The Dallas Decoder Interview: David Jacobs

David Jacobs

David Jacobs

Before J.R. Ewing appeared on our television screens, he existed in the mind of David Jacobs. I was honored last week to speak to Jacobs, who shared his memories of creating “Dallas” and its most famous character, as well as working with the actor who brought J.R. to life, Larry Hagman.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this amazing character, J.R. Ewing, since Larry Hagman’s death. How did you envision J.R. when you created him?

I envisioned him the way he became but not as radical; Larry brought something of his own to the role right away. In the first “Dallas” script [after Pam turns the tables on J.R.], Larry’s last line is, “Well, I underestimated the new Mrs. Ewing. I’ll never make that mistake again.” And the script says he smiles. But Larry didn’t smile. He laughed. It was a small laugh, but he laughed. And that changed it. He took possession of the character at that moment. Because the smile would have said, “Oh, I have a worthy adversary,” whereas the laugh meant, “Hold onto your hats, this is going to be fun.”

It’s funny to think Hagman wasn’t the first choice for the role.

We originally offered it to Robert Foxworth. The producers and I had a conference call with him and he wanted to know why J.R. was the way he was. And we said, you know, he’s made 10 times as much money for the family as his father ever did, yet his father still likes his brother better. Then Foxworth said, “Well, how are you going to make him more sympathetic?” And everyone in the room looked at me to answer that question. At me – this was probably the first conference call I’d been on in my life, and they were waiting for me to answer. And I said, “Well, we’re not. J.R. believes the way business works is, you screw them before they screw you. And he likes that. The process. He loves it.”

Was anyone else considered for the role?

No. After Foxworth passed, Barbara Miller, who was in charge of casting, said Larry Hagman wanted to come in. And my first reaction was, Larry Hagman? He was the Major [on “I Dream of Jeannie”]. I knew he was a good actor because I had seen him in “Harry & Tonto,” where he was just wonderful. And he has a very small role in “Fail Safe,” but it made a big impression on me. He was the translator [who tells the president of the United States about a nuclear disaster]. And Larry walks down the corridor to the president’s office and raises his hand to knock on the door – and he doesn’t. He smooths his hair back with his hand and takes a breath, and then he knocks. I always remembered that gesture.

J.R. (Larry Hagman) in 1978

J.R. (Larry Hagman) in 1978

But you didn’t think he was right for J.R.?

It was more like, “He really wants this role? Hmm.” So he came in the next day. I was sitting in [producer] Phil Capice’s office, with Phil and Mike Filerman, the executive I developed “Dallas” with, and of course Lenny Katzman. My back was to the doorway, and I noticed they all were looking past me, startled, almost. And I turned around and there, in the door was Larry Hagman, in a Stetson and boots. And he came in the room, in character with his Dallas accent. And within two minutes there was never any question J.R. would be played by anyone else.

Oh, wow! I don’t think I’ve heard this story.

It was an amazing performance. You know, he was an established actor. We wouldn’t have asked him to read for the role, but he did read in a sense. He just auditioned in character – for just a few minutes. And then he was back to being Larry Hagman. It was really shrewd of him – intuitively genius.

Now that Hagman’s gone, will you be sad to see this character you created come to an end?

Well, I’m sad that Larry’s gone. Yes, I created the character. And yes, I knew in the phone call with Foxworth the kind of unapologetic villain he should be. But don’t get me wrong: that guy belonged to Hagman. The synergy that created the character of J.R. was the synergy of actor and role more than it was the writer and the actor.

Do you have ideas about how you’d kill him off?

No. I haven’t thought about it. Who knows? I might come up with something brilliant if I thought about it. You know, when they brought back the show [on TNT], I thought about things that I would do differently, but Larry’s death is too fresh. It’s too raw.

How do you think J.R.’s death will affect the new show?

A lot of people have asked me that. I think they’ll probably get a [ratings] bump when they air the episodes that deal with J.R.’s death. But after that, to be perfectly honest, I think the “next generation” has to step up – like every “next generation.” I definitely think the show has the ingredients to stand on its own. Maybe they’re a little afraid of it, but maybe this will get them to do it.

Kind of like the mama bird pushing her baby out of the nest?

Exactly. And of course J.R.’s going to cast a shadow over it forever. But we’ll see.

Gary and Val (Ted Shackelford, Joan Van Ark) in 1979

Gary and Val (Ted Shackelford, Joan Van Ark) in 1979

How do you feel about Gary and Val’s upcoming visit to the new “Dallas”? You played with those characters for 14 seasons on “Knots Landing.” Now they’re going to be in the hands of other writers.

It’s OK. I’m not like [Aaron] Sorkin, whose characters speak Sorkinese and it’s brilliant. I always wrote very stylized dialogue and let fine actors like Joan Van Ark and Ted Shackelford make the words theirs. They’ll still be Val and Gary. So I don’t worry about it.

What do you think Leonard Katzman, the original “Dallas’s” longtime producer, would think of the new show?

He’d hate it.

Really? Why?

He just would. He hated the [original show’s “dream” season] after he’d walked away from it. That season has taken a rap that I don’t believe it deserves. It was trying to freshen up the act. But Leonard hated it.

Well, what about you? Do you like the new show?

I do. It’s great to see Southfork in H.D. and widescreen. Beautiful. I do wish they would slow things down. Mike and I were talking recently and said we could’ve gotten 10 shows from the first five. [Laughter] And not by stretching, but by making it more complex and by making the stories less plot-driven and more character-driven. I think it was Chekov who said plot is character. Whoever said it, I agree with.

Do you think there’s any chance of “Knots Landing” coming back?

No, I don’t think so. “Knots Landing” never had the ratings and the international appeal that “Dallas” had. “Knots” recreated would have to be five younger families living on the cul-de-sac – and not related to the older characters. Because if they were related it wouldn’t be believable. “Knots Landing” was always the hardest show to write because unlike “Dallas,” the conflict wasn’t built into the structure. You always wanted to ask the question: Why don’t they just move out? Why don’t they just stop talking to their neighbors like neighbors everywhere?

Getting back to “Dallas”: Your pilot script is dated December 10, 1977. Thirty-five years later, we’re still watching this show. How does that make you feel?

You know, while it was on the air, it was sort of a guilty pleasure because I wasn’t running it. It was my first show. Afterward I ran “Knots Landing” and my other shows, and “Dallas” was in the hands of Lenny Katzman. But later on, I realized “Dallas” really was the model for all the shows that came after it. Before “Dallas,” there was a great fear of serialization in prime time. Mike and I thought continuing drama was exactly the right form for television. And the form of “Dallas” became the model for all the continuing dramas that followed and are now dominant. So it really did change television in a very not-so-subtle, real way. And I like that.

Well, I know I speak for a lot of fans when I say we’re thankful to you for creating this really fun, fantastic show.

And I’m thankful to Larry Hagman. His loss means something to me. He was a nice man. He was a terrific actor. Absolutely underrated. But God knows he left this earth doing what he loved. A lot of us might wish to go that same way. So I’m glad I was able to provide him with the vehicle that he would use to display his great talent, and I’m certainly grateful to him for being the driving force of a show that has meant a lot to me.

Share your comments below and read more interviews from Dallas Decoder.

Comments

  1. barbara fan says:

    Another great interview Chris, thanks so much – it is hard to believe anyone other than Larry playing the part of JR. Thank goodness he did – its so hard to believe that he has died – going to miss that man so much and he was Dallas in TNTs version – will never be the same again and can see why Uncle Lennie wouldnt like it!

  2. What a fantastic interview! Great questions! Nice to get a much more full interview from Mr. Jacobs. It usually seems people just do a quick interview with same old questions for him. It is always nice to get information from the ‘behind the scenes’ folks.
    And he paid some great compliments to Larry Hagmn…that was cool!

    • Thank you, Hel! It seems Mr. Jacobs’ was really fond of Mr. Hagman and really appreciated his talent. Overall, Mr. Jacobs is really wise and a fantastic storyteller. I could’ve listened to him talk for hours!

    • DJ make a mistake. I just watch the first 1978 episode, and in the end, JR DON’T laugh, just a smile. Maybe the laugh arrives later in the show, but not on the pilot.

      • I’ve heard Mr. Jacobs say this before, including during the “Digger’s Daughter” DVD commentary. Even if Mr. Hagman doesn’t laugh, I think the spirit of Mr. Jacobs’ comment is correct. The scene definitely offers a glimpse of the mischievousness that would come to define the J.R. character.

      • I’m rewatching season 1 now, preparing to write reviews on my blog soon. It’s true, we don’t see Larry laugh in that final scene of the first episode, which seems odd because I’ve also seen David Jacobs make this same claim in multiple other interviews he’s given over the years when discussing how Larry made J.R. Ewing his own character, so clearly that little action made a big impression on Jacobs all these decades later.

        But I notice the way this is shot, in that scene after Larry gives his final line he smiles but we only see him for a second or two as the camera quickly cuts to a shot of Patrick and Victoria driving away from the cabin, and that’s how the episode ends. So I’m thinking that perhaps, as Jacob said, Larry smiled like the script required and then quickly chuckled and that’s what Jacobs is remembering. But the director may have cut that part because it wasn’t in the script and didn’t think it was necessary (remember, J.R. was just a supporting character at first, not the main focus of the show) and ended it with the driving away shot instead. That’s why we don’t see Larry’s laugh on film, but Jacobs remembers it from the set.

  3. This is a great story. What a good idea to interview David Jacobs about the origins and impact of J.R. in the Dallas saga. I really like the part about “Fail Safe,” which sounds interesting.

  4. the_lost_son says:

    Everything is perfect – the essays, the art work, your choice of pictures, and now such great interviews. Great.

    I always stop watching Dallas after Pam’s departure. Maybe with your reviews I just might start watching these episodes.

    It’s really a pleasure! Thanks for sharing your hard work.

  5. You MUST get all of this great stuff into the ultimate Dallas book. Amazing interview!

  6. all i know i loved Dallas then and i love it now, i got all my family and friends voting, i even begged Tyler Perry to take the show on, we can’t lose one of the best shows out, to much trash and they want to take our diamond away from us, no way, love you guys……

    • Tyler Perry?!? Uh, no, I can’t really see him being a good fit for Dallas (he might have Madea show up as one of Bobby’s ex-girlfriends who breaks up Bobby and Ann…).

      My ideal choice for new Executive Producer and Showrunner would have been Shonda Rhimes (she knows how to create compelling dramas that *everyone* talks about). But I know that would never happen.

Trackbacks

  1. […] “Dallas” DVDs in this case. It may even necessitate a proper consultation with series creator David Jacobs, and longtime director Michael Preece. Though TNT execs may be wary to double-down on “Dallas” […]

  2. […] role in the 1964 Cold War classic “Fail Safe,” which “Dallas” creator David Jacobs recalled during my interview with him last […]

  3. […] people I’ve admired all my life, including the man who started it all: “Dallas” creator David Jacobs. I still pinch myself over that […]

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