THE SECOND COMING of "DALLAS"
...TV's All-Time Villain Returns
After 21 years, "Dallas" returns with new promise
By RON MILLER
There's a truly magical moment in the opening episode of TNT's amazing reincarnation of "Dallas" that begins June 13 at 9 p.m. on the cable network. It comes when John Ross Ewing (Josh Henderson), the now grown-up and incredibly conniving son of J.R. Ewing, makes a rare trip to the nursing home where his aged father has been sitting, mute and detached from the world for the past 20 years.
Grumbling to his unresponsive dad, the young J.R. complains how his Uncle Bobby is planning to sell the family's vast Texas spread, the Southfork Ranch, to a nature conservancy even though the young man has just struck a decadently rich reserve of underground oil there.
For a moment, the elder man's eyelids flicker. Suddenly he speaks for the first time in two decades:
"Bobby was always a fool," says J.R.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it looks as if the original J.R. Ewing has been faking it for quite some time, perhaps biding his time for the proper moment to resurface ax a malevolent force. In a clear and determined voice, rich with the sinister flavor that millions came to love in the 1980s, J.R. Ewing announces to his son--and to the TV world--that television's all-time greatest villain is not done with us yet. He is back with, most naturally, a vengeance.
I cannot tell you how satisfying this is to yours truly. Though I was never a super-loyal fan of the famous prime time soap opera and stopped watching it long before its 14-year run on CBS finally ended in 1991, I was there at its robust beginning on the evening of April 2, 1978, and charted its awesome rise to become one of America's--and the world's--most popular TV programs.
The original "Dallas" had risen to No. 1 in the ratings by 1980 and stayed in the top 10 through the spring of 1986. It was, from the start, a deeply-involving serial drama that did something no prime time drama series had ever done before: Turned a dastardly villain into the motive for millions to vow never to skip a single episode for fear they'd miss out on J.R. Ewing's latest act of villainy.
In the final episode of the 1979-80 season, J.R. was shot by a mysterious assailant and lay in a coma over the whole summer hiatus while America wondered aloud, "Who shot J.R.?" Star Larry Hagman, who played J.R., took that opportunity to hold out for more money. CBS threatened to have J.R. awake from his coma with another actor playing the part. Hagman refused to budge and CBS gave in to his demands, fearful to spoil the ratings bonanza everyone expected when "Dallas" returned in the fall.
It was a smart decision by the network. The "payoff" episode, in which we learned that J.R. had survived the gunshots fired by Kristin (Mary Crosby) broke ratings records for a single episode of a prime time series. (Trivia Note: To show how complex soap opera plots can become, Bobby Ewing's adopted son, Christopher, believe it or not, is the son of the disgraced Kristin, who shot Bobby's brother, J.R. She left town for good, but was never prosecuted for the crime.)
"Dallas" finally ended with an "angel" or possibly a "devil", played by Oscar-winning actor Joel Grey, appearing to J.R., showing him how life for everyone in the family might have been different if he had not been such a rotter. It ended with an off camera gunshot. They didn't tell us if J.R. had killed himself or not. Only J.R.'s brother Bobby (Patrick Duffy) saw what happened. Now we know that J.R. did not shoot himself fatally, but did wind up losing control of the family oil empire, going into a physical decline that led to a prolonged stay in a nursing home.
The decision to revive "Dallas" as a weekly series at first struck me as a stupid notion. Its ratings had declined in the late 1980s and it had been matched in many ways by its chief rival, ABC's "Dynasty," and its own companion show, CBS' "Knots's Landing." It struck me as yesterday's news.
But I have to admit I was dead wrong. The revival of "Dallas" has been well thought out and beautifully crafted. Producer Cynthia Cidre, who wrote this week's comeback episode, and her partner Michael M. Robin have carefully kept enough of the old show to infuse the new show with a strong nostalgic feeling, which should bring all the old fans back to check it out. At the same time, they've done an expert job at contemporizing "Dallas" with new characters who seem perfectly suited to bring in today's younger viewers and get them involved in the complex storylines.
Three of the original characters--J.R., Bobby and Sue Ellen--have returned as key figures, along with a smattering of other original characters set for lesser roles, among them Cliff Barnes and the youngest original Ewing girl, Lucy. The original actors are back to play the parts: Larry Hagman, now 80; Patrick Duffy, 63, and Linda Gray, 71. (Ken Kercheval, who plays Cliff Barnes, is now 76, and Charlene Tilton, who plays Lucy, is now 55.)
The new plots focus on Bobby Ewing, who learns in the opening minutes of this week's episode that he has been diagnosed with a possibly terminal illness. Bobby wants to conceal that information from his wife, Ann (Brenda Strong), and particularly from his adopted son, Christopher (Jesse Metcalfe), who hopes to carry on the Ewing legacy with his new plan to find an alternative source of energy to oil--primarily the extraction of methane from the ocean bed. Before he becomes too ill to manage the Ewing empire, Bobby wants to sell the family's sprawling Southfork Ranch property to an agency that will preserve it for public use.
But J.R.'s son, John Ross Ewing (Josh Henderson), has secretly commissioned drilling on the Ewing ranch and has struck a deep reserve that may produce billions of barrels of oil. Bobby immediately takes legal steps to block the drilling and threatens his nephew with loss of his inheritance if he continues to push oil exploration on the property.
Immediately, we recognize that the two cousins--Chris and young J.R.--are modern coutnerparts to their fathers, feuding over exploitation of oil rights. To add to the tension, we learn that Elena Ramos (Jordana Brewster), daughter of the Ewing family's Mexican cook, is now the girl friend of young J.R., but was once engaged to marry cousin Chris. She is a sexy and conniving girl, so we need to keep our eyes on her for more than the conventional reason that she looks so good.
Also in the mix is Rebecca Sutter (Julie Gonzalo), who is set to marry Christopher in this week's opening show. She is nudged into picking Elena as a bridesmaid, but doesn't realize how much mendacity is packed into Elena's sleek young body. Sue Ellen, thou;gh no longer married to J.R., is coming for the wedding of her son and we quickly learn that she is no longer an alcoholic, but is rather a firm and decisive woman who wants to make sure she's never left out of the big events that so often shape Ewing family affairs.
This week's two-hour opening show is jammed with character development and lots of deft plot twists, most especially one at the end of the episode that involves J.R., proving beyond a doubt that his long absence from family affairs doesn't mean he's forgotten how to stir up a nasty scheme or two.
For me, the return of "Dallas" is a very special head trip. I had many close contacts with Larry Hagman in the salad days of "Dallas," as did many TV columnists. I was a frequent guest at Hagman's Malibu home, along with fellow writers. I had first met him in 1973 when he starred in an ABC stiuation comedy called "Here We Go Again," which lasted only a few months. He was, even then, a crazy, infectious character you really couldn't resist.
In 1965, Hagman had first come to America's attention playing the husband of genie Barbara Eden in the sitcom "I Dream of Jeannie," an NBC hit that ran until 1970 and is now regarded as a classic sitcom. He stayed with comedy for years, all the while building a reputation as a rather bizarre character.
I will never fotget that first night when I dined with Hagman and co-star Nita Talbot at a network party for "Here We Go Again." It was January of 1973 and a torrential storm had hit Los Angeles. We all drank freely and at the end of the evening Larry took me out to the parking lot and showed me his custom-fitted van, which had leopard skin upholstery, thick leopard-skin carpets, plush pillows and a giant hookah for the smoking of God only know what exotic materials. It was clearly his mobile love nest and I don't doubt that it got plenty of service in those days.
Larry was notorious for conducting "parades" of drunken partygoers on his stretch of Malibu beach. He also had his famous "hat collection" there--a vast array of different fancy hats that he had mounted in rows on his ceiling. At one party at his home, I remember growing tired of trying to think up new "Dallas" questions to ask Larry, who was always surrounded by other columnists, so I wandered outside and found a woman standing alone, leaning against a railing and looking out at the Pacific. It was Larry's mother, the Broadway superstar Mary Martin ("South Pacific," "The Sound of Music," etc.), who was delighted to have some company that evening and to talk about something other than her son's success on "Dallas."(My fellow columnist on this website, Jim Bawden, was there that ni;ght and also spoke at length with Mary Martin!)
My connections to other "Dallas" cast members wrre plentiful. In 1988, on a remote film location in the desert outside Tucson, Arizona, I had lunch with Mary Crosby, the only daughter of crooner Bing Crosby. She was working in a remake of the western "Stagecoach." She was a charming younrg lady, who freely talked about the intense publicity that surrounded her once she was revealed as the person who shot J.R. Ewing. (She didn't even know she was guilty when the shooting episode was filmed because the camera never showed the shooter until the folflowing season!)
But Larry Hagman will always be the No. 1 "Dallas" star to me. Now 80, he seems in good shape, even though he went through life-threatening illness a decade ago, the result of his heavy drinking and crazy lifestyle, and a recent battle with cancer. He hasn't lost a single stroke in his ability to play the nastiest villain in TV history and you will revel in his ability to show J.R. rising from the ashes of his long period of unnatural dormancy. The resurrectoin of J.R. is certainly going to be one of TV's unforgettable events of the year.
I'm also delighted to see two other favorite actors from the original. One is lovely Linda Gray, who was always a sweet and charming lady and still looks great in her early 70s. The other is Patrick Duffy. I first met Duffy in his early days as NBC's underwater superhero "The Man From Atlantis" (1977-78), a knockoff of two comic book heroes dating back to the 1940s: The Submariner and Aquaman. Duffy is a nice guy and a very good actor who really gets a chance to display his skill in this week's episode.
Keeping a one-hour serial like 'Dallas" going on a weekly basis won't be easy, but TNT has a big plus in the fact that the basic situation, embedded in America's real-life quest for energy resources and the greedy characters who people that world, remains a lively one that can be counted upon to produce lots of credible drama. With Hagman breathing new life into his J.R. Ewing character and Josh Hederson doing a remarkable job of conjuring up a contempoary version of J.R., I think this old horse may ride again after all.
©2012 by Ron Miller. The photo is courtesy of TNT. This column first posted June 11, 2012.
You can comment on this column online via our TALKBACK page. Please address your message to either "The Editors" or RON MILLER care of Syndpack @ aol.com
HOME About Us Index To
Talkback Contact Us