By Sue Reilly
July 14, 1980 12:00 PM

It was a sneaky, lowdown masterstroke worthy of Dallas‘ dastardly J.R. Ewing himself: Take the star villain of TV’s most passion-stirring series, pump two slugs into him on the season’s last episode in March, and make 160 million fans in 57 countries fidget for six months to find out whodunit. It was an awful thing to do, and J.R. himself couldn’t be more pleased. “Aw, hell,” drawls actor Larry Hagman, who made the oil baron so eminently deserving of his fate. “We’ve set up the most successful cliff-hanger in the history of television.”

He can be forgiven the hype. It was a heartlessly brilliant ploy which, on the night of the assassination attempt itself, led to the highest rating of any show this year except for the Super Bowl. The subsequent and unprecedented speculation about J.R.’s unseen assailant suggests that the early fall Nielsens could go even higher—CBS will not reveal the culprit until the third week of the new season.

In the meantime, a quickie single record titled Who Shot J.R.? is heading toward gold. J.R. T-shirts are practically outselling Lacoste, and bookies in London have taken wagers on the identity of the gunman (or -woman). In Dallas itself the only thing hotter than the series’ secret was the 114° weather as location shooting for the new season began. J.R. FOR PRESIDENT bumper stickers outnumbered those for Carter and Reagan, and one day when radio stations tipped off listeners to a filming site, traffic was tied up for 15 miles on a highway near the show’s leased Southfork Ranch. Neighbors who at first enjoyed the notoriety are now furious about the crowds that use their lawns as parking lots.

Then, at the height of the frenzy, a script exposing J.R.’s nemesis was reported stolen from the Culver City, Calif., HQ of Lorimar, Dallas‘ production company. Lorimar execs, who had previously even shredded key memos after reading them, swore it was no publicity stunt. Indeed, several days later the publisher of L.A.’s Herald-Examiner turned over the purloined document without revealing the contents or who had taken it. Still, there were enough decoy scripts written and alternate endings filmed so that no member of the cast knew the denouement for sure. (The only staffers privy to the secret were executive producers Lee Rich and Philip Capice, producer Len Katzman, executive story editor Arthur Bernard Lewis and story editor Camille Marchetta.) “We’re going to do everything in our power to keep the audience guessing until the show airs,” declares Katzman. (In the meantime, PEOPLE has buttonholed some famous Texans—page 90—for their guess, and invites its readers to participate in the fun on the attached form.)

At the focus of the folderol, and reveling in it, was Hagman himself, who cheerfully wielded his new Nielsen leverage to rocket his pay to a reported $75,000 per episode. More than once in the negotiations, Lorimar hinted that it could just as easily write him out of the series and exposed enough film to prove it. The gambit: having the wounded J.R. badly burned in an ambulance wreck en route to the hospital. Then, following plastic surgery, J.R. would emerge looking exactly like Hagman’s designated replacement—said to be Robert Culp.

By that point Hagman felt that the producers’ offer was just and ended his 10-day holdout. “I’ll tell you, I feel compassion for the rich—now that I’m one of them,” he smiles before making a naked play for international sympathy. “You have to realize I’m going to be 49 soon, and this is my fourth series. It’s not going to last forever,” he continues, “and I hope to sit out the next down period with a certain equanimity. Life,” he observes, “is like a slide trombone—high notes and low notes. But I’m getting to the stage where I just enjoy the hell out of what I’m doing.”

During hiatus and holdout, that meant jaunts to Nassau and Britain. While in England, he traded his Stetson for top hat and cutaway and inadvertently upstaged Queen Elizabeth at the terribly proper Ascot opening day. “Every time we walked around,” recalls Maj, his wife of 25 years, “I could feel 2,000 pairs of binoculars focused on us.” For Hagman, who once played the English stage with his mother, Broadway legend Mary Martin, it was a reminder of time passing. “I’ve been around so long,” old Larry noted, “that the Queen came to see me in South Pacific—and she was a princess then.” Although he won more than $9,000 on a 40-1 bet at the races—and gave $1,400 to the widow of the horse’s namesake, a butler—his own Who-Shot-J.R. hunch has even longer odds. “I think,” winks Hagman, harking back to his I Dream of Jeannie days, “that it was Barbara Eden.”

His cast colleagues are equally in the dark. As they gathered in Dallas’ swelter for the new season, producer Katzman offered the waiting world one clue: “The assailant will be someone that the audience has seen or heard about. It won’t be somebody that J.R. discovered robbing the Ewing office.” It was also leaked that J.R.’s abused dipso-nympho wife, Sue Ellen (Linda Gray), would be booked by police in the second show. But did she really do it? And will Dallas cruelly prolong the suspense by hiding the gunman’s identity until even later than the promised third show? The answer comes not with a Ewing-esque smirk but in earnest Nixonian tones appropriate to this tale of power, money and revenge. “We could do that,” says a CBS spokesman. “But that would be wrong.”