and Bobby Ewing’s death is a lie created by psychedelics.
Since the goal is to preserve authenticity, they also brought back The Big Three—Bobby Ewing, Sue Ellen Ewing, and J.R. Ewing—while leaving out Pamela Barnes Ewing, since she was hit by a tractor trailer in 1988, left the family, remarried, had plastic surgery, and started dying of cancer. (Actually, I don’t see anything in that list that would rule out Victoria Principal.) John Ross, the son of J.R., would be 33 today based on the year he was born during the original show, and Josh Henderson, the actor playing him in the new show, is a Dallas native by way of Tulsa who is 30 but looks considerably younger. Christopher Ewing—the adopted son of Bobby Ewing who was bought by Bobby from a drug dealer under the mistaken belief that the boy had been fathered by J.R. but then kept on the Barnes side of the family after Pam mistakenly believed that Bobby had brought the child home as a present for her (I think I’m getting this right), then shuttled back and forth between various parents and step-parents until he was left living with the widowed Bobby at the end of the series—would be 31 today, having been born to Sue Ellen’s little sister Kristin, who shot J.R. in 1981. (Please go back and reread that sentence. I’ll wait.) Christopher is played by hunky Jesse Metcalfe, and, of course, his whole character arc is about becoming a true Ewing.
When I got to the Dallas set in February, they were shooting a scene between Brenda Strong, a Desperate Housewives cast member who will be the latest Mrs. Bobby Ewing as the new series picks up, and Mitch Pileggi, best known as the third actor on The X Files, but a TV veteran and University of Texas grad who was a background actor in a Dallas bar scene with Linda Gray 30 years ago. He was driving a cab in Austin and working at the Zachary Scott Theater at the time but soon discovered what most good Texas actors discover: you have to leave Texas to get jobs, even the ones in Texas.
The scene I watched was shot in the Winspear Opera House, but it had nothing to do with opera. One of the ultra-modern corner offices overlooking Woodall Rodgers is doubling as Pileggi’s office. (He’s a trucking magnate who has dealings with Ewing Oil, and he’s a little sleazy toward Mrs. Ewing, who happens to be his ex.) The scene was a good example of what the directors on the show call “shooting the macro with the micro,” the macro being an outsized Dallas itself as one of the characters. For this incarnation of the show, “we’re using all we can of Dallas,” Cidre says. That includes Cowboys Stadium, American Airlines Center, the South Side complex, Deep Ellum, and every shiny building that looks too big for the lot. They also reproduced the famous Dallas opening, with the triptych panels showing the major characters and the fast, low helicopter shot coming into downtown from the Trinity bottomlands. They rerecorded the Dallas theme, with the distinctive French-horn fanfare, but made it more symphonic and used even more French horns.
The relaxed set looked and felt like a company of seasoned Hollywood professionals, which is exactly what it was. The acting looks competent but not inspired, but then again, that’s exactly what the cast was like the first time around. No one ever watched Dallas to get nuance. There’s a certain rhythm and style to the dialogue that’s right on the edge of being satire. And that’s as it should be. No one has made much effort to do Texas accents, but then no one except J.R. had much of an accent the first time around, either.
The good news about this incarnation of Dallas is that Cynthia Cidre, unlike David Jacobs, would rather be doing Dallas than Scenes From a Marriage, and the Northpark Inn was long ago torn down, so that’s not an issue. In fact, Cidre spent much of the past year living at the Ritz-Carlton on McKinney. Across the street from the Ritz is Crescent Court, which is where Ewing Oil would be based if Ewing Oil existed. In that one office building, there are so many hedge funds, venture capital funds, equity funds, oil and gas funds, real estate funds, and, yes, cattle futures funds that it’s said you can put together any deal by walking down a hallway and poking your head through random doors. Of course, when I say “you,” I don’t mean you and I. I mean the J.R.s of the city.
For they do exist. Most of them are charming, some of them are ruthless, all of them are tough. Many of them name their funds after a ranch or a Western theme, and all of them like to talk. They’re the descendants of the Joiners and Hunts who developed the oil fields of El Dorado, Arkansas, and Shreveport and Kilgore, but you’ll notice that none of those other cities has a Crescent Court of their own—all the money ended up in Dallas. They’re the guys who are fracking in Duval County now and wildcatting in Williston, North Dakota, and clearing slums in Camden, New Jersey, so they can rebuild for profit. They’re the guys who ran the commercials in the ’80s (“If You Don’t Have an Oil Well, GET ONE!”) and then hunkered down in the early ’90s as times turned sour and all their drilling equipment in Metairie, Louisiana, got repossessed. They’re the guys who look at a British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf as an opportunity to double down on technology and sell overpriced shut-off valves to nervous CEOs. From the time Dallas shifted from cotton to oil in the Depression, it’s been the same guys. They’re not very good at politics. There’s a direct line from “WELCOME MR. KENNEDY TO DALLAS” to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, and it all emanates from Uptown conclaves that start with the war cry of the typical Dallas drunk: “I’ll tell you one goddamn thing—”
But the other side of that coin is that they’re broad-shouldered and independent, and they don’t whine and they don’t ask the government to do anything except get out of the way. They’re fiercely loyal to their kinfolk, and they don’t use courts unless they have to. They’re our best hope against the Chinese, as they’ve already proved in offshore disputes in New Zealand and Australia. They’re the faces of messy capitalism, and even if you’re the world’s biggest liberal and you hate all aspects of capitalism, you can’t help but love ’em because they do what they say they’re gonna do, and, when they fail, they move on to the next hand. Some of them are criminals, but most of them are what my grandfather, an AT&T lineman, called Big Shots. A Big Shot was somebody who got the best seat at Burnett Field or the Sportatorium because everyone recognized him from church as the richest guy around. My grandfather, who had a sixth-grade education, said this without irony, envy, or sarcasm, using “rich” unapologetically as a synonym for “smart.”
That’s definitely the world of J.R., where the smartest guy is the guy with the most money at the end of the day. The guys at Crescent Court like helicopters and sports cars and watches, just like J.R. does. And they like money. Especially money. I hope Cynthia Cidre met a few of them at the Ritz-Carlton’s Rattlesnake Bar and we see them incorporated into many future seasons of Dallas. Because, like it or not, that really is us.
John Bloom is the author of seven books and the erstwhile host of MonsterVision on TNT. He is better known as his alter ego, Joe Bob Briggs. Write to email@example.com.