The term ‘cliffhanger’ might very well have been invented for David Jacob’s Dallas (1978-1991). Overnight this prime time soap opera became a sensation, then, even more unexpectedly, an American institution. For 13 years, audiences were hooked on the salacious comings and goings of good ole Texas folk, the uber-wealthy ranch and oil barons, the Ewings and the downright dirty and devious business dealings of its unloved heir apparent, John Ross Jr., more affectionately known throughout the greater Dallas/Fort Worth area as J.R. (Larry Hagman in a career-defining role). Originally scripted with a focus on the family’s younger brother, Bobby (Patrick Duffy), and a period of adjustment within the Ewing clan after he wed Pamela (Victoria Principal), the daughter of their arch rival, Digger Barnes (intermittently portrayed by David Wayne for the 1978 mini-series, Keenan Wynn, during Dallas’ 1979–1980 run, and finally, David Marshall Grant after 1986), Dallas’ plots quickly shifted gears to J.R. after Larry Hagman elected to slightly alter the character as originally written. Instead of either entering or exiting a scene with a perpetual, beady-eyed scowl, Hagman chose to infuse the character with a deliciously sinister grin, twinkle in the eye, and, light chuckle (shades of Richard Widmark’s Tommy Udo); thus, typifying the unapologetic and unscrupulous womanizer/wheeler-dealer. J.R. was so transparently corrupt, he quickly became TV’s most fascinating villain we all loved to hate. Indeed, when at the end of Season Two the writers were suddenly perplexed how to paint themselves out of a narrative corner, creator David Jacobs casually suggested, “Why don’t we just shoot the son of a bitch?” – an inspired notion.
Season Two’s cliffhanger, ‘Who Shot J.R.?’ became a cultural phenomenon by accident (more on this later); the press, having a feeding frenzy over the possible list of suspects. Jacobs ordered absolute secrecy on the closed set, to the extent where alternate endings were created to confuse even the cast, featuring every major character presumably to have pulled the trigger. Although officially launched in the Fall of 1979, Dallas would come to typify all that was good, gaudy, and insincerely flawed about the American perspective on life, love and the rather ruthless pursuit of plasticized happiness throughout the spend/spend 1980’s. Dallas may not have invented the soap opera, but it honed and mined its time-honored precepts, centralizing fundamental human frailties to fan the ratings flames, and, with a penchant for raw human desire, lust, greed, deception, steamy sex and violent death, presented as luridly palpable fodder for the masses. From today’s even further jadedness – ultra-raunch having long ago overtaken glamorous sex appeal, Dallas seems downright bucolic to utterly quaint. The iconic world inhabited by J.R., Bobby, Pam, Miss Ellie (Barbara Bel Geddes) and their ilk now plays like an epilogue to another nearly forgotten time, largely removed from our own. The sexual mores, vices, and the corruption in big business in particular, hold up. Only now, they have acquired a patina of acceptability, posing the question; ‘as a society…have we evolved, or simply become far too cynical to recognize the strength of Dallas’ artistic sentiment?’
David Jacobs’ initial inspiration was a TV series based on the art films of Ingmar Bergman – particularly, ‘Scenes from a Marriage’. Pitching the idea to Lorimar executive, Mike Filerman was a no-go. But Filerman had another project for Jacobs to tackle – ‘No Down Payment’. It proved the beginning of a lucrative professional friendship, or, as Jacobs later mused, “I wanted to do art. Mike wanted to do trash, and together, we did television!” So, Filerman and Jacobs wrote a synopsis about four California families living in a cul-de-sac. CBS liked the idea, though not enough to produce it – yet. Eventually, the project would find a home as Knots Landing. But for now, CBS encouraged Filerman and Jacobs to ‘think big’ – along the lines of a made-for-TV saga to star Linda Evans, who was already under contract. The writer/producer team eventually lit on an idea to transform Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet into a modern day western set in Texas; the Capulets and Montagues transformed into mortal enemies – the Barnes and the Ewings.
Jacobs submitted his draft of the, as yet, ‘untitled’ project to Filerman. Recognizing it as more of an ensemble piece, Filerman decided it lacked the potential to interest Linda Evans. But he sent it along to CBS on spec anyway, casually re-titling it, ‘Dallas’ – a decision that initially horrified Jacobs, as he had never been to Dallas and knew nothing of its social climate. Ironically, CBS liked Dallas enough to commission a 5-episode mini-series. So, Fiberman and Jacobs set about casting their project; the entire shoot expected to get underway in just six weeks. First to be contacted was Steve Kanaly who immediately took an interest in the part of the wily ranch hand, Ray Krebbs. In the pilot, the character of Ray was a lusty reprobate, messing around with the Ewing’s underaged granddaughter, Lucy (Charlene Tilton) and scheming with J.R. to break up Bobby’s marriage to Pam as she was formerly his girlfriend. Also, up for the part was actor, Ken Kercheval. Producers would pass on Kercheval for Ray. But the actor was not entirely out of luck. In fact, he was handed yet another plum ‘part in a suit’ as Pam’s sullen brother and attorney at law, Cliff.
Producer, Leonard Katzman hired Camille Marchetta and Arthur Bernard Lewis to iron out the narrative wrinkles in Jacob’s synopsis. Ironically, all three were from Brooklyn and had never been to Texas. Nevertheless, this trio captured the essence of a city and a state as wide-open to the possibilities for a total transformation into pop icons, reinvigorating their tourist trade and putting Texas on the international list of celebrity. Interestingly, the bulk of Dallas’ cast would be culled from largely unknowns or actors whose first, second or even third stab at small screen immortality had miserably failed. Applying a bit of the time-honored Southern Gothic principles to their familial saga, Marchetta, Lewis and Jacob’s went in search of their ‘Romeo’ lead. They eventually agreed on 28-year-old beefcake, Patrick Duffy who had just completed his brief run as TV’s failed underwater superhero, The Man from Atlantis (1977-78). Cast opposite this muscular star was another 28-year-old, Victoria Principal who, like Duffy, had seen her earlier career aspirations quickly fizzle. Unlike Duffy, Principal had achieved notoriety of a different kind, appearing in a spread in Playboy Magazine.
Seventeen-year-old Charlene Tilton, whose acting resume was practically nonexistent, nevertheless landed the part of the sexually charged nymph, Lucy. To anchor the series, as Eleanor Southfork Ewing (affectionately ever-after known to all as Miss Ellie) the ever-loyal but strong-minded matriarch of this feuding clan, producers turned to 55-year-old Barbara Bel Geddes, whose career dated all the way back to the mid-1940’s, with successful runs on Broadway. Although Bel Geddes had originated the feisty role of Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in the movies at least, she was oft cast as a rather placid ‘second-string’ and pure-of-heart love interest, sadly, never to get her man. Opposite Bel Geddes was another screen veteran, Jim Davis as head of the family, Jock – at age 67, decidedly, the elder statesman of the group. For the part of Sue-Ellen Shivers/Ewing, a former beauty queen brought low via her marriage to the chronically philandering J.R., Katzman hired 38-year-old Linda Gray, whose only real claim-to-fame then was as a transsexual in the short-lived sitcom, All That Glitters (1977).
Although no one could have guessed it at the time, Dallas’ meteoric success would come to rely almost exclusively on one actor’s fame. Forty-six-year old Larry Hagman’s acting career had begun in 1950: small roles – mostly in theater, and tent show musicals. After serving his country from 1952-56, Hagman redoubled his efforts to break through to popular appeal. But his determination was not immediately rewarded; his off-Broadway bit parts gradually earning him modest notoriety and the inevitable segue to slightly more substantial supporting parts on Broadway. He made his TV debut in 1957; a largely forgettable spate of live appearances that led to a few more in some high-profile movies. Then, in 1965, Hagman solidified his popularity with TV audiences in the effervescent supernatural/comedy series, I Dream of Jeannie. At the end of that series successful run in 1970, Hagman once again found himself unemployed, and seemingly unemployable – producers unable to see beyond the character of Maj. Anthony Nelson. ‘Jeannie’s’ syndication helped to keep Hagman’s name alive during this fallow period until 1978, when he was offered two series simultaneously; the lead on The Waverly Wonders, or the relatively minor part of J.R. Ewing in Dallas.
Weighing his options, Hagman wisely concurred that any show headlined by Bel Geddes and Davis could only turn out to be a winner. Despite what was then perceived to be his diminutive contributions to the series, Hagman had an ‘in’. He was the only actor to have actually hailed from Fort Worth. He was also quite certain from the outset that it was better to appear in support, as part of an ensemble in a hit, than as the headliner of a flop. Virtually all of Dallas’ ‘stars’, with the exception of Larry Hagman, were signed to 7-year contracts at a bargain basement price of $7500.00 per episode; provided Dallas was a hit. Although Hagman’s salary weighed slightly more, it was hardly a king’s ransom – even, for its time. To ingratiate himself to the cast, Hagman turned up at the first rehearsal for the pilot in full Texas regalia; ten-gallon, buckskin and cowboy boots, toting a saddle bag full of champagne to lighten the mood. While the character of J.R. (or lack thereof) would quickly develop a general contempt for his fellow man/woman, Hagman’s behind-the-scenes persona proved the antithesis of his alter ego; a joyous bon vivant, eager to buck up his co-stars and work like mad to ensure the show’s success.
Leonard Katzman assumed a very personal responsibility for overseeing Dallas. Indeed, it has been suggested virtually every character adopted some of Katzman’s own personal traits; several of the writers suggesting a lot of the show was autobiographical, Katzman weaving his life experiences into the overriding narrative arc. For the actors, Katzman was both a man of action and the real authority figure to whom everyone relied upon. He also wisely assessed early on that part of the series’ success would be predicated on its location. Hence, no back-lot facsimile would do. While, in years yet to come, Dallas would increasingly rely on a blend of footage shot in Texas, with interiors mostly lensed back in Hollywood, on soundstages at the old MGM studio facilities (now belonging to Lorimar), for its final seasons, virtually episodes were recorded on indoor recreations of Southfork – both exteriors and interiors – to keep costs down. But for now, cast and crew were shunted off to Dallas in the winter of 1977, enduring frigid temperatures and the discomfort of working in an area unaccustomed to ‘Hollywood folk’. Interestingly, the ranch house that would ultimately become as much a part of TV-land iconography and integral as any character on the show, at least in the pilot, was not the sprawling Duncan Forest Ranch near Plano, but rather, the Southern antebellum-styled Cloyce Box Ranch near Frisco, Texas. A rift with the owner during the shooting of the 5-part mini-series forced Katzman to reconsider alternative locations after production wrapped. Tragically, the ornately styled mansion, once situated on an impressive 70 acres of wide open spaces, would be decimated by fire in 1987.
Although spirits ran high, despite some hellish weather, once shooting of the pilot wrapped in March, cast and crew returned to Hollywood, disbanding to look for other work. The general consensus was that Dallas was so wildly different from the usual programming on television, it would not survive its mid-season run and was likely to quickly fade into obscurity. But nothing could have been further from the truth. Dallas’ debut in prime time was hardly met with excitement. Audiences were not watching. And worse, Texans feared those that did tune in were getting the wrong impression about their fair state; populated by a bunch of gun-toting yahoos, raking in big money and living audacious lives steeped in sin and corruption. Lest we forget, it had been only a scant 15 years since the real city of Dallas played host to one of the most shocking chapters in American political history: the bizarre assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Worse for Dallas – the show – or so it would seem, the critics were watching. Although most eviscerated the first episode in the mini-series as salacious tripe, the buzz generated by their negative publicity ironically helped to invigorate audiences’ interest. By the end of the 5th episode, CBS had committed Lorimar to 13 more episodes of Dallas. Cast and crew were quickly reassembled and sent back to Texas.
Rescheduling the show from Sunday to Saturday, then finally, Friday nights at 9pm, Dallas suddenly took off. Early on, Katzman and Jacobs made the executive decision to write ongoing story lines. Up until Dallas, prime time dramas usually featured an all-inclusive narrative – one per week that did not hinge on either the episode that preceded it or led into the one yet to follow. As eager as the show’s stars were to make Dallas click with fans, some were initially not happy with the way the franchise was shaping up. Linda Gray, in particular, felt as though the women were being under-utilized. To her delight, Katzman agreed, reshaping Sue Ellen’s marriage to J.R. into the confrontational crux of the program. Sue Ellen would strike back at her husband by having an extra-marital affair with his arch nemesis, Cliff Barnes. Season One’s cliffhanger finale proved a real barn-burner as a pregnant Sue Ellen, unsure whether the baby inside her belongs to J.R. or Cliff, is involved in a horrifying car wreck that sends mother and baby to the hospital for an emergency Caesarean; audiences left to contemplate several pivotal plot points over the show’s summer hiatus.
Learning the newly born son is, in fact, his, J.R.’s tender acceptance of the baby at the beginning of Season Two marked a turning point in audiences’ empathy for this otherwise irredeemable mischief maker. Although Leonard Katzman may have been the head honcho on the set, he answered first and exclusively for each executive decision made to advance the series, to Lorimar’s President, Philip Capice. For better or worse, Katzman and Capice rarely saw eye to eye on the daily asset management of their hit show. As Lorimar’s Chief Executive Officer, Capice understood the business solely through the advertising profits to be derived from a show’s popularity in the Nielsen’s. And in the Fall of 1979, no one could argue with Dallas’ runaway success. In hindsight, it is easy to see how and why Dallas became so wildly popular. In 1979, America was a nation on the brink of an economic crisis; the oil embargo, sky-rocketing mortgage rates and abysmal unemployment statistics contributing to an overwhelming sense of ennui and genuine concern that these hard times would never end. And into this very bleak reality came Dallas – an escapist fantasy about millionaires leading their own unhappy lives in uber-moneyed playgrounds; a daydream and honeyed elixir of entertainment for the beleaguered nation.
In an inspired executive decision, Capice urged Katzman to come up with a spinoff series; Katzman refurbishing the premise for Knots Landing, now to prominently feature the Ewing’s cast-off middle brother, Gary (David Ackroyd) and his reconciled wife, Valene (Joan Van Ark). As their love child, Lucy was left in the care of Miss Ellie and Jock on Dallas while Knots Landing continued to exploit its own drama with an entirely different roster of performers. Meanwhile, Dallas fever hit the nation. Dismayed with the lack of direction of his character, actor Steve Kanaly planned to ask for a release from his contract just as Dallas was hitting its stride. Encouraged by Larry Hagman to stick it out, Hagman and Kanaly conspired on a subplot pitched to Katzman. What if Ray Krebb’s was actually Jock’s illegitimate son? Producers loved the idea. But it did put a queer spin on the initial romance between Ray and Lucy who, now, were actually related. As the 1979-80 season neared its end, CBS made an unusual requested. Invigorated by Dallas’ #6 rating in the Nielsen’s, the network wanted to extend the season by 4 additional episodes, leaving Katzman and his writers frantic to come up with a different cliffhanger than the one as originally planned. At some point, the frustrated team conspired on what would ultimately become one of the most infamous finales in television history.
More than 50 million viewers in the U.S. (a number only topped by the audience tuning into the Super Bowl, with 250 million more around the world) watched on the edge of their seats as Larry Hagman’s dastardly alter ego took a pair of bullets to the chest at the end of Season 3. Putting the fictional event into perspective, in 1980, national headlines for the ‘Who Shot J.R.?’ episode, dwarfed reoccurring news coverage about Russians invading Afghanistan, the devastating eruption of Mt. Saint Helens and the American hostage crisis in Iran. But behind the scenes, ‘Who Shot J.R.?’ came with unanticipated consequences for Lorimar. Displeased with his inability to successfully renegotiate his contract, Larry Hagman let it be known in the press he was perfectly willing not to return to Dallas in the Fall – unless, of course, his salary expectations were met. It was blackmail – pure and simple; Hagman adopting J.R.’s penchant for playing fast and loose with the big boys in Hollywood. Hagman’s hardball tactics initially infuriated Katzman. Despite having orchestrated a series of ‘would-be’ plotters, all of whom had motive and opportunity to want J.R. Ewing on a cold slab, Katzman knew that without Larry Hagman’s venomous J.R., Dallas was just another piece of prime time real estate, teetering on the brink of cancellation. So, negotiations ensued. Hagman hit Lorimar hard and they, in turn, threatened to recast his part with another actor. To his credit, Hagman never flinched, even encouraging Lorimar to try and pull off such a stunt, knowing very well they could never succeed.
And thus, Hagman – at the last possible moment, no less – agreed to return for Season Four at a pay scale of $75,000 per episode. This not only made him the envy of the cast but also one of the highest paid actors in all of television history. He also scored a percentage on all Dallas merchandise being sold to promote the show. A Screen Actor’s Guild strike delayed Dallas’ return by several weeks, elevating the mania over ‘Who Shot J.R.?’ to new heights. During the summer hiatus, speculations ran the gamut into the absurd. Even Jarod Martin, who had briefly played Sue Ellen’s second lover, Dusty Farlow, before being unceremoniously deposed in a fiery plane crash, was recalled to the show, despite his seemingly untimely end. His character was miraculously resurrected, rewritten from hunky rodeo star to wheelchair-bound impotent – decidedly, a changed man. Truth be told, J.R. had ticked off a lot of people in Seasons Two and Three. So, there was certainly no shortage of suspects for his murder – at the top of the list; Cliff Barnes. As Katzman had ordered takes of every major co-star doing the deed, none could be assured they were not the failed assassin, and thus, total secrecy of the real would-be killer was maintained until Dallas returned in the Fall of 1980. For the record, Sue Ellen’s sister, Kristin Shepard (played by Mary Crosby), with whose affections J.R. had toyed before dropping her cold, was the guilty culprit.
Nearly 80 million viewers tuned in to Episode #3 to discover this cleverly concealed truth. For many, it was the end of a long wait; the strike, delaying the revelation until mid-November. For all intent and purposes, Dallas was unstoppable. But only mid-way though the shooting schedule, the cast was dealt a terrible blow when 70-year-old Jim Davis revealed he had inoperable brain cancer. To his credit, and despite excruciating chemotherapy sessions that left him physically depleted, Davis missed only one episode during the 1980-81 season. But on April 26, the actor succumbed to his illness. Despite the inevitable, producers had yet to figure out how they were going to write his character out. Electing not to recast the part with another actor, Katzman instead had his writers kill off Jock, while presumably on a routine helicopter flight overseeing potential oil wells in South America. In a subsequent episode, Bobby and J.R. flew to the swampy site of the wreck, diving for clues and reporting back to Miss Ellie that Jock’s locket had, in fact, been recovered. By the end of Season Four, Dallas was the #1 show in America – a top spot it would continue to hold throughout the mid-1980’s, its fan base snowballing to epic proportions. Writers wrote ever-evolving and complex narrative arcs with impressively connective tissue that kept fans coming back for more. The show was irresistible and trendsetting. And its appeal was not only felt from shore to shore but copied around the globe. To say Dallas was an international phenomenon is not an overstatement; its over-the-top story lines and larger-than-life characters seen as the cultural custodians for the Reagan-omic era.
In the city of Dallas, residents who at first had been very apprehensive about the show’s ability to play up to stereotypes, suddenly became aware how Dallas had transformed their beloved city and state into the epicenter of class and culture; Duncan Forest Ranch, a tourist destination rivaled only by the Alamo. While cast members basked in the afterglow of success, co-star, Victoria Principal took her instant fame to even greater heights, publishing several workout and self-help books that became immediate best sellers; contradicting Gore Vidal’s rather pithy claim, the actress had to read at least a thousand books to be considered ‘lowbrow’. At the apex of this worldwide mania, Barbara Bel Geddes announced the 1983-84 season would be her last as the maternal Miss Ellie. For decades, rumors have run rampant over the reasons why Bel Geddes called it quits. Certainly, the bypass operation she had undergone the previous year did much to slow down the 61-year-old actress. So too, was it speculated Bel Geddes had simply tired of being locked into a reoccurring role. Perhaps, she simply wanted more money to play the part – a request that would most certainly have been denied at the time, as Dallas producers kept extremely tight reigns on the show’s weekly budget. Whatever the reason, Bel Geddes departure left room for speculation. Would she be replaced or killed off? At one point, it appeared as though Larry Hagman’s real-life mother, Broadway legend – Mary Martin, would step into Miss Ellie’s shoes. Instead, producers hired Donna Reed.
Entering the role, Reed had distinct ideas about strengthening the character’s appeal, shaping Miss Ellie along the lines of the wives of oil barons she had known while growing up in Oklahoma. These ladies were often perceived as the real ‘power behind the throne’. Initially signed to a one-year contract, producers extended the lease by two more years as Reed came in to replace Geddes for the 1984-85 season. In the previous year, Miss Ellie had wed Clayton Farlow, Dusty’s uncle (played with aplomb by Hollywood veteran, Howard Keel). And while the Dallas cast had accepted Keel almost without question, warming up to a new ‘mama’ took some time. Arguably, they never did. This much is for certain: audiences never did. The casting of Reed proved a misfire; Bel Geddes’ matronly appeal jarringly replaced by an almost stately glamour. Quite simply, it didn’t work and audiences did not respond well to this ‘new’ matron of Southfork. Worse, as shooting progressed, Reed distinctly suspected someone was trying to force her to quit. She was deprived of her ‘key light’ and photographed in the most unflattering way for several episodes, exaggerating a more haggard appearance. Reed often left the set close to tears; a chronic upset that Katzman tried to assure the actress was not worth it.
By the end of the 1984/85 season, Dallas was about to lose yet another cast member when Charlene Tilton was informed her contract would not be renewed. Katzman allayed the actress’ dismay – somewhat – assuring she had done nothing to bring about her dismissal. The character of Lucy had simply run its course. Naturally, this did little to make the situation better. And Dallas was rocked with another casting crisis when Patrick Duffy publicly announced he too would be departing the series. While Dallas could afford to lose a secondary character like Lucy, the show without Bobby – the perfect foil and sparring partner for J.R. – was quite simply inconceivable. Katzman did everything he could to stave off Duffy’s self-imposed retirement; the actor making it quite clear he had had enough of playing second fiddle to Hagman’s J.R. The real problem with this decision was that without the squeaky-clean Bobby Ewing to play off of, Hagman’s lascivious schemer became the de facto heir to the family business – unfettered in his treacheries. Meanwhile, having witnessed Donna Reed in ‘her’ role, Barbara Bel Geddes made it known she wanted to return to Southfork. What to do? The 1985 cliffhanger shook Dallas fans to their core. After a season of marital upheaval, compounded by a liaison between Bobby and the sultry, Jenna Wade (Pricilla Presley) Pam and Bobby had reconciled, only to have Bobby run down outside of Pam’s home in a mysterious hit and run. As the family gathered by his bedside, Bobby’s vitals flatlined, leaving no room for the prospect he had somehow survived his ordeal. At the end of taping this dour cliffhanger, Katzman reflected – it was time for him to leave the show; his creative differences with Lorimar President, Capice having reached an impasse.
But as Dallas moved on without Bobby Ewing, Patrick Duffy quickly discovered his desire to pursue ‘other’ projects were as ‘dead in the water’. Meanwhile, Donna Reed learned, while on a vacation in Paris with her husband, she too had been terminated; an executive decision made in secrecy that some continue to regard as utterly disgraceful. What no one knew at the time was Reed was gravely ill, having been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. As Barbara Bel Geddes marked her triumphant return to Southfork, Reed quietly retreated from the legal haranguing over the remaining two years left in her contract, and then, on Jan. 14, 1986, died from her illness. Having suffering through the anxiety of a whole season without Bobby Ewing, writers quickly inveigled Pam with a new love interest, Mark Graison (John Beck). They also elected to take several of the series alumni in a completely different direction. For starters, it was decided Ray and his wife, Donna Culver (Susan Howard) should adopt a baby with Downs Syndrome. Writers also softened J.R. Perhaps, partly in response to the AIDS crisis, his womanizing was suddenly out. By the end of the 1986 season, J.R. had devoted himself completely to Sue Ellen, the wife he had emotionally tortured into chronic bouts of alcoholism, deprived of any spousal warmth or even moderate caring, by openly indulging with numerous other partners, and finally, had prevented from running off to marry several other men who might have been better for her.
Alas, these ‘new and improved’ story lines were not exactly what Dallas fans were seeking, and their lack of interest was reflected in a sudden dip in the show’s ratings. For the first time, Dallas’ popularity slipped; surpassed by ABC’s smash soap, Dynasty. The success of Dynasty was not lost on producers, who quickly reasoned part of that show’s meteoric rise was due to the fact it appealed more readily to women – the ‘other half’ of the audience Dallas had pretty much ignored with its male-driven story lines. Actress, Barbara Carrera was brought in to play the part of a ruthless Greek shipping magnet, Angelica Nero – a move that infuriated Larry Hagman. Also, to counterbalance the Dynasty effect, veteran Hollywood costumer, Travilla was hired to glam-up the gals on Dallas. Alas, Travilla was no Nolan Miller (Dynasty’s resident couturier) and the results on Dallas were an extraordinarily garish fashion parade, adding grotesquely mannish shoulder pads to virtually every outfit and teasing the hair of co-stars Linda Gray and Victoria Principal in particular to the point where it began to laughingly resemble a lion’s mane. Worse, the entire nation was still in withdrawal after witnessing Bobby’s death. Patrick Duffy would later recall being constantly approached by tearful fans in parking lots, still unable to separate him from his fictional alter ego.
Meanwhile, Larry Hagman took on Phil Capice in a very public rebuke of his executive producing skills, giving several interviews to TV Guide and People Magazine in which he bashed Capice’s changes to the show and even went so far as to infer Capice had absolutely no talent and no business to have forced Leonard Katzman out of the producer’s chair. Hagman’s clout was at its zenith, and he wielded it like an angry child swinging a baseball bat. Lorimar agreed, offering Katzman the title of Executive Producer, quietly ousting Capice from his ceremonial post. Capice would never return to television. Meanwhile, Katzman went to work rectifying the damage that had been done to his brain child during the interim. And Hagman, true to form, invited Patrick Duffy to his Malibu home for a little tête-à-tête in which the riot act was read. At the end, Duffy agreed he would like to return to Dallas. The trick, of course, was how to do it. Everyone had seen Bobby die. Lorimar offered Duffy a cool million signing bonus and $7500 per episode. Out of desperation, Katzman finally resolved the issue of how to bring Bobby Ewing back to Southfork. Not just his death, but virtually the entire season had been nothing more than a dream; Pam, awakening to find Bobby, and not Mark Graison in the couple’s shower. To keep Bobby’s return a secret from the press, Katzman had Duffy shoot a bogus Irish Spring commercial in the shower, leaking tapes to the press as a distraction.
Even as Patrick Duffy’s return to Dallas sparked giddy excitement among his ardent fans, real-life tragedy conspired to deprive the actor of his triumphant comeback. Duffy’s parents, Terrance and Marie had owned a tavern in Boulder, Montana called The Lounge when they were murdered by a pair of drunken teenagers toting shotguns. The thieves made off with $97 and a bottle of whiskey in a stolen Volkswagen, only to be apprehended barely two hours later. By the time Duffy flew to Montana, the press had already arrived – eager for a sound bite. To its credit, the good people of Boulder stood with Duffy in his grief, effectively ordering the media to leave their city and the star alone as he grappled with their thought-numbing loss. After a brief mourning, Duffy returned, ready to work. But by now, Dallas had begun to show its age. It had been nine seasons since the Ewings altered the prime time television-viewing landscape, and, the plot lines were beginning to get stale. Dallas was one of the most-expense shows to produce. With the dip in ratings, cost-cutting measures needed to be applied. Pruning of the cast was just the beginning to offset the ever-increasing salaries of Larry Hagman, Linda Gray and Patrick Duffy – the three stars without whom the series could not survive…or so it was perceived.
Steve Kanaly was the first casualty at the end of Season 10; his departure, followed by Victoria Principal in Season 11 and then, shockingly, Linda Gray in Season 12; Gray’s one request, to Katzman – she wanted Sue Ellen to depart with grace and dignity. Katzman concurred. Sue Ellen Ewing would exit J.R.’s life, a sadder, but infinitely wiser, and far richer gal – executive of her own company and with a rich new husband on her arm; a very stylish farewell indeed. Inadvertently, Katzman was not nearly as kind to J.R. – affording him a new, and much younger bride, Cally (Cathy Podewell) and infusing the aging cast with ‘fresh blood’ – newcomers who, alas, lacked the staying power to click with fans that, like the fictional characters, had also matured along the way, enough to appreciate the elder statesmen (and women) of the franchise. By the 1990-91 season, Dallas had slipped in the ratings to a point of no return, coming in at #61. As cast and crew assembled to shoot the 2-hour finale for Season 13 – a variation on the ‘never been born’ scenario inspired by It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), Katzman let Patrick Duffy in on a little secret. He already knew the show was not being picked up by CBS in the fall. Predictably, Katzman ended the series with – what else? – a cliffhanger; a despondent J.R., putting a pistol to his temple, and then, off camera, the sound of a gunshot.
When Dallas went off the air it left a huge void in television’s prime time programming. The slick and stylish soap had debuted first and outlived virtually all of the competition that came after it: Dynasty (1981-89), Dynasty II: The Colbys (1987-88), Hotel (1983-88), and, Falcon Crest (1981-90). Only Dallas’ spinoff, Knots Landing would endure, ending its series run in 1993. Patrick Duffy rebounded almost immediately, finding renewed life on television as the doting father on the joyous family sitcom, Step by Step (1991-98), opposite another TV alumni, Three’s Company’s Suzanne Sommers. Now retired, Larry Hagman was quietly enjoying the good life when doctors informed him his decades of high-living had severely compromised his liver. Although Hagman effectively went ‘cold turkey’ on his alcohol consumption, the damage was irreversible. A cancerous tumor was discovered on the diseased organ and Hagman went on the list of patients in desperate need of a new liver. Miraculously, a donor was found in time and Hagman, ever the trooper, underwent surgery, staging a remarkable recovery. In 1996, fueled by a nostalgia for certain beloved TV franchises of the late seventies and early eighties, CBS gambled on a 2-hour Dallas reunion movie to bolster their sagging mid-summer ratings. J.R. resurfaced, wilier and more scheming than ever. The movie was a sizable hit with audiences, prompting CBS to roll the dice again in 1998 on another reunion movie. This time, ratings were not high enough to justify a third visit to the same well. Indeed, in the interim, the world of the primetime soap had been distilled into variations relying on a much younger cast (Beverly Hills 90210 – 1990-2000, and, Melrose Place – 1992-99) with hipper problems and a lot more sex.
For all intent and purposes, Dallas – the original series – had officially hung up its spurs in 1991. Texas, America, and indeed, the world, had seen nothing like it. But with an end to the Reagan era, the momentum for monied happiness that had fueled the series was gone and so were the thrills. The movies that came afterward were but an epitaph to this electrifying moment in television history when cable TV had yet to proliferate and ruin any series’ chances to ever again dominate the Nielsen ratings as Dallas had done for nine out of its thirteen-year run. At its zenith, Dallas commanded nearly sixty percent of TV’s viewing audience on Friday nights; an unheard proliferation that both reflected and helped to shape America’s cultural fabric and social attitudes throughout the late 1970’s and foreshadow virtually all of the 1980’s. There has never been, nor will there ever likely be another Dallas. Much as the ambitious 2012 reboot endeavored to resurrect the glory days of yore, Dallas (2012-14) was a wan ghost flower of its predecessor. The real-life death of Larry Hagman at the end of the first season put a genuine damper on the franchise. Arguably, nothing could overcome this loss. Dallas without J.R. Ewing? Please…and get serious!
Dallas has long been available on DVD from Warner Home Video. Were that I could sing its praises. But Dallas on DVD looks about as ugly and uninspired as anything currently available on home video. It is a real pity no one at Warner recognizes what they have in their possession is more than just another television franchise; but rather, a cultural touchstone. Not only is Dallas the quintessential prime time soap opera, in many ways, its lasting contribution to television ranks very much as small screen art of the highest order. Binge-watching 13 years of Dallas, one can definitely bear witness to its rise to prominence and, sadly, follow its decaying trajectory after Season 9. Today, under similar circumstances, no network would allow any franchise to continue beyond Season 10. And certainly, the last three years of Dallas are hardly up to par for what had once been a programming powerhouse. But Warner’s DVD transfers of virtually all these seasons – and the movies that followed – ranks as some of the spottiest remastering in the business. For starters, Seasons 1-5 exhibit varying issues with color density, color fading and very weak contrast.
Dallas was shot on film – not tape – so overall image fidelity ought to have been much more solid than this, with some instances of remarkable, if intermittent, image clarity. But what’s here frequently suffers from gate weave and wobble during splices and jump cuts. Unfortunately, age-related artifacts are everywhere, and, at times, not only consistent, but consistently heavy and distracting. Clearly, these episodes received a lot of play time over the years. The iconic opening credits fare the absolute worse, looking as though they have been fed through a meat grinder; riddled in a barrage of nicks, chips and scratches, with severe color fading. At times, the image here looks like an old, bleached out 16mm Kodachrome. Certain episodes do not fare much better – the entire palette adopting a green/beige lean with pasty flesh tones. Warner Home Video has added insult to injury by going the quick n’ dirty route, housing these episodes on ‘flipper discs’ that have proven, with time, to come with their own onslaught of technical glitches.
We are not talking about an obscure television franchise unworthy of the necessary care to resurrect it from oblivion. We are speaking of Dallas – the grand-daddy of all night-time soap operas. Quite simply, respect is due and, regrettably, has yet to be paid. In a perfect world, Dallas would have already made the leap to Blu-ray by now. But no, and for shame! The audio herein is 2.0 Dolby Digital mono and mostly adequate for this presentation, with a slightly muffled characteristic from time to time and a few minor instances of hiss and pop. Nothing as egregious as the picture quality and, owing to its source material, largely forgivable, I suppose. I will say this for Warner’s efforts – they have invested a lot of time and energy culling together vintage featurettes, as well as producing a handful of exclusive extras, cumulatively to cover the Dallas phenomenon from every conceivable angle. The extras are comprehensive and very much appreciated. But they do not excuse the horrendous video quality on display here.
There are so many fine performances in Dallas, so many iconic moments and inspired cliffhangers, to simply offer up the whole affair in barely tolerable DVD quality seems more an insult to fans and a series that, despite its absence from public view in syndication on TV, still commands our respect and is able to rekindle fond memories from those old enough to have experienced this iconic chapter in TV history the first time around. What can I tell you? It was the eighties – a fabulously garish and glitzy decade where anything went and everything seemed possible. Dallas fed into the national verve for better times on the horizon and proved, unequivocally, that the wealthy – although living by a decidedly different set of rules – nevertheless, were never entirely content with their lot in life. In preparing this review, I have read far too many postmortem epitaphs on Dallas, unflatteringly describing it as ‘a relic’ best left to rose-colored reflections that, in actuality, veered more closely to ‘trash’ than ‘art’ – as Jacobs had feared at the start of his alliance with Katzman. And yet, those quick to label the franchise as such are quietly forgetting that while trash is quickly expelled from the public consciousness, Dallas has never entirely left ours for a single moment since it went off the air. Mention just the call letters, ‘J.R.’ in mixed company and almost anyone today will instantly know to whom you are referring.
The longevity of the series – particularly as, outside of the 2012 reboot, it has largely remained out of sight since 1991, is impressive to say the least. Dallas lives on, perhaps because it speaks to a broader, more heartily lived decade where optimism reigned supreme. Dallas was larger-than-life, as America in the 1980’s sincerely hoped to be – and for many – was, that shining beacon on the hill, so described by President Ronald Reagan. As the yellow rose of Texas, Dallas has long since proven a perennial blossom in television’s firmament; a moniker for a way of telling grandiose stories on a sprawling canvas, with intelligence, wit, and a little sex thrown in for good measure. Audiences of their day loyally tuned in to find out what came next in this familial saga. With the advent of home video, mercifully, we can rediscover what all the fuss was about for ourselves. But Dallas deserves far better than these tired ole DVD’s. Will it ever receive its due? And what are the consequences to our small screen cultural heritage if it does not? Hmmm. These are questions I sincerely hope future generations never have to address. For now, all that remains of those gala days in Texas are these badly worn transfers. If there is a petition to be signed for the preservation and restoration of Dallas on home video, then let us sign it – today! Permit yours truly to lead this charge! Yee-haw, from Texas! Y’all come back now, y’hear?