While the Ewings of Dallas did not become the most popular family in the history of television for their maturity (and J.R. was a factor—to say the least), the series did pivot around the portrayal of its gruff patriarch, Jock, by barbed-wire-voiced actor Jim Davis. Indeed, when Davis died last week at 65, three weeks after abdominal surgery for a perforated ulcer, the producers determined that he could not be replaced. (His role won’t be recast, unless the writers’ strike prevents revision of completed scripts.) As stunned colleagues told each other tearfully, Jim Davis created such a forceful Jock Ewing only because his own courage had been forged in tough times and personal tragedy. On the Dallas set, he was paternal to some, protector to others, beloved by all.
“He was a great surrogate father, a lovely man to work with, and I loved him,” said Larry (J.R.) Hagman, traveling in Scotland when told of Davis’ death. “I’m very sad, and I shall miss him.” Declared Dallas producer-director Leonard Katzman, a friend of 25 years: “He was the most accessible man I ever met. I never saw him mean or cruel to anyone.” Linda (Sue Ellen) Gray knew that well. “The first day on the set,” she remembers, “he gave me a big hug and made sure that everyone knew I was his friend. And that counted.” To Victoria (Pam) Principal, he was a kindly Dutch uncle who mock-growled about a new beau: “Who the hell is this guy and why haven’t I had a chance to look him over?”
The son of an Edgerton, Mo. undertaker, Davis came to Hollywood in the early 1940s as a motor oil salesman. He soon began landing parts that typed him as “the cut-rate John Wayne” for Westerns like The Fabulous Texan and Jubilee Trail. During slumps, he hustled real estate or freezers and worked as a construction laborer. “I never sat on my rear,” he boasted. “I was always out there doing something.”
The roles came regularly—some 150 movies and 300 TV shows—but they never added up to stardom. Family was his real security; Jim and his wife of 36 years, Blanche, a former singer, took special joy in Tara, their only child. When she died in a car crash at 15, Davis was devastated. “I didn’t think I’d ever get over it,” he reflected later. “I’d look at her picture and begin to cry and go have a drink. Finally I realized that drinking wasn’t going to help. Only time. Time is the healer.”
On the Dallas set, Charlene (Lucy) Tilton—only 18 when the series began—seemed to occupy a special place in his affections. “Jim was really like my granddaddy,” remembers Charlene, who grew up fatherless. “He and Blanche were the ones I went to when I was in trouble. Jim was the kindest man I ever knew.”
Though in frequent pain from ulcers and reportedly under treatment for a brain tumor, Davis reveled in the long-delayed success that he finally achieved as Jock. Remembers Katzman: “He told me once he would never turn down an autograph because he’d worked damn hard to get to the point where people asked for one.” Still, he didn’t pack up his 36 pairs of cowboy boots and leave the San Fernando Valley for Beverly Hills just because he suddenly could afford to. “Aw, hell, I’m too old to change,” shrugged Jim last year. “I still have my same wife and live in my same house.” It was there that Davis once leaned against an old fruit tree in his backyard—and it just plain toppled. “It upset him so much he wrote a poem about it,” Katzman recalls. “I can’t quote it, but it was something about ‘That tree was 100 years old, and it bore fruit and bore fruit. And then one day, the son of a bitch just fell over.’ Jim was shocked, hurt and really stricken,” says Katzman. “And so now are we.”