Hats Off to 10 Years of Dallas!

Once upon a time, there was an oilman in Texas who made his family business everybody’s business. His name was J.R. Ewing, and when he was good, which was about once every other season, he was very good. But when he was bad, he vas better. Ten years ago this week the American public got its first glimpse of J.R., and it was love-hate at first sight. At the time, TV was ruled by jiggle shows and lowbrow sitcoms. But with the April 2, 1978, premiere of Dallas on CBS, J R. Ewing brought greed into prime time and made villainy sexy—in short, prepared Americans for the realities of the 1980s. The show became a sensation, landing in the Nielsen Top 10 most of its years and regularly drawing Friday night audiences of 30 million to 40 million. When J.R. was shot in March 1980—prime-time TV’s first season-ending cliff-hanger—the audience totaled 300 million in 57 countries. In West Germany, a ballet troupe produced a work inspired by the episode. In Turkey, parliament members cut short a meeting to watch the show. There were more humdingers over the years—one whole season, for instance, turned out to have been a dream—and Dallas changed television forever.

When Larry Hagman took the role of J.R., he was best known as the man who’d never seen Barbara Eden’s navel during the five-year run of I Dream of Jeannie. With the creation of J.R., however, he found more than the character of a lifetime, he found a phenomenon to mine. On a recent afternoon in Malibu, Hagman sat on the deck of his home and flipped through the Dallas family album with Los Angeles bureau chief Scot Haller, recalling the high points, low points and low-down deeds of the Ewing clan.

In the beginning there was the word, but I wasn’t reading it. Two scripts had been sent to me. One was Dallas. The other was The Waverly Wonders, which was about a basketball team or something. Joe Namath did it ultimately. I started reading The Waverly Wonders because it was a half-hour comedy and that was my forte at the time. And from the other room I heard Maj [Hagman’s wife of 34 years] whoop, “Whow-wee! This is it!” She told me to read the first nine pages. So I did. Now back then everybody on TV was a goody-goody, but here was this mean son of a bitch they wanted me to play. I said to Maj, “That’s the kind of TV I want to do.”

Maj was sure it would be a hit, but I still wasn’t. Despite I Dream of Jeannie, I knew the vagaries of TV. Maybe one out of three shows go. But not long after the show started, I got an inkling of what Dallas would be. Maj and I had gone to China. We were standing in an elevator in Beijing, and from behind me someone says, “Who’s minding Southfork?” It was an American tourist, and I knew then and there that something had grabbed the public.

Dallas wasn’t an instant success. At the beginning, I think, the show ranked 58th. Then it started to climb, and what happened was just incredible. America was in the middle of a major recession, you have to remember. During the Depression people loved to see movies about rich people. And it was the same all over again in the late ’70s. When we premiered, nobody had any money, so they had to stay in and watch TV. It was cheap entertainment to watch these rich people.

Everybody always wants to know where I got the idea to play J.R. as such a smiling son of a bitch. Hell, I grew up in Texas, so I knew all those old boys down there and how they operate. You attract more flies with honey than with vinegar. Actually, I did base J.R. on one guy I knew. He kept a nice happy façade going so people always thought he knew something. But I’ll never tell his name. It wouldn’t be fair to him. And he carries a gun.

Looking back over the years, the cast has gone through everything offscreen that the Ewings endured onscreen. Divorces, deaths, marriages, illness. And that has meant we really have become a family. When Linda Gray separated from her husband after 20-something years of marriage, she was living out at the beach near us. Maj and I kind of adopted her. She was here at the house nearly every day. We’d call her first thing in the morning to make sure she was all right, we’d make sure she had dinner every night. As far as I’m concerned, Dallas has always been about the family.

That’s why the hardest blow was when Jim Davis, who played Jock Ewing, died back in 1981. Everybody knew he was going. He had cancer everywhere. He smoked five packs of cigarettes a day. I got him to stop once, but when he knew he was dying, he said, “The hell with it.” He worked until a month before he died, although he was very, very weak. He was under chemotherapy, and all his hair had fallen out and he was wearing a wig. He couldn’t even lift himself up from the dining-room table, but he’d do all of his scenes.

Jim and I had sort of a father-son relationship. I used to joke on the set, and he’d get ticked off at me. “Goddamn smart ass son of a bitch,” he’d say. “This is business we’re doing here. Stop messing around. Do you hear me, boy?” We used to call him “Goomba” because before every take, he’d clear his throat and make this horrible noise that sounded like “goom-ba.” And when he died I sent a wreath that said “Goodbye Goom-ba.”

He was a great old guy. I remember going on Dinah’s Place—Dinah Shore’s talk show—with the cast, and Dinah made the mistake of saying, “Anybody want a drink before we start?” Jim was drinking straight vodka out of a coffee cup, and we got absolutely bleep-faced. I brought out hats for everybody on the air, and we started to march around. Well, Jim hits Dinah on her bad knee, and she screams, “Oh, my God!” He says, “Honey, let me fix that for you.” With the cameras rolling, he gets down and starts to kiss her knee, then shoves his hand up her dress. There was mayhem all over the place. God, he was fun. We were never asked back on Dinah’s Place.

Besides Jim’s death, the other shock I had was when Barbara Bel Geddes decided to leave after 1983. I didn’t find out about it until it was a fait accompli, which ticked me off no end. I really felt that if I’d just been told, I could have done something about it. Barbara and I have a great relationship. We’ll be on location, and I’ll have to talk her into going out for a drink, then I won’t be able to get her to go home until 2 in the morning. I was crushed when she decided to leave the show.

And when she decided to come back a season later, I was ecstatic. Of course I was sorry for Donna Reed, who had replaced Barbara. Donna didn’t find out that she was being let go until she got off a plane in Europe and reporters told her. That was unforgivable. Absolutely unforgivable. I’ll always regret the way that was handled. Donna [who died of pancreatic cancer in 1986] was devastated. I don’t think she ever trusted anybody after that.

Like any family, we’ve had so many comings and goings over 10 years. The only person I could really understand leaving was Victoria Principal. She wanted out. She felt she’d reached a point where she really wanted to do something else. For an actress, at a certain age, unless you become a great character actress, your career is shorter than an actor’s. And looking the way she does, Victoria has another career ahead of her, while I essentially don’t. I’m 56 and she’s—I don’t know what age she is. We’ve never been able to find out.

The toughest departure for me was when Patrick Duffy decided to leave at the end of the 1985 season. It was the toughest because I knew it was coming, and I couldn’t stop him. After he left he sent me a tape. On it, Bobby was being buried, and Patrick was saying in a squeaky voice, “Hello, Larry, I’m in here. Hey, let me out. It’s cold in here. Let me out.” I really didn’t have as much fun after he left. I missed him always accusing me of being a cheap son of a bitch. Which is why I called him up about coming back a year later. He came over to the house here, and we sat in the hot tub. I thought it was so great that we were having this conversation alone, just the two of us, top secret. Then we go across the road to a Mexican restaurant for margaritas, and when we walk in, the hostess says, “Oh, my God, it is true. I heard on the radio that you were trying to talk Mr. Duffy into coming back.” We’ve always had a problem keeping things secret on this show.

Except of course for the best thing we ever did, “Who Shot J.R.?” Nothing will ever top that show. Everybody wanted to know who did it. I knew it was Kristin [Mary Crosby], my TV wife’s sister, because I’d seen the final cut. I had a consortium of newspapers in Europe offer me $250,000 to tell them, but had to act like I didn’t know. Of course if they had gone to half a million, I’d have done it.

As big a deal as the cliff-hanger was in America, it was even bigger in Europe. That summer I went to England for the royal command performance celebrating the Queen Mother’s 80th birthday. At the time it seemed like I could spin anything off of J.R. I had even recorded a couple of songs. I think the public bought three copies. Anyway, for this London performance I was supposed to sing My Favorite Things, which Mother [Mary Martin] had done in The Sound of Music. I’d done that song a thousand times and never gotten it right one goddamn time. For this event I had Henry Mancini conducting the orchestra. There’s a choir of 15 offstage. I have 47 people backing me up. This is my big moment. So I go out on stage and halfway through, not one lyric comes to mind. I’m in front of a full house, including the royal family, and I have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing. I start again, blank out on the lyrics once more and say, “Well, if you’re going to blow it, blow it big. Sorry, ma’am.” Afterward Prince Charles came backstage and said, “You really were a bomb out there tonight, weren’t you?” And then the Queen Mother said, “Now I want you to tell me, young man, who shot J.R.?” And I said, “Not even for you, ma’am.”

One of the big attractions about J.R., of course, is his women. You know, there’s a good reason you’ve seen J.R. in more bedrooms than boardrooms. Boardrooms cost money. You’ve got to have 30 actors in there. You’ve only got to have one actress in a bedroom. So far. Well, I did direct a scene with Pamela and her girlfriend and a guy. It was a setup that J.R. had photographed as a ménage à trois. Veronica Hamel played the girlfriend. Victoria Principal and Veronica Hamel. That did give me ideas.

We ought to get an actuary and count up how many mistresses J.R. has had. And how many times he’s been shot. I’ve been shot at least half a dozen times. Twice in the back. Once in the leg. Another time in the side. It’d be funny to do a nude photo of all the scars all over my body. I’d be one bleeping bandage.

When Dynasty came along in 1981, there was a lot of talk about Dallas vs. Dynasty, but I think it all came from their camp. It never got in my way. I think I’ve only seen Dynasty once or twice. It’s very glitzy with some wonderful, funny things in it. We have J.R., and they have—what’s her name? Alexis? Actually, I used to date Joan Collins in London. She was 17 and I was 19. You cannot believe how beautiful that girl was. God, she was glorious. But as she got to be 18 or so, she started to get some good parts and meet all the famous actors. I got shunted to the side.

After Dynasty became such a hit, we started doing things on the show like introducing international intrigue. But the people out there want to see the Ewing family together. I swear they do. That’s why I could never understand why the producers dropped Charlene Tilton [who departed in 1985]. Good, bad or indifferent, she was part of the Ewing family. The viewers don’t want the Barbara Carreras and all the jet-set bull. In the heart of this country it just doesn’t go. I hated that plot line. You move the Ewing family out of that house, and it’s not Dallas anymore. I don’t think we’ll have that back again.

I would have thought by now Dallas would have petered out somewhat. But I hope we can get a couple more years out of it. I know a lot of TV actors get terrified of getting trapped in a hit show. Maybe I’m lazy, but I’m happy doing what I do. Sure, I worry about typecasting. After 10 years on this show, it will be difficult for people to accept me in another role. But there’s always plastic surgery.

Sooner or later Dallas will ride off into the sunset, just like everything else. But whatever happens, I know what I want on J.R.’s tombstone. It should say: “Here lies upright citizen J.R. Ewing. This is the only deal he ever lost.”

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