Thursday, May 23, 2024 May 23, 2024
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Cover Story

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.
portrait by Elizabeth Lavin

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.

photography: London by Newscom; J.R. by Getty

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.