The Dallas Decoder Interview: Margaret Michaels

Dallas, Margaret Michaels, Pam Ewing

Margaret Michaels

Margaret Michaels occupies a unique place in “Dallas” history. In 1988, one year after Victoria Principal left the original series, Michaels played Pam Ewing in two scenes designed to give the character closure after her fiery car crash and disappearance from Southfork. The following season, Michaels returned for a few episodes as Jeanne O’Brien, a Pam lookalike. I spoke to her recently about her “Dallas” experiences.

Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get the role of Pam?

I have a very dear friend who was a stuntwoman and happened to be the driver who ran over Bobby in the episode where he supposedly died. She and I were visiting the set of one of Patrick Duffy’s TV movies, and when my friend introduced me to him, he asked if I was an actress. The next thing I knew, I was reading for [“Dallas” producer] Leonard Katzman.

No kidding? So Katherine Wentworth’s stunt double is friends with the other Pam Ewing?

Isn’t that funny? My friend, Linda, is such a kick. I used to go with her when she was doing stunts with [stuntman] Hal Needham. We’d watch them blow up cars in San Pedro. She’s a fun friend, let me tell you. [Laughs]

So when you met Patrick, did he remark on your resemblance to Victoria?

I don’t remember him making that comment, but he must have felt that way, otherwise I would not have met with Leonard.

Let’s talk about that. You spent a year on the daytime soap “Santa Barbara” before “Dallas.” Had anyone commented on your resemblance to Victoria before?

First of all, I think we all look like someone. And several people had said they thought we looked alike. I think if we were standing next to one another, people might not make that distinction. Yet photographically, it certainly works. And please keep in mind: I’ve never met Victoria Principal. I do have a couple of friends who know both of us, and they say we have a strong resemblance. I’ve always taken that as a compliment.

Dallas, Margaret Michaels, Pam Ewing

Once a heroine

So you read for Mr. Katzman, and then you got the part. Was it intimidating to step into the role of Pam, even if it was for just one episode?

I think it’s difficult for any actor to fill the role of a beloved character like Pam. She was established by Victoria, who was loved both as Victoria and as Pam. And so as an actor, you want to get it right. And as a fan who watched the show, you really, really want to be believable. So I understood the importance of that scene.

Ah, so you were a fan of the show?

Absolutely! I think everyone I knew was a fan of “Dallas.”

That’s very cool! Your familiarity with the show must have been helpful to you in preparing for the role.

It was, certainly. I already knew that Bobby was the love of Pam’s life. I knew that stepping away from your child in order to save them from more heartbreak had to be probably one of the most difficult decisions she would ever make. And I also knew that her love for and bond with her brother Cliff would make seeing him again almost impossible. That’s a tremendous amount of information for an actor to go into a scene with. So for me, I think having created the raspy voice, in addition to the scars on my neck and face, probably made it easier for me to slide into that role.

Oh, interesting. You changed your voice for the scene?

I did. I tried to mimic that of a burn victim because, of course, Pam’s crash was an absolute explosion of fire. I’ve always found it amazing that anyone could have survived it.

Yes. She’s a miracle woman!

But that kind of intense fire, it doesn’t just disfigure a person’s face, it damages their vocal cords. So I tried to make [my voice] a little raspy, so there wasn’t clarity to each sentence. I’ve had family members who were with the fire department, and my husband had a very good friend who ran a burn center. And when someone has had a tremendous insult to their vocal cords, it alters the sound of their voice.

You also mentioned the makeup you wore. Was that very involved?

Very involved, and that’s why I applaud the makeup department. It takes a long time to build that kind of scar tissue on the neck and face. Actually, that may have taken as long as doing the scene.

So what was it like to actually film the scene? It’s a heartbreaking moment — Pam telling Cliff she never wants to see him again.

The thing that pops into my mind first is walking onto that set and how quiet and respectful it was. That’s not always the case when you walk onto a set, until they start rolling. Michael Preece was directing that episode — and wow, Michael is truly an actor’s director. And Ken Kercheval is really a wonderful actor. He was so real. It was difficult to hold in all those emotions as Pam while watching Cliff plead for his sister to come back home.

And then Cliff walks away, and Pam is left alone with her doctor — and that’s when the audience learns she’s dying and sent Cliff away to protect him from the truth.

The wonderful part of that was it allowed me to take all this pinned up emotion from my scene with Ken and take it into the next scene with the doctor.

It sounds like you really enjoyed working with him.

The whole experience was wonderful — solemn, but wonderful. I have to tell you: On the day we shot this and I walked onto that set, I had to wonder how it was for the crew. For years, they worked with one actress as Pamela Ewing, and then suddenly they’re presented with a scene where both the character and the storyline have closure, and an entirely different person steps into the role. But the crew was lovely.

So what kind of reaction did you receive after that episode aired? Did you hear from fans?

I did. It was odd because I already had a fan base from “Santa Barbara,” and there were people who wrote and were very positive. I was thankful for that. Yet I also think this was really difficult for people who were true fans of Victoria and Pam to accept me in this role, and I think that’s completely understandable.

Dallas, Margaret Michaels, Pam Ewing

Repeat performance

Well, the producers must have liked what they saw because they invited you to return the following season as Pam’s double, Jeanne.

I was completely surprised when that happened. It was an out of the blue phone call. They asked, “Would you want to come back and do this character, Jeanne O’Brien?” And I thought, “Of course.” No one even questions that. It was a wonderful set to work on.

How did playing Jeanne compare to playing Pam?

It’s totally different than coming in and taking over a role that someone else created. Now you get to create all the nuances of Jeanne O’Brien. Each time I got a script, there was another layer of her personality. In my mind, I think she was trying so desperately to climb that ladder of success without really knowing who she was. I think she was very ambitious, and I do not think she was prepared for a guy like Bobby Ewing. It’s sort of like having your knight in shining armor arrive, only to realize the knight belongs to someone else, and there’s nothing you can do about it. [Laughs]

Jeanne was quite a bit different from Pam, wasn’t she?

There was that one scene in her house where she attempts to transform herself into Pam and seduces Bobby. When I got that script and read that scene, it was the first time I thought she had a darker, more manipulative, almost desperate side to herself. Because initially, she was all over the place. She was a smart real estate woman, and then all of a sudden she was the cute, sweet little date, and now I’ve got a scene where she tries to look exactly like his ex-wife. You have to wonder: What type of personality makes that choice?

Bobby Ewing, Dallas, Jeanne O'Brien, Margaret Michaels

Seeing double

And when you played Jeanne, you finally got to work with Patrick.

I absolutely loved him. He is just a wonderful human being. He’s kind and nurturing, and as an actor, he’s talented and giving. Every single time I worked with him was just pure joy.

He and Larry Hagman were famous for their practical jokes on the set. Were you ever a victim of their pranks?

Was I a victim? [Laughs] Let me tell you, it wasn’t just Larry and Patrick. It was also Ken Kercheval.

Oh, really? I haven’t heard about him before.

I don’t think Ken orchestrated anything, but he wasn’t adverse to being the quiet participant who didn’t give me a heads up. There were actually a few times where I felt like I was in the Abbott and Costello routine, “Who’s on First?” And trust me: When you’re the new kid on the show, you are not on first.

Ken also directed one of the Jeanne O’Brien episodes.

He did. He directed that darker scene where Jeanne seduces Bobby. And Larry of course directed one [of the other episodes], and as directors, both Ken and Larry were exceptional. They knew exactly what they wanted. Because they played key characters on “Dallas,” their insight into the show worked very well for them behind the lens.

Dallas, Larry Hagman, Margaret Michaels, Patrick Duffy

Who’s on first?

Do you stay in touch with any of the cast members?

I have friends who have run into Patrick and I think, “Why don’t I ever run into Patrick?” [Laughs] But I have to tell you: My husband and I were once boarding a flight from New York, and Larry and his wife were on the same flight with us. So I had an opportunity to fly from New York to L.A. and chat with him. This was years ago, and I’m always grateful now that he’s gone that I had an opportunity to spend a little bit of time with him.

So on the new “Dallas,” Pam is supposed to be dead, but a lot of fans are hoping she’ll come back — and many of them would be very happy to see you in the role.

First, I’m flattered to hear that. I was a fan of the old “Dallas” and I’m a fan of the new “Dallas.” I just love Josh Henderson and Jesse Metcalfe. They are so wonderful. I love Elena and Pamela. I adore Sue Ellen. I like her so much now because she has come into her own. And of course, like all the fans, I was hoping for that J.R./Sue Ellen reunion. Oh, and I have to tell you this, because I love this so much: I think having Cliff Barnes return as the mega-wealthy villain is pure genius.

Isn’t he great on the new show?

He’s fabulous. And Patrick’s character has layers upon layers. Bobby’s really grown into his own. I love how strong he is, and I love how he has a little bit of bad boy in him now. I think that’s a good thing for him. And you talk about Pam, but I have to tell you: I really like Bobby and Ann. I think she’s wonderful.

Oh, how nice!

So as for Pam returning? This is the only way I know how to put this: In life, we miss our family members that we lose. And art imitates life, and fans miss the characters that they lose — yet it doesn’t always mean we get them back. I think Cynthia Cidre knows exactly what she’s doing.

Nicely stated, but what about Jeanne? Would you ever be interested in playing that role again?

Oh, yeah. Sure. She’s a fun gal.

Dallas, Margaret Michaels, Pam Ewing

Never settle

What do you think became of Jeanne? Where do you suppose she is today?

[Laughs] Well, I don’t think Jeanne would have settled for the mundane. Knowing her, I think she probably married an older, wealthy businessman who probably taught her everything she needed to know about the corporate world. And by now, I would think she’s either divorced, maybe widowed. Regardless, I think she’s certainly doing well on her own.

And what about Margaret Michaels? Can you tell us what you’re up to these days?

Oh, sure. I actually changed my focus and started putting my creative energy in writing. I had so many stories and ideas pinned up in my brain for so long, so I decided to put them on paper. So I have a couple of production companies. I have two partners, and we have a feature that’s ready to go. I also wrote a television movie for the holiday season, and I created a series. I’ve already written the pilot, and three episodes are finished. I know all the little twists and turns and where the characters are going. I just wish all the ideas would float out of my head and download themselves onto my USB without my having to type anything. [Laughs]

Are these projects “Dallas” fans can see soon?

I’m talking to people. This is an interesting business. My feeling is this: When you’re shooting it, then you know it’s a done deal. Until then, it’s all conversation and negotiation.

Spoken like a smart businesswoman. Jeanne would be proud!

[Laughs] Well, I just truly love doing this. I enjoy every moment of the process.

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

Comments

  1. sunnycd says:

    When I saw the link on Twitter, I was very excited! I couldn’t wait to read it! And it was a great interview (another one!). Her talk about her research showed in the Pam scene; I thought she was great with the mannerisms – one of the reasons I wanted her as the recast.

  2. What an unbelievably classy broad!

Trackbacks

  1. […] to the death certificate shown on TNT’s “Dallas” last season. The character, last played by Margaret Michaels, succumbed to cancer not long after recovering from her horrifying car accident. Of course, this […]

  2. […] Kay Lloyd, or pool hustler Tracey Lawton, a.k.a. Tracey McKay? There’s also Pam lookalike Jeanne O’Brien and young Jory Taylor, as well as the gals Bobby dated during the “Dallas” reunion movies — […]

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