It’s time for Dallas to make its peace with Dallas.
Cities don’t choose their legends. Wandering troubadours and blind prophets and kilted bards show up at the gates of the city and, by their lamentations and chansons, assign the myth, then flee. It’s yours forever, whether you like it or not.
J.R. will always be with us.
I realized this only recently. It hit me about 11 minutes into the first episode of the Dallas series premiering this month on TNT. Or should I say the series continuing this month? Because it’s not a remake, and it’s not a Hollywood-style “reimagining.” It’s the same TV series, as first created in 1978, as though it has simply been on hiatus for the past 20 years. It’s not only the same characters; it’s the same actors playing the same characters. It’s as though the series is Holy Writ. You couldn’t reimagine it any more than you could reimagine the Battle of Fort McHenry and leave out the part about the flag.
And, as I say, there’s this moment, this little scene at minute 11, when Bobby Ewing goes to visit the elderly, bankrupt J.R. and finds him in his pajamas, seated in an overstuffed chair, his face impassive, staring into space in some kind of catatonic state that his nurse calls clinical depression. As Bobby pulls up a chair, it’s like that famous Strindberg play where only one character speaks but the star billing goes to the nonspeaking actor.
“All those fights, J.R., over Ewing Oil and Southfork. Those fights changed me. Changed me in a way I don’t like.”
There’s a slow blink of J.R.’s eye. Does it mean something? Did he hear that? This sounds like a confession. Who would treat J.R. as a priest?
“I worry about Christopher and John Ross. I want them to have a chance to be a family. Without all the bitterness and bad blood you and I had.”
An appeal to the next generation, their legacy, the fruit of their loins. J.R.’s eyes look moist. He’s hearing. Or is he?
Fiercely now, with feeling: “I don’t want them to be like us.”
Surely J.R. will move now, give some indication. We’re looking at his sprawling, unruly white eyebrows and the ancient chiseled features. It’s as though he’s a statue, but a statue infused with reanimating toxins. At any moment his head will turn, and he will delight us with his steely sadistic grin.
“But, all that being said, I do miss you.”
Bobby winces. What just happened? Then he recovers his composure.
“Well, I hope ya know—” Bobby is starting to silently cry as he prepares to leave. “Always loved ya.”
And he leans over and kisses the brother who has always hated him.
Abel forgiving Cain for the sake of civilization! Arthur asking mercy for his knights!
Yes, I’m gonna watch that. I don’t even need the other 49 minutes of the pilot to know I’m all in.
J.R. never emerges from catatonia in that scene, but somehow we know he’s not bound for the nursing home anytime soon. If you were
wondering why they rehired Patrick Duffy and Larry Hagman and Linda Gray and thought perhaps it was simply to appear in a few cameos and then pass off the baton to a younger cast, you were greatly mistaken.
The operative word here is “iconic.” I must have heard the word 50 times during my three days on the Dallas set. The old actors use it, and the new actors use it. The writers use it. The cinematographer uses it. Later, I talk to the network executives, and they’re using it as well. The show is iconic, the characters are iconic, and the place of Dallas in TV history as the first prime-time serial soap opera—well, it’s all very, very iconic.
It’s an odd idea for television, though, because icons are objects of veneration, often imbued with magical powers, whereas television is famously disposable and forgettable. Icons are totems of the devout, continuously displayed so that the soul can be soothed and enlarged. If Dallas is an icon, then we should probably just go ahead and put a statue of J.R. Ewing in City Hall Plaza for the pilgrims who now trek to Murphy Road in Parker for an experience that must be, I would think, anticlimactic. Wouldn’t a 27-foot bronze Larry Hagman make more sense for the city than Reclining Blob by Henry Moore? If the august Philadelphia Museum of Art can make its peace with Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa, then surely we can tolerate a graduate of Weatherford High School in our public square.
But first we have to know why J.R. represents us. Because he does, you know. He represents us just as surely as Bugsy Siegel represents Las Vegas and Brigham Young represents Salt Lake City and William Tell represents Altdorf, Switzerland. Bill Tell may or may not have shot the apple off his son’s head, and he may or may not have done it in Altdorf, but even if the story is true, Altdorf is not the birthplace of Tell. It’s the home of the evil foreign ruler who devised the whole shoot-the-apple-off-Bill-Junior’s-head thing in the first place. The city should be ashamed of itself instead of selling William Tell hats. But, again, the myth is bigger than the place. And so J.R. is bigger than us all.
It was the fashion in the late ’70s and early ’80s for the Dallas media to make merciless fun of every new Dallas episode. Dick Hitt, the Metro columnist for the Times Herald, must have derived half his paycheck from wry observations about bumbling California interlopers getting it all wrong. A.C. Greene at this magazine, TV critic Steven Reddicliffe (who would go on to run TV Guide), John Anders and Ed Bark at the Morning News, and various Dallas bon vivants like restaurateur Shannon Wynne and barkeep Joe Miller offered monologues on the subject, both public and private, all along the lines of how the show should have been titled West Covina, and how the cowboy hats looked better on the gay chorus in George Balanchine’s Western Symphony. (To get this particular joke, you have to hook your fingers into your belt loops and do multiple jumping-jack heel clicks. It’s necessary to be profoundly drunk first.)
The ridicule reached its apex with the famous hurricane episode, in which the series writers apparently confused a tornado with a typhoon and re-created the Galveston Flood of 1900 at Southfork Ranch. That was hardly the strangest thing about that particular episode, however, since it also featured Brian Dennehy as a vengeance-seeking terrorist named Luther Frick who takes over Southfork in order to supervise the gang rape of Sue Ellen and Pam, but first he forces Sue Ellen to dress up in her Miss Texas swimsuit and sing “People” with a gun to her head. I don’t know what you call that, but I call it destination TV.
From the very beginning to the climactic 54th episode—the Who Shot J.R.? episode, actually titled “A House Divided”—in March of 1980, Dallas continually raised the question “What were they thinking?” Everyone knows there’s no oil in Dallas County, so Miss Ellie’s commandment that “There will be no drilling on my ranch!” would seem to be moot. (Then again, no one ever said the Ewings lived in Dallas County. The original Southfork was the Cloyce Box Ranch in Frisco, and the one known as Southfork today was Duncan Acres farm in Parker, which is where the show ended up when Fern Box, wife of the Detroit Lions star, got sick of all the trucks on her lawn and the cables in her living room. Nevertheless, there’s no oil in Collin County either.) Everyone knows that you’d see more booted and hatted businessmen and lawyers in Houston, Fort Worth, San Antonio—almost any Texas city other than Dallas. Everyone knows that, even if a Texas matriarch like Miss Ellie existed, she wouldn’t be able to get three billionaires to continue living at home, showing up on time for two group meals a day. (And why is that Southfork house so puny when the series is so grandiose? If you took all the interior standing sets they built on the MGM soundstages in Culver City to represent the rooms of that house, you would need five Southforks to accommodate them.)
And yet there’s a way to understand how Dallas was, and is, more about us than we realize. First of all, we have to admit the unmistakable parallels with the Hunt family, including the original crime that sets up the first episode. According to the series back story, the alcoholic Digger Barnes was cheated out of his share of an oil field by Jock Ewing, and that became the basis of Ewing Oil. Ever since then, the Ewings and the Barneses have hated each other, despite or perhaps because Miss Ellie was once romantically involved with Digger. The year of this alleged trickery: 1930. So it sounds a whole lot like the contract that H.L. Hunt got Dad Joiner to sign at the Baker Hotel shortly after midnight on November 27, 1930, four hours after oil was discovered in Rusk County. (Joiner was, however, a teetotaling Bible-thumper, so getting him drunk would not have been possible.) Then there’s the statistically overwhelming number of kidnappings, sexual liaisons, sleazeball private investigations, pregnancies both real and imagined, shame-based suicides, commitments to mental hospitals, and the like that run through the 14 years of the series—and yet some of the proven escapades of both H.L. and Bunker Hunt, as enumerated in Harry Hurt III’s Texas Rich, would stretch the credibility of a soap opera, any soap opera. One of the unwritten themes informing the surrealistic moral world of Southfork is that babies are currency, like bloodstock, so their paternity always has to be proven. Still, J.R. never had anything like H.L. Hunt’s “secret family” in Shreveport that believed they were cheated out of their rightful inheritance.
So there are a few points of actual history that touch the series—just as there was probably a real warrior named Achilles—but the historical material seems to be shaped in random ways. It’s as though our civic bard is a dyslexic Homer who can’t remember the difference between Dallas and Fort Worth. In fact, Cowtown would have been a better choice for the series, because, for starters, it has cows. The heritage of cattle—usually a primary theme in any Texas saga—is strangely absent from the Dallas Bible, and yet when a larger-than-life Texan pokes into the story, he’s always more Amon Carter than Erik Jonsson. He has the hat, the accent, the brashness, and the one-liners. Nobody would ever want to see Robert Folsom, the mayor of Dallas when Dallas went on the air, as any kind of television character. His only passion was real estate, and the only time he ever showed any emotion is when yet another goddamn longhaired hippie reporter asked him yet another impertinent question about single-member districts. The writers of Dallas, either consciously or subconsciously, took the mythology of Fort Worth and, to a lesser extent, Houston and Midland, and imprinted the name “Dallas” on it. Southfork Ranch© thanks you, David Jacobs.
For that’s his name: David Jacobs. That’s the scoundrel who mounted the ramparts of the city and said, “I give you your legend.” But like many another scop and oracle, Jacobs didn’t bother much with history nor precedent mythology nor, for that matter, specific geography. When he wrote the pilot episode of Dallas, he had never set foot in the city, and recalled passing through the state only once, and that very quickly. Jacobs was, in fact, a 38-year-old Jewish architecture critic from Baltimore by way of New York who had once taken fiction classes at the New School from Anatole Broyard and whose idea of a compelling TV series envisioned telling the life stories of the Medieval cathedral builders. Most of his career had been spent writing for magazines (always the sign of unprincipled rascality), and his most famous work prior to Dallas was an extensive series on Buckminster Fuller. (We have to imagine that, being an authority on Fuller, Jacobs was aware of Casa Mañana, one of Fuller’s most famous geodesic domes, and yet, once again, Dallas trumps Fort Worth.)
The story goes like this: in the fall of 1977, Jacobs had been in Hollywood just a year and was toiling away at his first steady job, as the story editor on the Spelling-Goldberg drama series Family, best remembered today as the show that launched Kristy McNichol’s career. In that last great pre-cable era of television, the two biggest production companies in town were Spelling-Goldberg and Lorimar Productions, the first known for glitzy shows like Charlie’s Angels and Fantasy Island, the latter for what passed on television as sophisticated drama, notably The Waltons. Mike Filerman, the director of development at Lorimar, came to Jacobs with the suggestion that he develop “a show of your own” and gave him $2,500 to make a presentation. Less than a year earlier, Jacobs had been broke and begging for work—so a development deal at Lorimar was his big chance.
The idea he came up with was suitably high-minded: he wanted to do an American version of Ingmar Bergman’s angst-ridden dysfunctional classic Scenes From a Marriage. Actually, Scenes From a Marriage times four, because he wanted to depict not just one ennui-heavy couple, but four, all living on the same suburban cul-de-sac. Filerman was not entirely opposed to the idea but said that perhaps the sort of existential alienation they should try for was better symbolized by the 1957 Martin Ritt movie No Down Payment. Jacobs considered that movie to be trash, although it’s basically the same theme—four couples thrown together in a post-World War II housing complex, all happy on the surface but harboring secrets, with a stellar cast led by Joanne Woodward, Tony Randall, and Pat Hingle. Eventually Filerman and Jacobs decided to split the difference between Martin Ritt and Ingmar Bergman, and the result was a pitch for a show called Knots Landing.
At this point, the Dallas creation myth becomes shrouded in misty ambiguity, like all good creation myths. What we know is that CBS didn’t want to make Knots Landing. This was the year when American television had discovered the blockbuster miniseries, first with Roots on ABC, then with Holocaust and Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth on NBC. The operative words in story meetings were “saga,” “epic,” “multi-generational,” and, especially, “big.” It wasn’t the time for navel-gazing and intimacy. Could Jacobs write something a little larger, something with more glitz and drama? And, by the way, CBS had Linda Evans under contract and needed a star vehicle for her. Could you give the series a female lead? And then somebody mentioned Texas and, yeah, Texas, that’s big, they have sagas there, and the women have big hair.
In other words, CBS listened to Jacobs’ idea and said, “Yes, we like you, but could you do the opposite of your idea?” And Jacobs, like all young writers, said, “Yes, I can!”
The presentation Jacobs turned in was “Untitled Linda Evans Project,” indicating just how far from his consciousness the city of Dallas was at the time. It was Filerman who took that title off and replaced it with “Dallas.” Jacobs even thought it was a bad title.
“Mike,” he said, “I think Houston is the oil city. Dallas is the banking city.”
But Filerman, a proud native of Skokie, Illinois, invoked his prerogative as the executive in charge and said simply, “Dallas is more commercial.”
Apparently CBS agreed. Jacobs wanted to go to Dallas before he wrote the pilot script, but Filerman told him, “We don’t have time. We need to get them the script while they’re still excited.”
So Jacobs decided to “write the stereotypes and then pull it back later.”
He never got the chance to fix it later. He turned in the pilot script on December 10, 1977. On December 15, he got a phone call: “How fast can you write six of these?”
By February 1, 1978, CBS had ordered five one-hour episodes, the show had been cast, and shooting had begun in Dallas. On the first day at the Box Ranch, there was a snowstorm, so Jacobs incorporated snow into the script. Of course, by the second day, the snow had all evaporated, so they had to truck in gypsum pellets that looked like snow to match the previous day’s shots. Meanwhile, cast and crew settled in at the tacky Northpark Inn, which is where Jacobs proceeded to develop most of his opinions about Dallas and Dallasites. He found the city to be full of yahoos who were even more stereotypical than the stereotypes he had snatched from his disordered memory back in Hollywood. “They’re extravagant bumpkins,” he said, “and they remain bumpkins.”
As I say, cities don’t get to choose their chroniclers. To all the low-class lushes who could find no better place to go after work than the cheesy Northpark Inn lounge: thanks a lot.
Jacobs would not last long in the unspooling of the Dallas saga, though. He wrote two of the first five episodes and was involved sporadically in the second season, but very quickly the reins of the show were passed off to Leonard Katzman, already a television legend for running shows such as Route 66, Hawaii Five-O, and Gunsmoke. For 325 of the 357 episodes, and for 13 of the 14 years it ran, Katzman would be the business face of Dallas and the go-to guy whenever the cast and crew descended on the city.
Jacobs went on to do Knots Landing, of course, which had been his goal in the first place. The network even took a couple of characters from Dallas and moved them to Knots Landing in an effort to get synergy going between the two series, but it never really worked. When J.R. showed up in California, he was too big for his environment. When Gary Ewing would go “home” to Southfork, the alcohol-drenched love affairs of the California cul-de-sac seemed trivial in comparison to J.R.’s Mephistophelean manipulation of the world. Jacobs had gotten the series he wanted, and it was introspective and middle-class and, in the relative world of television values, more serious than Dallas. For years he didn’t even claim Dallas as anything worthy of his résumé.
Before we leave David Jacobs sniffing at his Dallas residuals, we need to consider his comment that he “wrote the stereotypes.” What did he mean by that? What stereotypes would he have known in 1977? Since his original idea was “Untitled Linda Evans Project,” he wasn’t thinking specifically of the city, so he must have been thinking of the state, and if you were thinking of the state in 1977, you wouldn’t be able to avoid the movie Giant, whose pop-culture tentacles had spread in one direction while Kennedy-assassination taproots had spread in the other. The 1956 George Stevens epic, based on the 1952 Edna Ferber novel, was pretty much the operative image of modern Texas prior to the 1970s, and it championed the theme increasingly used by screenwriters that “Oil wealth corrupts.” Of course, cattle wealth always corrupted as well—hence the crazed cattleman John Wayne played in Red River—but oil was somehow worse, especially after the crude-blackened James Dean as Jett Rink screamed, “I’m a rich ’un!” and punched Rock Hudson in the stomach. J.R. was not a direct descendant of Jett Rink, but he had Jett Rink blood. He was also the nasty Thomas Dunson in Red River and the Comanche-hating, vengeance-seeking maniac John Wayne played in The Searchers, and he had a kinship with willful anti-intellectual characters like James Garner in The Wheeler Dealers (think steer horns mounted on the grille of a Cadillac) and Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove (Yeehaw!). All of these cinematic Texas prototypes apparently got melded together to create the earthbound godless ruler of this world called J.R. Ewing, or what Nietzsche would call Übermensch Texanisch. Thus spake J.R.!
And one more note about what the outside world meant by “Texas” prior to about 1980: women were strictly eye candy and breeders. You would think that Edna Ferber—the feminist/Hungarian/Jewish member of the Algonquin Round Table who did more to create the Texas myth than any other single person—would be a defender of the sisterhood, but the only civilizing influence in Giant was the Elizabeth Taylor character, a debutante from Main Line Philadelphia. Jacobs claims he originally envisioned the women of Dallas as stronger than they turned out, even going so far as to say he wrote Miss Ellie as “an Ann Richards type,” but somehow it all got watered down into variations of the very first woman in Lone Star legend, The Yellow Rose of Texas, whose job, after all, was to have sex with Santa Anna while Sam Houston is sneaking up on him. The world of Dallas, as Larry Hagman has pointed out, is chauvinist and white. There are no blacks or Jews whatsoever, damn few Mexicans, and the women are tools and decorations that are always being held down by the men, rarely vice versa.
When I met Rodney Charters, the award-winning New Zealander who handles the cinematography for the new Dallas series, he sheepishly admitted, “On an iconic show like this, you shoot up at the men and down at the women.”
The other aspect we have to figure out, though, is why Mike Filerman called the show Dallas and not Houston or, for that matter, Lubbock, where, after all, they have both cattle and oil. The only person who ever knew what the word “Dallas” meant was John Neely Bryan, and he’s been dead a long time. But no less of a composer than Frank Loesser, of Guys and Dolls fame, had already embedded the word into the national consciousness in 1956 by including a song about the city in his light opera The Most Happy Fella. That show has nothing to do with Texas—it’s about an Italian grape farmer in Napa Valley, California, who falls in love with a woman half his age—but the second-act novelty song “Big D” was still stopping the show when I saw it in 1992 at the Booth Theatre on Broadway. (Frequent Casa Mañana star Scott Waara did the number with no microphone and had to wait a full two minutes to resume the play, so crazed was the audience.) “Big D” has every Texas stereotype compressed into one compact set piece and is written so skillfully that you can almost hear the drawl in the purely instrumental parts. So there was the “Big D” song, which taught America how to spell “Dallas,” and then the goofy but extremely popular 1962 movie State Fair, which portrayed Dallas as a place where you could show off your prize pig and fall in love with Ann-Margret on the same day.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 firstname.lastname@example.org.