The Big D
America had never seen anything like Dallas. It captured viewers with its tales of wealthy schemers and sparked a new genre, the primetime soap.
Who shot J.R.? In the summer of 1980, that question was on the minds of people around the world — even people who didn't watch Dallas, the primetime soap opera whose shocking season-three cliffhanger had villainous oil mogul J.R. Ewing felled by gunshots from an unseen assailant.
The answer was revealed the following fall, in an episode watched by nearly 360 million viewers globally. It is still the third most-watched episode in broadcast history.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the CBS series' April 1978 premiere. The original Dallas aired for 14 seasons and was rated number one in three of them. The action revolved around the Ewings, a wealthy, dysfunctional family who, by way of a fortune made in oil and cattle, lived on sprawling Southfork Ranch outside Dallas.
From the get-go, Larry Hagman stole the show with his charismatic portrayal of elder son J.R. Ewing, a scheming, adulterous snake whom viewers loved to hate. The role stood in stark contrast to the one Hagman — son of musical-comedy legend Mary Martin — played in I Dream of Jeannie from 1965 to 1970. On that sitcom, he was an astronaut and the "master" of a genie played by Barbara Eden, who, much to Hagman's off-screen frustration, garnered most of the attention.
In its 356 episodes, Dallas was jam-packed with illicit affairs, shady business deals, violence and shocking deaths. The show was also famed for its on-set high jinks, led by jokester extraordinaire Hagman.
There was backstage intrigue, too: power struggles, contract disputes, budget cuts and actor firings.
David Jacobs was a writer on the ABC drama Family, which was about southern California suburbanites. A former journalist, he had a development deal at Lorimar, and he pitched a series to CBS about four families in a California cul-de-sac. But the network wanted a glitzy ensemble show far bigger in scope — akin to the 1956 epic feature Giant — and Jacobs immediately came up with Dallas. His earlier idea eventually surfaced as Knots Landing, a spinoff that aired from 1979 to 1993.
Dallas was initially a Romeo-and-Juliet tale of two feuding oil families, but Hagman's J.R. quickly moved to the forefront. Linda Gray played his suffering, alcohol-abusing wife, Sue Ellen. Patrick Duffy played Bobby, J.R.'s younger brother (as honorable as J.R. was corrupt), who was wed to glamorous Pamela (Victoria Principal). Charlene Tilton portrayed Lucy, J.R. and Bobby's wild teenage niece. At the head of the family were Jock (Jim Davis) and "Miss Ellie" (Barbara Bel Geddes, the only lead to win an Emmy for her role). Ken Kercheval played Cliff Barnes, Pamela's brother and J.R.'s main nemesis.
With the exception of season eight, Dallas was produced, and often written and directed, by Leonard Katzman, who had produced Gunsmoke and The Wild Wild West.
Most exteriors were shot in Dallas, while interiors were filmed on the old MGM lot in Culver City, California. However, the Southfork backyard set was re-created at MGM, complete with swimming pool.
With ratings sliding, the series' final episode saw J.R. put a revolver to his head. A gunshot rang out, but a 1996 Dallas reunion movie revealed that J.R. had actually fired at a mirror.
In 2012, a reboot about third-generation Ewings brought Hagman back to Southfork, along with Gray, Duffy, Kercheval and Tilton. The series aired for three seasons on TNT. Emmy contributor Jane Wollman Rusoff interviewed members of the original cast and crew for memories of this iconic series. Larry Hagman died in 2012; his quotes are from an interview Rusoff conducted two years earlier.
PATRICK DUFFY: From the first day we met as a cast and I shook Larry Hagman's hand, I thought, "This is my best friend." He came in dressed in fringe and leather and wearing a big cowboy hat, with saddlebags over his shoulder brimming with bottles of champagne. He was the Pied Piper from that moment on. I called him Haggy.
I couldn't wait to get to work every morning. I'd get in early, go to Larry's room and open a bottle of champagne. We'd have a drink and then start the day.
Larry was a hippie. He lived in a converted Weber's bread truck with a hammock and as much marijuana as he thought he could get away with. He had a giant cooler where he kept his champagne. He didn't have a lot of money until Dallas. He'd just drive around in that truck, wherever he wanted, drinking champagne.
STEVE KANALY (played Ray Krebbs, directed): Larry saw Dallas as an opportunity and tried to build a team, with him as captain. He enlisted us to do every bit of press we possibly could to garner attention for the show.
Lucy Ewing was always the seductress. She was a little sex kitten. Ray Krebbs was a pedophile — but everybody kind of overlooked that.
SHEREE WILSON (played April Stevens): The first day I walked on the set, Larry goes, "So, do you know your jokes?" I go, "My jokes?" He says, "Your lines, darling."
"Oh, yes. I memorized everybody's lines." He goes, "Oh, fuck off!"
BARBARA EDEN (played Lee Ann De La Vega): Larry was directing when I did my first scene. I was wearing a pink suit, the color of my Jeannie costume. The door of the elevator opened, and I walked out. Larry said, "Oh, my God! It's all happening again!"
My character was a conniver who took over Ewing Oil. J.R. and Lee Ann were both very aggressive. It wasn't like on Jeannie, where I was his genie, and he played my master. On Dallas, we were at each other's throats — and I won.
MARY CROSBY (played Kristin Shepard): The first day of shooting, I had to come out of a swimming pool and dry myself off seductively. But I just clutched the towel, and the director said, "Come on. You have to do this!" So the next take, when I stepped out of the pool, Larry had put a banana down his pants, his eyes were crossed and he was drooling. I realized I was going to be just fine.
MICHAEL PREECE (director): When Larry couldn't remember his lines, he'd get very funny and blame everything, like, "Oh, God, that wind — it threw me off."
Larry wouldn't be photographed with his shirt off for the sex scenes. His legs were good, but he was always fighting a weight problem.
Barbara Bel Geddes was very funny and liked to swear. [She died in 2005.]
Jim Davis [who died in 1981] was a non-actor actor. He'd say, "Keep it simple. I don't like to walk and talk." When he was so sick with cancer, he couldn't get up from the table. He did his dialogue seated, and we had to have a photo double for him standing up and walking out.
LINDA GRAY: Between takes, Larry would put me on the back of his little scooter — the kind you pump with one leg — and we'd go around the lot, popping into everybody's soundstage. We were like five-year-olds at recess, except that I was wearing high heels and shoulder pads.
VICTORIA PRINCIPAL: I chose to renegotiate my contract so that I could limit how many bathing suits and teddies I was photographed in each season, because I felt they'd written at least one of each into every episode — and I was, kind of, done with that.
CHARLENE TILTON: I snuck into the studio and begged them to let me read for the part. Finally, they said okay, but they wouldn't give me a script or sides to study. So, when [the casting director's] assistant was at lunch, I went into her office and took the script.
LARRY HAGMAN: People assumed I was like J.R., but people who know me know I'm not like him.
GRAY: I researched Sue Ellen by walking around Neiman Marcus to see how the women of Dallas dressed. I'd go to the beauty salon there and listen to what they were talking about.
KEN KERCHEVAL: I wanted to play Ray Krebbs, the ranch hand, because I already had played a lawyer so damn many times. So, I got to audition for both roles. Afterward, I had a call from my agent: "Congratulations. You got the part. You're playing the lawyer."
KANALY: I wanted to quit the show because, after a while, it didn't have anything to do with Ray. I felt stuck. Larry and I had a beer and talked about it. He said, "We'll find a new storyline for Ray." I looked a lot like Jim Davis, so they came up with the idea that I was Jock's biological son. Once Ray became a Ewing, I had plenty to do.
TILTON: At the beginning, Lucy was having an affair with Ray Krebbs. Years later, they discovered that Ray was Jock's son. I said, "Doesn't that mean that Lucy and Ray… ?" They said, "Well, we're just going to ignore that." And I went, "Oooo-kay."
DAVID PAULSEN (producer, writer, director): Originally, J.R. was written as a really tough, vicious son of a bitch. But Larry did the role with charm and humor. That's why J.R. wasn't a guy you hated. He was a guy you loved to hate.
PRINCIPAL: Today, we'd call [ J.R.] a sociopath. He was bad, yet you felt drawn to him.
AUDREY LANDERS (played Afton Cooper): Cliff Barnes and I had a tumultuous love affair that went on for years. The fans were constantly writing in: "Why do you stay with Cliff? He doesn't deserve you!"
MORGAN BRITTANY (played Katherine Wentworth): My look came from the [Evil] Queen in Snow White. The makeup artist lined my blue eyes in black. Larry would always say, "I can't look at those wolf eyes! I forget everything I'm supposed to say."
The viewers hated Katherine. At the height of the breakup that I was orchestrating between Pam and Bobby, a woman in the grocery store slammed me with her shopping cart: "You'd better leave Bobby alone!"
JOE HAILEY (head of makeup): We used very heavy makeup, because Leonard Katzman [who died in 1996] wanted to make everybody as glamorous as possible. He always said, "This isn't real life. It's Dallas." Very few people wore cowboy hats in Dallas, but we did on the show.
CHERI MINNS (head makeup artist): Charlene was a handful: No matter what makeup you did for her, she always went to her dressing room and packed on more.
With Larry, it was trimming his eyebrows, but not too much. He wanted them to stick out. We waxed them so they'd go up. He loved that, because it made him look more devilish.
WRITING AND DIRECTING
DAVID JACOBS: The original concept was that J.R. was to get rid of Pamela, preventing her marriage to Bobby. She was the enemy, because J.R. knew that Bobby wasn't strong enough on his own and that she would be the force behind him. But Pamela wasn't a weighty enough character to be scary to J.R.; Victoria didn't project that kind of strength. She projected sex. So Larry, as J.R., stepped into that void. Her weakness made him strong.
MITCHELL KATZMAN (coproducer, writer; son of the late Leonard Katzman): Dallas was an easy show to write because you could almost hear the characters talking in your head. Larry was probably the funniest to write for. All you had to do was think of the meanest, coolest things to say.
PREECE: A lot of stories came from Lenny's family and his friends' families. That's how he got his ideas, and he openly said that.
WILSON: Lenny would write episodes according to where his wife, LaRue, wanted to travel. She wanted to go to Paris and Austria, so Bobby and April had their engagement in Vienna and their honeymoon in Paris. It was the greatest job.
PAULSEN: It was a male-driven show. And, in a way, that's what made it work. We were, sort of, doing Giant.
CAMILLE MARCHETTA (story editor, writer): I'm flummoxed that people said it was a male show. I saw it as a family drama. It was male-driven because of the cattle, the ranch, oil, infidelities. But the reason the audience watched was because the human emotions were so relatable.
GRAY: It was a man's show: male writers, male producers, mostly male directors. It was focused on men, the business, the cheating. The women characters reacted to what the men did. When I went in for contract negotiations, I said, "I'm bored with my character drinking and having affairs." I told them I had studied directing and that I'd like to direct one show. Patrick and Larry had already directed.
"Is this all you want? You don't want any money?" [Katzman] asked.
"Yes, all I want is to direct." And he said,
Larry went nuts. He said, "If she goes, I go." So, they invited me back and asked me to direct an episode. The script had a costume ball, policemen, live German shepherd dogs and a sunrise over Martinique. I knew they wanted to bury me. But I did it, and the episode got great ratings. I directed about four more and loved it.
WHY SHOOT J.R.?
DUFFY: After we had the ending of that third season all planned, the network ordered more episodes at the last minute, because the ratings and money were so good. We needed to invent a different cliffhanger. In the writers' room, someone said, "Why don't we shoot somebody?" And everybody wanted to shoot J.R.
We knew there would be "spies" on the set who would spill the beans, so we shot a lot of red herrings of actors and even the crew shooting him.
Mary Crosby's character, Kristin [Sue Ellen's sister, who was having an affair with J.R.], turned out to be the one who really did it. Larry always laughed, "God, Bing Crosby's daughter shot Peter Pan's son!"
PAULSEN: We didn't know who did it till we decided much later in the year. We figured out the character that was dispensable — and it was Kristin.
TILTON: [Director] Irving Moore called me onto the set and said, "Hold the gun and just say, 'Take that and that and that, you schmuck!'" I knew it wasn't me, because Lucy would never say "schmuck."
PRINCIPAL: When I was shooting Larry, he had saliva running down his face and off his chin. I thought that I couldn't possibly be the murderer, because nobody laughs that hard when they're killing someone.
GRAY: My kids hated to be out with me that summer, because everybody would come up to us and say, "I know you're tired of hearing this — but who shot J.R.?"
HAGMAN: I didn't know who shot J.R.! I had been offered $250,000 by a European newspaper syndicate if I told them. But I was negotiating a new contract at the time and holding out for more money. It was so much more than if I sold that information for $250,000. I could have told them anybody shot J.R., and they would have spent their money. But it would have jeopardized my contract negotiations.
CROSBY: Larry was the first one who said, "I'm the key player on this show, and you need to pay me properly." He wasn't holding out because he felt secure. He just threw the dice, and it worked.
DUFFY: While the world was asking, "Who shot J.R.?," Larry was in the Bahamas. Lorimar and CBS thought he was in Europe and couldn't reach him. But he and I talked on the phone two or three times a week. He asked, "Are they getting nervous?" I said, "Oh, yeah. They're peeing their pants."
He got what he wanted [reportedly $100,000 per episode], and the next season it was understood that [all the other principals] would have to renegotiate, because it was an ensemble show, even though Larry was the king.
GRAY: Sue Ellen is drinking with a bag lady in an alley. It took 20 minutes in hair and makeup as opposed to two hours. They just put some oily stuff on my hair to make it look unwashed and a bit of dark makeup under my eyes. They bought two Valentino skirts for me to wear, because they had to rip one.
PRINCIPAL: We filmed all the exterior scenes, including the winter scenes, in Dallas in the summer. We'd be dressed up in heavy winter coats, winter hats — and it would be 106 degrees, plus we had the heat from the lights. It was like acting in a sauna.
DEBORAH SHELTON (played Mandy Winger): Mandy was having lunch in a box in Texas Stadium, when it was, like, 9,000 degrees. It was supposed to be wintertime, and I had on a wool dress. My hair needed to be rolled five times, it was so humid. I don't drink, but when they put real champagne in my glass, I just kept sipping — and sliding down in my seat like a wet noodle.
From that day on, when Mandy went out to dinner, the script said, "And Mandy orders a soft drink."
KANALY: On my first episode, I came down from the hayloft, having been with Lucy, and I'm sort of tucking my shirt into my jeans. It was a little acting thing. So, Standards and Practices sends a note saying, "Would you please have Mr. Kanaly refrain from what looks like arranging his genitals?"
WILSON: Filming in both Dallas and L.A. was murder for continuity. Once, in Dallas, Linda thought she was done with a scene and cut her hair short. But when we got back to L.A., she found she had to do more of the scene. So, she walked into the elevator with long hair and walked out with short hair.
TILTON: My favorite storyline was when Lucy was engaged to Kit Mainwaring [played by Mark Wheeler], from a big oil family. But he was gay and trying to hide it. He finally admitted to Lucy, "I'm a homosexual." They couldn't say "gay" on television back then.
FUN AND GAMES
HAGMAN: Backstage in Culver City, we had eight-foot-square dressing rooms built in the '20s in the passageway between two big soundstages. Down the hall, they had bathrooms, with one modified for people with wheelchairs. I was in there one day and got this knock on the door. They said, "Who's in there?"
I said, "I am. I'm doing my business here." They said, "Well, I'm in a wheelchair. I've got to get in right away."
I said, "I'm terribly sorry. It's impossible. I'm in the middle of this job I'm doing." He kept going on and on. When I finally came out, he said, "I'm going to report you to OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration]. What's your name?"
"Patrick Duffy," I said. "And go fuck yourself!"
GRAY: We'd cringe before we did the dinner-table scenes. They were interminable, because they had to do so many shots. It was bedlam, though. And it got funnier and funnier, because everybody was tired and wanted to go home. Barbara would say, "Stop it. Stop. Stop it." That would make everybody laugh hysterically, and we'd imitate her. We'd get silly and giddy, and finally the director would say we had to stop.
PRINCIPAL: Patrick would do things in the bedroom scenes that were outrageous. Once, he had a prop man lie on the floor at the foot of the bed and slowly but surely push a mannequin leg between us. I thought the largest hard-on on Earth had just crept up my thigh.
DUFFY: Larry would sometimes bite a big chunk of onion right before a kissing scene. He was the most nervous on-screen lover in the world. It was so odd, because J.R. was the rake of the show.
In one scene, J.R. was talking to Sue Ellen in the bedroom. He goes to the wardrobe closet to hang up his jacket, opens the door — and there's this gigantic naked man standing in the closet. I picked one of the biggest guys on the crew.
LANDERS: My very first day on the set, I did a scene in bed with J.R. My shoulders were bare, and the covers were pulled up. All of a sudden, Larry takes his arms off my shoulders and puts a handful of ice from the ice bucket with champagne down my back. Everybody, including Leonard, was in on it. A really interesting way to break the ice.
TILTON: One time, Bobby and Ray had to search Lucy for drugs when she was high on pills. We did two takes, which were great, but then Leonard said he wanted to do another. So, Ray and Bobby are carrying me out of this party, and the line is "Does she have any more pills? Let's check her." Suddenly, they turn me upside-down, holding me by my ankles and shaking me. That wasn't in the script!
SHELTON: In a hot love scene that J.R. and I were having, suddenly Larry's friend Peter Fonda, dressed in a purple gorilla outfit, comes diving through the window and into bed with us.
IT WAS ALL A DREAM
DUFFY: When my seven-year contract was up, I wanted to step out and make my mark individually. So, they killed off Bobby Ewing on camera, as I wanted them to. But I didn't immediately jump into another show, and I missed going to work on Dallas terribly. Larry missed me as I missed him. The ratings were starting to drop — and not just because of me. Leonard had left, too.
The show was going south, and Larry was really pissed off. He started the conversation about bringing me back.
WILSON: Larry went to CBS and said, "I'll put up $1 million of my own money if you put up $1 million to get Patrick and Lenny back. If you do, we'll have five more years of the show." And that's what they did.
JACOBS: When Leonard told me they were going to say the whole season that Patrick was gone was all [Pamela's] dream, I said, "That's the worst idea I've ever heard."
KATZMAN: I cowrote the episodes of Patrick's return. When people said, "Oh, that [idea] was so bad," I'd say, "Did you like The Wizard of Oz? That was a dream, too!"
DUFFY: We shot several versions of how my character came back, so that nobody knew the truth. The one we used wasn't shot with the Dallas crew or even at MGM. Leonard hired a TV-commercial production company, and we told them we were doing a commercial for Irish Spring soap.
We built a shower and spent an entire day filming, just so we could have a shower door opening and me turning and saying, "Good morning," to Pam. On the very last day before the show aired, they put that clip at the end of the episode.
PRINCIPAL: It took the show to a line between reality and so far over the edge, making the viewers question the credibility of the storyline. That disturbed me. But it was my last year on the show. My parting gift to the entire crew was sweatshirts that said, "Thank you. It's all been a dream."
GRAY: People think I quit the show. I didn't. My contract was for 11 years. By then, Sue Ellen had come a lovely full circle and [had become] a strong woman. I felt it was time to depart. The feeling was mutual. Mr. Katzman said it was because they couldn't afford me. That was bullshit. If I told you the amount of money they were talking about, you'd laugh.
In my final scene, in the living room, when the director said, "Okay, next scene. Move on," and the whole crew just moved into the dining room, I stood there thinking, "Oh, shit. I'm done, man. But don't be doing crazy things here. Like, do you want a cake?" So I walked back to my trailer, got in my car and went home.
PRINCIPAL: When I reupped my contract at seven years, I said I'd be leaving at the end of the next two. I'd already seen a decline happening. They thought I wouldn't leave, because everyone who left came back. But I'd been making plans for two years and was creating my own production company. A few hours before my last day on the set, I got an offer that would have made me the highest-paid episodic actress on television. But I was already moving on, and I declined the offer.
CROSBY: I was sad when I left the show, but I knew that J.R. needed other mistresses. I'm proud to be a trivia question.
JACOBS: Dallas was such a big success because people like to see people that rich be that miserable.
HAGMAN: It was a very easy show to do. I don't remember anything dreadful happening.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2018