It was the show that shipped the entire soap genre and was rumored to have set the fall of communism in motion – the one that inspired songs and Halloween costumes around the world. On Mondays and Wednesdays, for over a decade, it seemed that all of America was tuned in to Dallas.
Dallas told the story of ‘getting by’ in a post-depression-era America. Its storytelling was revolutionary for its time. A soap with no hair-pulling or load-gasping, the drama was all in the scheme; and the scheme was a way of life.
The Man America Loved to Hate
J.R Ewing: oil baron, father, general loose cannon. America fell in morbid fascination with the head of the family that ran Texas with the cliffhanger ‘Who Shot J.R?’, aired in the summer of 1980. Underneath the treachery and greed was Larry Hagman.
Creator David Jacobs said Hagman, “… Brought a kind of lust that was at least 50% of the character, and the series’ success.” The intensity Hagman brought to J.R would keep him in every episode of Dallas’ 14-season run. America was hooked.
Everywhere You Turn, There He Is
What would Knotts Landing have been without appearances from J.R? The show’s spin-off hosted the troublemaker on more than one occasion. Hagman also made it back to Dallas for Dallas TV movies: J.R. Returns in 1996, and War of the Ewings in 1998.
Known on and off set for his heavy drinking, Hagman developed a tumor in his liver. “As J. R., I could get away with anything — bribery, blackmail, and adultery,” he said of his diagnosis, “But I got caught by cancer.” He died during filming in 2012.
Just Happy to Be There
The cast could not have predicted Dallas’ success. Although Larry Hagman had played the perpetually frustrated and loveable Major Nelson (swoon) on I Dream of Genie, before Dallas most of the cast had not had a show run for more than a few weeks.
With the spin-off released just over one year later, a 14-season run, movies, and a three-season revival, the cast could not have prepared themselves for the level of household-name-fame that was awaiting them.
A Leading Lady Unable to Hide Her Disgust
Linda Gray wore her disdain for J.R. on her face right from the start, unable to contain her disgust at the man who she would play wife to, twice. Sue Ellen gets away from J.R., only to remarry him. Why? You know why…
Sue Ellen was the narrator of a 1984 game called The Dallas Quest. She calls on players to fight angry cattle, monkeys and Ewings. The game was a stretch, but who better to call an army against the Ewings than J.R.’s on again-off again wife?
Always Playing the Part
Linda Gray recognized the hit on her hands early on, feeling the collective American audience
embrace the Dallas story. She returned to Dallas for the revival in her starring role. Her soap star status continued with a recurring role on The Bold and the Beautiful.
Gray has guest-starred on Melrose Place and worked on Significant Mother, flexing her lighter, comedic side, and Models, Inc. before her foray into made-for-TV movies. In 2017, she joined the cast of Hand of God, most recently starring in Prescience in 2019.
Good in a World of Bad
Patrick Duffy’s Bobby Ewing was the hope, the hero, and proof that sometimes the good guy gets the girl. Duffy said of Bobby, “all the characters had functions, I had one thing that I had to be, and that was good.”
Bobby was an oil baron like his father but that’s where the similarities end. He refused to follow in his father’s nefarious footsteps, enduring schemes and manipulations, finding and losing love, and a resurrection arc. The drama of the Ewings was contagious and superseded good intentions.
Who Could Say No to That Face?
Duffy has been a staple in the Dallas world, returning to set for J.R. Returns, War of the Ewings, and all three seasons of the show’s revival. Suffice it to say it takes a lot of Bobby to balance out all that Ewing.
Outside of Dallas life, he went on to continue his TV career as Frank in Step by Step, later joining the Bold and the Beautiful cast as the patriarch of the Logan family. Duffy has appeared in a wide scope of shows from NCIS to Family Guy.
Our ‘Heros’ Flip the Script
Initially, J.R. was created as your run-of-the-mill baddie. “Dramatically he was neither hero nor villain but a combination, the villain-as-protagonist.” As Hagman put it, “J.R. wasn’t that bad…He took care of his family. I wouldn’t call him bad; he was just an oil man.”
Bobby was intended to be the playboy, daddy’s pride and joy. He was originally thought to be the classic heir, irresponsible but you gotta love him. It was the network that decided to steer Bobby into his unequivocally “good” persona and mold him into “conventionally heroic.”
The Introduction of the Villain-As-Protagonist
Michael Grade of the BBC One said that it was unusual for its time to have a villain as the central character. These were pre-origin-story days; duality barely existed in television. This protagonist was revolutionary because it was scandalous just to give him airtime.
It wasn’t quite as fantastical as Dynasty and could never be replaced by Knotts Landing.
Dallas created a “real” world in which the Good were a tolerated necessity, the Bad were just trying to get ahead, and the Terrible were downright delicious.
A Shared Horror that Bonded a Nation
Larry Hagman said Dallas was “The right show for a specific time… I always thought Dallas was a cartoon.” The way that J.R. lied, cheated, and money-grabbed, seemed to Hagman to be the story of the everyman; whether you despised, or related to him.
J.R. became the poster boy for America’s collective frustration, an acceptable outlet for every frustration, and a chat around the water cooler. “You can’t tell the boss you hate the president, but you can tell your boss you hate J.R.” – Ken Kercheval (Cliff).
Real-World Influence on the Oil Industry
Dallas’ success had a rippling effect on the Texan economy. The market value for acreage and mineral rights tripled under the assumption that anyone associated with rigging was throwing money around and chasing scandals. The line between entertainment and reality kept would-be tycoons on the sideline.
Although J.R. was a self-made businessman, the grit of it all got lost in translation next to the glamor of it; associated less with hard work, and more with beautiful people and all the opportunity that comes from having a reputation that proceeds you.
“The Empress Dowager of the Lone Star State”
Barbara Bel Geddes’s Miss Ellie embodied the quintessential Texan matriarch; stern, self-serving, yet with an unwavering dedication to her family and personal values. Having tea in the garden with J.R., Miss Ellie brought out a side in her ruthless son that only a mother could.
Miss Ellie married Jock Ewing, ditching childhood sweetheart Digger Barnes just in time to save Southform Ranch from foreclosure. As sudden as their love seems, it proves just as deep, as they raise and manage their powerful – if not volatile – family together for over a decade.
Remembering a Lady
After an extensive Broadway career, an exciting film career – in which she earned an Academy Award nomination – and an iconic tv run, Geddes retired from acting in 1990, one year before the season’s finale. She retired to Northeast Harbor, Maine, where she wrote children’s books.
Following a lifetime of smoking, Barbara Bel Geddes died of lung cancer in 2005. Her Dallas costars remembered her as a rock who brought “a touch of class” to Dallas, even though she herself never saw herself as much of a lady.
The Two Faces of Miss Ellie Ewing
As Dallas wrapped for its 1982-1983 season Barbara Bel Geddes was told by doctors that she would need to undergo emergency . Following her double mastectomy among myriad health issues through which she had persevered, Bel Geddes would have to leave Dallas.
Miss Ellie was recast as Donna Reed, a household name since the 60s for The Donna Reed Show. If anyone could fill Miss Ellie’s glass, it was Reed. Reed’s stint on Dallas was short, with the unstoppable Bel Geddes returning to set in 1985.
Contractual Complications Lead to Court Showdown
Reed joined the set for the role of Miss Ellie for one season. After that, the producers asked Bel Geddes if she was ready to return to Dallas; she accepted. Just one problem there: Reed was only one year into a three-year contract.
Reed sued the producers for $7.5 million. She tried to halt production during proceedings until a conclusion was reached. Production continued, however, the role returned to Bel Geddes. Reed did not receive $7.5 million, but was compensated to the extent of her contract.
The Boulder Beside the Rock
Enter Miss Elli’s Husband, Jock Ewing. This post-Depression-Era oil man was as relentless as the mustache on his face, and the best man for the part was Jim Davis. Jim’s acting debut came alongside Bette Davis. From there he was mostly in Westerns.
Jock vied for the affection of Miss Ellie and was eventually chosen to live happily ever after. There was a small spanner in the works in that he was secretly already married, and still caring for his wife’s psychiatric needs in a Jane Eyre-type love triangle.
Dallas Through-and-Through, Until the Very End
During the fourth season Davis began to feel ill and was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. He continued to work as long as he could. During this period writers were careful to have his scenes sitting but as it progressed, his illness became increasingly apparent.
As he continued with chemotherapy treatments, as with many chemo patients, he suffered hair loss, wearing a hairpiece to keep up with life as Jock for as long as he could. Jim David died April 26, 1981, just as he had found his patriarchal place.
Setting the Scene at Southfork
6,000 square feet of mansion on a 200-acre property, the Ranch was the embodiment of the Ewings: lavish, traditional, and intimidating. Originally built by Joe Duncan for his family, the ranch became the iconic backdrop for life as an oil family in the 70s.
Although most of the series was filmed on a set inspired by the family ranch, all Dallas-inspired movies, were all shot at Southfork itself. From family home to film set, to a piece of Americana, tours are still run out of the Duncan family home.
Where Employees Feel Like Family
There’s more to Jock than meets the eye, and one secret lay right under the Ewings’ noses. Young Ray Krebbs is sent to the ranch after his mother, and an old friend of Jock’s falls ill. You might have already guessed: Ray is Jock’s illegitimate son.
Played by Steve Kanaly, Ray Krebbs becomes foreman at Southfork Ranch, as he and Jock develop a real father-son bond. Of course, no one knows they are actual father and son. That would be giving it away.
A Family Man and His Paintbrush
Kanaly went on to play Seabone Hunkle, a series regular in All My Children, and returned to Dallas for the 2012 reboot. He directed and acted in several movies and offered his personal experience in the air force as an advisor on Apocalypse Now.
Kanaly’s last acting role was in an episode of DeVanity in 2014. Now he and his wife live on a ranch in Ojai, California. Kanaly is a celebrated watercolorist and spends his time focused on his painting, his wife, his ranch, and the grandkids.
Pamela Ewing, The Strongest and The Sweetest
Pamela Ewing, Bobby Ewing’s wife, came from a large rival oil family, the Barneses. Played by Victoria Principal, her life would be a constant battle with J.R. and an endless string of marital problems, right up until the car crash with Bobby that kills her.
Morgan Brittany, who played Pam’s half-sister Kathrine, said of Pam, “Pamela Ewing was the strongest of everyone, and yet she was the sweetest.” The same could be said of Principal who refused to return to Dallas for the sake of her character’s integrity.
Beauty and Generosity Beyond the Screen
In 1989, Principal created her own line of skincare products called The Principal Secret. Principal told Soap Opera Digest in 2018, “I have a full-time job running this skincare company that I created, and not only that, I have an animal rescue ranch.”
The beauty world would lead her to become a celebrated author, writing four health and beauty best-sellers. Her philanthropy also keeps her busy. During Hurricane Florence, in 2018, Principal donated a fleet of boats to rescue stranded pets, devastated by the disaster.
The Actor that Said ‘No’ to Immortality
When Principal felt that the writing had declined in season seven, she looked for a way out. “I wanted an ending that was definitive, and I certainly felt that being blown up was definitive.” But in the soap world, that is not always the case.
After the fatal accident, Bobby returns to the show when it all turns out to have been a dream. However, Margaret Michaels replaced Principal, with Principal saying: “I…take responsibility for my decision, not to risk tarnishing Bobby and Pam’s love story, with a desperate reappearance.”
The Heartbreak Origin Story of Bobby Ewing
When we meet Bobby he is madly in love with Pam, but that wasn’t always the case. Bobby’s first love was the always beautiful Jenna Wade. Later in the show we learn that Jenna had left Bobby heartbroken at the alter to marry an Italian count.
If you’re going to leave Bobby Ewing for anyone, an Italian count seems hard to beat. Jenna doesn’t stay gone forever, running into her own trouble. Jenna returns just as Bobby’s marriage to Pam crumbles, a real spanner in the works of Katherine’s careful scheming.
It Doesn’t Have to Make Sense
Soap operas suspend reality with the characters, taking on a world of their own. It isn’t uncommon as the story develops to recast roles. Sometimes they will write it into the story as drastic surgery, other times the audience is expected to just go with it.
Recasting happens. A contract might be up, there may be creative differences, or sometimes the story takes a sudden turn, and a character appears at a time when the actor isn’t available. Why let a little thing like consistency get in the way of a good story?
The Rotation of Jenna Wade
Originally, the role of Jenna was cast as Morgan Fairchild, but that only lasted one Episode. Next was Francine Tacker, she played Wade for a short two episode arc. Finally, when it came time for Jenna to really tell her story, Prescilla Presley was cast.
Presley took Jenna on as a series regular from 1983 to 1988, appearing in 143 episodes. Dallas had found its Jenna. Presley said she identified with Jenna. She described her as strong and independent, admitting that Jenna might have one up on her when it came to sophistication.
Just a Regular Teen in Dallas’ America
Oh, little Lucy. Played by Charlene Tilton, she comes to Dallas to live with her grandparents in Southfork for stability, but drama seems to find her. Treading the line between adolescence and womanhood, the writers really took the troubled teen trope and ran with it with.
Framing her teacher to get a passing grade, heartbreak, and sudden wealth, America watched Lucy Ewing grow up. Growing up on Dallas meant love interests turn out to be uncles; playing hooky leads to blackmail, and the hope of new love is crushed by grand coming out stories.
All Grown Up and Living Out Loud
Tilton reunited with her Dallas cast for Good Morning America’s 2018 Dallas Reunion saying, “Just the chemistry that we have off-camera really came through.” She found herself acting in fun spoof movies over the years. Her most recent film was A Welcome Home Christmas in 2020.
In 2010, she joined AFA, Actors for Autism, an improv group that provides workshops for people with autism of all ages. Since then, she has been a vocal advocate for autism awareness, supporting inclusive spaces, while continuing to grace us with her presence on screen.
A Spin-Off, But Make it a Prequel
Though they don’t always line up, Knots Landing was essentially a supplementary world to Dallas. Creator David Jacobs envisioned something closer to the 1973 Swedish miniseries, Scenes from a Marriage, but America begged for more drama, so he settled on a middle ground in Knots Landing.
Knots Landing came as a gift to the soap world to answer questions that left fans hooked after Dallas’ classic cliffhangers. It filled in the blanks with lesser-known family members and provided a whole other world of drama with a more “down to earth” feel.
Half Sisters with Big Ambitions
Pam’s half-sister crops up after their mother dies in a plane crash. The supportive family picture is shattered when Kathrine quickly falls for Bobby. There is still the minor problem that he is still married to Pam. But this is Dallas; why should that stop her?
Katherine gets busy scheming and actually succeeds to break up Pamela and Bobby’s marriage. She still doesn’t get to collect her prize, though, as an old love interest catches Bobby’s eye first. Scheming doesn’t pay, but it does make for excellent television.
A Little Bit of Everything
After Dallas, Britanny appeared in Glitter. She then reunited with producer Aaron Spelling, with whom she had worked in the early days of her career, for The Love Boat, Hotel, and Melrose Place. She Later appeared on 90s classics, Sabrina the Teenage Witch and The Nanny.
Brittany retired from acting in 2004 and went on to become a conservative commentator on Fox News and CSNBC. In 2014, she released her first book, What Women Really Want. Her second book of essays, PolitiChicks: A Clarion Call to Political Activism, came out in 2017.
A One-Sided War
The perpetually befuddled Cliff Barnes, played by Ken Kercheval, spent 14 seasons sparring with his nemesis, J.R. Always a step behind, it is safe to say that the oil barons’ rivalry was largely one-sided, with J.R. casually one-upping Barnes at every turn.
Although the writers dubbed him ‘Calamity Cliff,’ Kerchavel believed in Barnes, saying, “Cliff Barnes is the only one that J.R. keeps having to worry about. No matter how he gets Cliff down, he can be assured that he’ll turn around and Cliff will be there.”
Nemesis on Screen, Dream Team Behind the Scenes
Kerchavel and Hagman were the only cast members to make it right through from pilot to finale and even had properties in the same neighborhood. Kerchavel joined Hagman for the series 2012 revival and spoke of him fondly on Good Morning America’s Dallas reunion special.
Ken Kercheval died at the age of 82 in Clinton, Indiana. His family did not release his cause of death, but he left behind a life well-lived. His performances reached international audiences, with a career spanning 40 decades and 30 starring roles.
Cousin Jack and His Blast from the Past
Jack Ewing, played by Dack Rambo, enters Dallas for a bitter showdown with his ex-wife, April. April comes to claim her stake in the Ewings oil holdings, with a back and forth that rocks the Ewings stability and sees a rare win for an outsider.
Jack’s arc is brief, leaving Dallas’ tail-between-his-legs after his desperate court proceedings with April. Rambo, who would later come out as bisexual, felt that his character suffered a short life because he himself was rumored to be gay. These were certainly different times.
Acting All His Life
Rambo continued to work in TV with minor appearances in Murder She Wrote, Ultra Warrior, and a longer arc on Another World. He worked up until 1991, when, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, he announced that he had contracted the disease.
Rambo said that coming out about his illness was “like freedom to me.” He left his role on Another World to spend his last years as a spokesperson for AIDS patients. Dack Rambo passed away of the illness three years later, on March 21, 1994, at the age of 52.
Careful What You Wish For
Jack’s ex-wife has little to no respect for him and openly states that she came for his money. Jack schemes with his sister and makes April jump through some Ewing-sized hoops, but eventually, April collects.
April, played by Sheree J. Wilson, knows how to hold her own in a Ewing showdown. Although she came for the court case, April becomes a local in Dallas, eventually winning Bobby’s heart. Unfortunately, she doesn’t get to enjoy the win as she is shot during their honeymoon
The Long and Windy Road Through the Business They Call Show
Wilson went off the set of Dallas onto another classic, Matlock. She put on the producer’s hat for independent films Killing Down (2006), The Gundown (2011), Easy Rider: The Ride Back (2012), and Dug Up (2013). Most recently, she starred in The Silent Natural (2019).
In 2016, she joined the stage production of Driving Miss Daisy, as Miss Daisy, and plays her to this day. No stranger to the ins and outs of screen and stage Sheree J. Wilson found her voice offstage as an advocate for MS sufferers.