No one “shot” J.R. Ewing more often than Michael Preece, who directed more than 60 episodes of the original “Dallas” series. He graciously agreed to share some of his memories of working on the show and with its biggest star, Larry Hagman.
You probably worked with Larry Hagman more than any other director. How much direction did he need when he was playing J.R.?
There was a saying on the set that “Dallas” was director-proof. Larry knew his character. He had a tendency to go a little bigger than was needed, so you’d try to curb him a little bit. Or if he didn’t know his lines well, sometimes he would have them written on cue cards and I’d say, “Larry, you sound like you’re reading it.” But basically, he needed very little direction – and that was true of much of the cast. They made it easy.
Did you two ever have disagreements about how a scene should be played?
Once in awhile, but usually Larry would win. Sometimes we would need an interpretation of something and would call [executive producer] Leonard Katzman because I didn’t know what was going to happen in the next episode and Leonard did. But usually that was worked out before we started shooting. I never had an argument with Larry or Patrick [Duffy] or Linda [Gray]. Not one.
It sounds like it was a pleasant set to work on.
It was a wonderful atmosphere. And jokes, all day long. We never got a clean rehearsal, but when it came time to shoot, the cast would play it perfectly. Most television shows go to 7 o’clock or 8 o’clock at night. With “Dallas,” we’d be leaving the [studio] lot for the day when people on other shows were just breaking for lunch.
Do you have a favorite scene you remember directing?
One scene stands out to me more than any other: when Barbara Bel Geddes goes into the kitchen and throws around the pots and pans after she realizes Jock is really dead. And the dining room scene prior to that, where she’s just sitting there thinking and the other people at the table are just babbling on.
That whole episode is wonderful!
Those dining room scenes were always chaotic. The boys – I call them the boys, Larry and Patrick – would always flick food at each other during rehearsal. So the night before we did that scene, Barbara called me and said, “You know, Michael, tomorrow is going to be difficult for me. Would you ask the boys to behave?” So I made the mistake of going to Larry and Patrick the next day. I said, “You know, this is a very important scene for her, so please, no fooling around.” And they said, “Don’t worry. We’re pros.” So we start the scene – this isn’t a rehearsal, we’re rolling – and the camera’s slowly moving in on Barbara and suddenly a pea hits her. I think it was right in the forehead.
She never broke. She just kept on acting. And she came back later and said, “I’m going to get you boys!” She had a terrific sense of humor. She loved to swear. I mean, she wasn’t like a sailor and she didn’t swear in anger so much, but she could get her swear words out.
It’s funny to imagine Miss Ellie cursing. She must have been fun to work with.
She was very professional. I would make a point of looking up her old movies and then I’d go up to her and I’d say, “Remember you worked with so and so.” She loved it. She’d tell stories about working with Hitchcock or someone else. A lot of those pictures, I’d never seen them. I learned about them from her.
What was it like when it came time to shoot the scene of her smashing the dishes? That must have been difficult.
Yeah, but only because it had to be precise. She didn’t want to do it over and over because she was crying, and you had to build up that momentum. I remember shooting it quite simply. But “Dallas” was shot very simply anyway. It wasn’t very artistic film-wise.
Was that frustrating? Did you ever think, “Gosh, I wish I could do something more creative here”?
Yeah, very much so. But “Dallas” was basically talking heads. We were able to make a shot once of someone coming out of the elevator, and then they go into one of the offices, and then they go into another office and then they come out [to the reception area] again. All in one shot. And when you see it, you don’t think, “Oh, wow, how’d they do that?” It didn’t draw attention, but it was different.
That reminds me: One of my favorite shots from one of your episodes is the scene where Mary Crosby’s character comes back to town and the first time we see her, the camera is following her legs across a hotel lobby.
I’m glad you remember that! We shot that at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. They wanted her return to be a little mysterious, so the script read something like, “She’s standing at the desk and turns and you see it’s Mary Crosby.” I remember thinking, “My, she has nice legs. Let’s follow her legs.” You don’t plan something like that.
You mentioned Leonard Katzman a little earlier. He really brought his own vision to the show, didn’t he?
Len would take situations that his family was going through and use them in the plot. I’d sit in on a story meeting and he’d say, “My daughter did this the other night. Let’s put that in a script and give it to Lucy.” Len and I were pretty close, and he would take things from my family too. He was always writing from real-life experiences, whether it was his own or mine or someone else’s. I think that’s the case with a lot of writers – they use what they know best.
It’s interesting to see “Dallas” being made without him. What do you think of the new show?
I want to see more of Larry and Patrick and Linda. I think the kids are good. I think some of them look too much alike, to be honest. [“Dallas” creator] David Jacobs said they should have switched and made Bobby’s son the bad one and J.R.’s son the good one. I thought that was a good idea when I heard it. But [the producers] wanted all-new ideas and new writers and directors, which I completely understand and kind of agree with.
Yeah. If they hired the writers and directors [from the original], you’d have a lot of, “Well, you know in the old days, we used to do it this way.” That’s the last thing you want to hear. [Laughter] I got into the business a long time ago – 1955 – and I remember hearing people say, “Oh, it’s not like the good old days.” And here it is many years later, people are still saying, “Oh, it’s not like the good old days!”
Well, I agree with you. I’d like to see more of the original stars too. It’s going to be hard to imagine “Dallas” without Larry Hagman.
He could still light up a screen. There are very few people like that. Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, Marlon Brando – they had that quality. Larry had it too.
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