“Dallas” debuted 35 years ago today. To commemorate its anniversary, here’s my list of the franchise’s 35 greatest moments.
35. J.R. meets his match. “Dallas’s” first episode ends with Pam turning the tables on J.R. (Larry Hagman) after he tries to make it look like she was cheating on Bobby with Ray. “Looks like I underestimated the new Mrs. Ewing,” J.R. declares as he watches his baby brother and sister-in-law drive away. “I surely won’t do that again.” Hagman then smiles, ever so slightly. It lets us know J.R. has finally found a worthy adversary – and he couldn’t be happier about it.
34. Rivalry redux. When the truth comes out that Rebecca Sutter Ewing is actually Pamela Rebecca Barnes, J.R. pops into her office for a tête-à-tête. She turns out to be as ballsy as her namesake aunt, telling J.R.: “I must have done something right to deserve a visit from you.” J.R., for his part, shows he hasn’t lost his step. “You’re not the first Pam to fox her way into the henhouse,” he tells her with a sly grin. “I’m 1 for 1 on flushing out Pamelas. And I plan on being 2 for 2.” Fabulous.
33. The “licorice scene.” Cliff (Ken Kercheval) invites estranged mom Rebecca (Priscilla Pointer) to his apartment. Nervous small talk gives way to anger, as Cliff tells Rebecca how much her abandonment hurt him. She begins to leave, but Cliff stops her. “Mama,” he says, his voice cracking. “You didn’t take any licorice, and I remembered you liked it.” The music swells, mother and son embrace and we’re reminded why Cliff is the original “Dallas’s” most human character.
32. Ann testifies. After shooting ex-husband Harris, Ann (Brenda Strong) goes on trial. In stirring testimony, she recalls how he and his mother Judith tormented her, but Ann also concedes her own failings – including how her pill addiction led to daughter Emma’s abduction. “God had punished me by taking my baby,” Ann says through tears. Before this scene, I wondered how we could forgive Ann for her crime. Afterward, I wondered how we couldn’t.
31. Ray rides into the sunset. After Ray (Steve Kanaly) returns to Southfork and helps the Ewings win a range war, they bid him adieu as John Parker’s piano music plays in the background. Ray’s final moments with Ellie, Clayton, Bobby and even J.R. are touching, but the most moving part comes when he looks around and declares, “There’s a part of me that’s never going to leave here.” When major characters depart “Dallas,” the show usually screws it up. Not this time.
30. Sue Ellen meets Mandy. At the Ewing Rodeo, Sue Ellen (Linda Gray) runs into Mandy (Deborah Shelton), J.R.’s latest mistress, and offers her some advice: Get away while you can. It’s our first glimpse of a newly sober, newly wise Sue Ellen, but Mandy refuses to listen and turns to leave. That’s when Sue Ellen delivers a zinger: “Isn’t it strange how the mistress always thinks she’s smarter than the wife? If she’s so smart, why is she the mistress?” She’s got you there, darlin’.
29. “Sold!” After Bobby marries Pam, a drunken Digger barrels onto Southfork and recounts everything Jock “took” from him – including Pam, for whom Digger demands $10,000. “She was a Barnes and now she’s a Ewing, just like the oil wells,” he says. Bobby and Pam watch in horror as Jock (Jim Davis) tosses a $100 bill at Digger, who scoops it up. “Sold!” he declares as he leaves. Harsh? Yes, but after this scene, there was no doubt which family Pam belonged with.
28. The royal wedding. The marriage of Lucy and Mitch (Charlene Tilton, Leigh McCloskey) was doomed from the start, but man, aren’t their nuptials fun? The two-part episode gives us lots of “Dallas” firsts, including the first Southfork wedding, the first time someone gets dunked in the pool (Lucy pushes Mitch) and the first appearance of Afton, who sleeps with J.R. during the reception – in his own marital bed! No wonder Sue Ellen still holds a grudge.
27. Who killed Mickey Trotter? When the plug is pulled on his comatose cousin Mickey, Ray blocks the door to his hospital room so the doctors can’t enter and revive him. It’s the beginning of a medical mystery that yields riveting performances from Kanaly, Tilton and Kate Reid as Lil, Mickey’s mom. Only at Ray’s murder trial do we learn the truth: He did disconnect Mickey’s life support, but only because Lil didn’t have the strength to do the mercy killing herself.
26. Ellie grabs her gun. The Ewings are awaiting word on J.R. and Bobby after their plane crashed in Cato Swamp. Miss Ellie (Barbara Bel Geddes) answers the door to find a snoopy reporter. “Ray, get me the shotgun out of the hall closet,” she says, then tells the newshound: “Anybody on my land, without invitation, is a trespasser. So unless I see your tail heading out of here … I’m going to blow it off.” It’s classic “Dallas”: Modern Texans defending old traditions like land and family.
25. Pam’s surprise. After Bobby’s “death,” Ellie eulogizes him at the Oil Baron’s Ball, followed by Pam (Victoria Principal), who stuns everyone by announcing she won’t sell her shares of Ewing Oil to Westar as planned. J.R. is overjoyed, assuming this means Pam will sell them to him. She sets him straight: “I’m not selling at all. From now on, it’s going to be you and me. I’ll see you at the office, partner.” It’s one of many great moments from the unjustly maligned “dream season.”
24. Mama sees all. In 1983, when Sue Ellen tried to justify J.R.’s latest quest for power, Ellie delivered a spot-on prophesy: “Think ahead, Sue Ellen. Think 25 or 30 years ahead. I won’t be here then. And the fight won’t be between J.R. and Bobby. It’ll be between John Ross and Christopher. … Your loyalty to your husband is a wonderful thing. But you’re a mother too. And where will this all end?” Impressive, huh? Too bad no one ever thought to ask her where Pam is.
23. Sting! When Harris tries to blackmail Sue Ellen into aiding his dirty dealings, Ann begs him to stop. Harris confirms his crimes and suggests he’ll ease up on Sue Ellen – if Ann sleeps with him. Slowly, Ann unbuttons her blouse … and reveals a hidden mic. “Extortion, blackmail and a confession to money laundering, all recorded,” she says triumphantly. Ann then slugs Harris and hints she’ll shoot him if he doesn’t leave the Ewings alone. She wasn’t kidding, was she?
22. Pow! Donna (Susan Howard) is none too happy when Ray begins an affair with barfly Bonnie. Fed up with his philandering, she dons her fur coat, heads to the saloon and offers Bonnie $15,000 to leave Texas. Bonnie agrees, so Donna cuts the offer by a third. “Now that we know what you are, let’s haggle over your fee,” she says. Bonnie tosses a drink in Donna’s face – and then Donna belts her. Who knew “Dallas’s” classiest leading lady possessed such a mean right hook?
21. Bobby to the rescue. “Dallas’s” sixth season ends with J.R., Sue Ellen, John Ross and Ray trapped inside Southfork as flames sweep through the house. We knew they’d survive; we just didn’t know how. The seventh-season premiere supplies our answer: In “Dallas’s” most thrilling opening, quick-thinking Bobby comes home, soaks himself in the pool and dashes into the house, where he rescues everyone. We should’ve known: Bobby always saves the day.
20. Sue Ellen’s discovery. Sue Ellen doesn’t want to believe it when Holly Harwood tells her she’s sleeping with J.R., but she agrees to come by the vixen’s house, where Holly says Sue Ellen will find J.R. in her bed. The audience watches as the fur-clad Sue Ellen arrives at Holly’s, slowly crosses the driveway (click clack go the heels), turns the front door knob and finally reaches the bedroom, where her worst fears are confirmed. It’s a brilliant, devastating sequence.
19. Cliff asks for forgiveness. After Dandy Dandridge accuses Cliff of trying to cheat him out of their big gas strike, Cliff begins to see his daddy’s feud with Jock in a new light. Summoning Ellie to a Dallas park, Cliff extends a long-overdue olive branch. “Digger was wrong, and I was wrong. If it’s not too late. I’d like to make peace. I’d like to ask you to forgive me,” he says. It’s my favorite performance from Kercheval and a consequential moment in “Dallas” history.
18. Molotov cocktails. “Dallas’s” best cocktail scene: Ellie worries Sue Ellen didn’t get enough to eat at dinner. J.R. waves around a liquor bottle and declares his wife “gets all the nourishment she needs from this.” He then declares Pam is “cracking up” and calls her daddy “a saddle tramp and a thief” and her mama “a whore.” That’s when Bobby (Patrick Duffy) punches J.R., forcing a furious Jock to separate them. Don’t you wish your family gatherings were this much fun?
17. Ellie gets cancer. Ellie gets breast cancer in the 1979 “Mastectomy” two-parter, which won Bel Geddes an Emmy. It’s a brave performance from the actress, who had been treated for the disease in real life. Davis is equally moving as Jock struggles to comfort his wife. In one scene, he tells her it “doesn’t matter” that she’s lost a breast. “Because I’m not young anymore?” she snaps. “Don’t you think I care the way I look?” Rarely has “Dallas” felt so real.
16. Bobby’s funeral. After Bobby “dies” saving Pam, the Ewings bury him in a lush Southfork pasture, near the treehouse that Jock built for him as a boy. All of Bobby’s loved ones are there, including Pam, whose Jackie Kennedy-esque pillbox hat reinforces the idea that “Dallas’s” version of Camelot is ending. As the gathering disperses, J.R. movingly tells Bobby he wishes he’d taken the time to let him know how much he loved him. It’s one of the few times we see J.R. cry.
15. J.R. becomes a daddy. When the Ewings learn the results of the paternity test that proves J.R., not Cliff, fathered John Ross, J.R. enters the Southfork nursery, picks up his son, holds him close and kisses him. According to “Dallas” historian Barbara A. Curran, CBS received 10,000 positive letters in response to J.R.’s embrace of his son. Later, David Jacobs, the show’s creator, called it “Dallas’s” best scene: “Just a private moment between J.R. and 100 million people.”
14. In the beginning. “Dallas: The Early Years,” Jacobs’ 1986 prequel movie, ends at a 1951 Southfork barbecue, where Jock and Ellie (Dale Midkiff, Molly Hagan) embrace as a teenaged J.R. spars with bratty Cliff. Moments later, Cliff drags kid sister Pammy away from her new playmate: Little Bobby. Jerrold Immel’s theme swells, the camera pulls back for a bird’s eye view of the ranch and then the familiar shots from “Dallas’s” famous titles sweep across the screen. Perfect.
13. Mama vs. the cartel. When J.R.’s latest plot backfires and the cartel takes advantage of him, Ellie comes to junior’s defense. She summons the group to the Ewing Oil offices, where she blasts them, one by one. “I don’t apologize for what my son did,” Ellie says. “It’s a family matter. We may be wrong and we may be right, but we’re Ewings. We stick together – and that’s what makes us unbeatable.” Foolish oil barons. Shouldn’t they know better than to mess with mama?
12. A classic clash. During Bobby and Pam’s separation, J.R. tells her if she doesn’t go through with the divorce, he’ll destroy Bobby, Cliff and everyone else she cares about. “You’ve known me long enough to know I don’t make idle threats,” J.R. says as he circles her. The chilling moment tells us much about their rivalry. Cliff might have been J.R.’s most persistent enemy and Jeremy Wendell might have been the most powerful, but no one threatened J.R. quite like Pam.
11. Bobby’s back! (Or is he?). CBS announced Duffy would return to “Dallas” a few weeks before the 1985-86 season finale aired, but no one knew how he’d come back or who he’d play. In the episode’s last scene, Pam awakens and finds Bobby – or someone who looks an awful lot like him – lathering up in her shower. No matter how you feel about the notorious “dream” twist, you have to admit: It was nice to have Duffy back on the show – and in his birthday suit no less!
10. J.R. returns. TNT’s first episode ends with John Ross visiting J.R. in the nursing home. The younger man is dejected because Uncle Bobby just sold Southfork to conservationist Marta del Sol. But wait, what’s this? J.R. is sipping champagne with Marta! It turns out the two are in cahoots. “Bobby may not be stupid, but I’m a hell of a lot smarter,” J.R. tells his son as he doffs his Stetson and flashes his grin. For me, this is the moment I knew “Dallas” was truly back.
9. J.R. and Sue Ellen reminisce. After putting John Ross to bed, J.R. and Sue Ellen retreat to their room, where they recall their courtship in warm, nostalgic terms. For a couple that is usually at war with each other, this scene is about the characters taking off their armor – symbolized by Sue Ellen’s dressing gown and J.R.’s removal of his coat and tie – and showing each other they still care. You can’t understand their love story until you’ve seen this moment.
8. Bobby beats J.R. After a yearlong contest for control of Ewing Oil, Harv Smithfield declares J.R. the winner. But wait, what’s this? Here comes Thornton McLeish with news that Bobby’s Canadian fields have come in, making Bobby the victor. The twist concluded one of “Dallas’s” greatest storylines, an arc that touched all the characters and made “Tundra Torque” part of every “Dallas” diehard’s vocabulary. We never like to see J.R. get beat, but when Bobby does it, we let it slide.
7. Ellie saves Southfork. J.R. secretly mortgages Southfork to finance a risky deal, only to have it blow up in his face. With the loans due, the Ewings scramble to pay the banks but come up empty. After a stroll around the ranch, Ellie gathers everyone and announces she’ll raise the cash by allowing Ewing Oil to drill on the land. It’s an early example of an enduring “Dallas” theme: Sometimes you have to set aside your principles to protect your family.
6. J.R. schools John Ross. J.R. is giving John Ross one last look around Ewing Oil when Wendell, the new owner, orders them off the premises. “Take this eyesore with you,” he says as he reaches for Jock’s portrait. J.R. is incensed: “Touch that painting and I’ll kill where you stand!” J.R. takes the picture off the wall, holds it aloft and – with trumpets blaring in the background – declares: “John Ross, this is Ewing Oil.” I dare you to watch this scene without getting chills.
5. Jock schools Bobby. Bobby, furious that Jock has yanked millions of dollars out of Ewing Oil without telling him, interrupts Daddy’s lunch at the Cattlemen’s Club. “You gave me the power to run that company, and damn it, I intend to run it,” Bobby fumes. “Let me tell you something, boy,” Jock huffs. “If I did give you power, you got nothing. Nobody gives you power. Real power is something you take!” Six words that sum up the Ewing creed – and “Dallas” itself.
4. The man comes around. The TNT episode “Family Business” ends on a thrilling note: With Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around” playing in the background, Rebecca shoots Tommy, while back at the ranch, seriously ill Bobby collapses. The most poignant moment of all comes before the montage, when J.R. glances at Ellie’s picture, takes a shot of bourbon and signs the Southfork deed, returning ownership to Bobby. In that instant, our hero grows. So does “Dallas.”
3. J.R.’s funeral. “Dallas” bids farewell to J.R. with a moving, instant-classic episode featuring Emmy-worthy performances from Gray and Duffy. Who’ll ever forget Sue Ellen getting drunk in J.R.’s bedroom the night before his burial, or her heartbreaking eulogy? What about the poignant final scene, when Bobby spots J.R.’s hat and tearfully declares, “I love you brother.” This is the moment the TNT series rose to the occasion – and then surpassed it.
2. “Swan Song.” Leonard Katzman’s masterpiece. Donna reveals her pregnancy to Ray. J.R. threatens to send Sue Ellen back in the sanitarium. Pam nobly tells Bobby to go back to Jenna, but he chooses Pam instead. It culminates with the dramatic driveway sequence in which Katherine runs over Bobby, followed by his deathbed farewell, the most moving scene in “Dallas” history. It’s all so beautifully done, it’s almost enough to make you regret it turned out be a dream.
1. “Who Shot J.R.?” “Dallas’s” most famous storyline is also its greatest extended moment, and not just because it sparked a worldwide phenomenon. Nothing better demonstrates the show’s ability to create multi-dimensional characters who fascinate audiences and make us care. Despite his dastardliness, after J.R. was shot, we couldn’t help but feel sympathetic toward him as he struggled to regain his ability to walk and cope with his exile from Ewing Oil. Likewise, once Kristin was identified as his assailant – in a broadcast watched by 83 million people – how could you not feel sorry for her, especially after J.R. vowed to “handle” her his “own way”? Will “Dallas” ever top this moment? Who knows? I just hope the people who make the show never stop trying.
Now it’s your turn. Share your choices for “Dallas’s” greatest moments below and read more “Dal-Lists.”