‘Swan Song’: Making a ‘Dallas’ Classic

Bobby Ewing, Dallas, Pam Ewing, Patrick Duffy, Swan Song, Victoria Principal

End of the road

Ask “Dallas” fans to name their favorite episode and many will say “Swan Song,” the 1985 segment in which Bobby dies heroically after saving Pam’s life. Although the death was later written off as a dream, the episode remains moving and memorable. To mark its 30th anniversary, I spoke to eight “Dallas” insiders who had a hand in making the classic.

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Changes were afoot as production on “Dallas’s” eighth season neared completion in early 1985. The CBS drama was still popular, but the ratings had slipped. The show also was getting ready to bid farewell to star Patrick Duffy, who had been playing Bobby Ewing since 1978.

PATRICK DUFFY I left not for any negative reason. I was at the end of my contract, which was for seven years. I thought, if ever there was going to be an opportunity to try something different, this was it.

STEVE KANALY People who worked on the show were talking about it, wondering what was going to happen. Larry [Hagman] was probably the most upset because he wanted to keep everybody together. That’s how he saw the show succeeding. On the other hand, Larry and Patrick were very, very close, and you want your friend to have his shot. You can’t blame Patrick for wanting to see what’s on the other side of the fence.

MICHAEL PREECE (“Dallas” director) I can understand why he wanted to leave. He got to the point where he said, “I don’t read the scripts. I know what my character is going to say.” Patrick is a very bright guy, and he would look at a long speech — a one-minute speech — and say, “Yeah, yeah. I’ve said this before. I know what to say.” And he would be pretty right on.

Duffy wasn’t the only member of the original cast preparing to exit. The producers decided to not renew the contract of Charlene Tilton, telling the actress they had run out of storylines for her character, Lucy Ewing.

CHARLENE TILTON At the time, they told me to make a statement saying that I chose to leave because I wanted to pursue other ventures, and I said, “Nope. You guys let me go and I’m going to tell the truth.” And I did. In all the interviews I did, I told the truth. I never would have chosen to leave the show, I didn’t want to leave the show. I was heartbroken, devastated, shocked.

LINDA GRAY I felt it was a mistake [to let Tilton go]. When people tune in to see a family drama, they want to see the family. Fans don’t like it when that dynamic is interfered with. As dysfunctional as the Ewings were, the audience wanted the family to stay together.

Bobby Ewing, Dallas, Patrick Duffy, Swan Song

Bobby Ewing, Dallas, Patrick Duffy, Swan Song

Irreplaceable

“Dallas” producer Leonard Katzman decided to write out Tilton by having Lucy leave town. Duffy’s character would receive a more dramatic exit, however. Believing the audience would not accept another actor in the role — and since it was unlikely Bobby would leave Southfork — the decision was made to kill off the character.

DUFFY I never intended to come back, and the death of the hero is a pretty powerful way to [end a season]. It made sense from a dramatic perspective.

DAVID JACOBS (“Dallas” creator) They didn’t want to leave anything open. They wanted the death to be final. The audience is very smart. They’ve been manipulated so much through the years that if they didn’t see the body, they would have expected it was just a ploy, like the show was giving [Duffy] a year off to make a movie or something. But he wasn’t planning to come back.

Katzman — after spending years clashing with executive producer Phil Capice — was quietly preparing to leave “Dallas” too. He was developing his own series at ABC.

JACOBS This is me speculating, but I think Leonard was getting a little tired of it. He was tired of the conflicts with Phil. I also think it annoyed Leonard that when something big happened on “Dallas,” like the “Who Shot J.R.?” episode, that I would get so much press because I created the show. He wanted to develop a show that could be his from the get-go. Leonard had something to prove, just like we all have something to prove.

PREECE Lenny did everything [on “Dallas.”] He wrote it, directed it, produced it. The crew, the cast — everyone was sorry to see him go.

DEBORAH RENNARD (Sly) Every organization is colored by the person at the top. They set the tone, and even if Leonard wasn’t directing an episode and wasn’t literally on the set, somehow his presence was there. … When we found he was leaving, it was like, “How do we go on without him?”

Dallas, Ray Krebbs, Steve Kanaly, Swan Song

Reflections

In March 1985, cameras rolled on the eighth-season finale, which Katzman wrote and directed himself. Details were shrouded in secrecy.

DEBORAH TRANELLI (Phyllis) It was like guarding military secrets for fear that things might leak out to the media before the airdate.

Although the script was titled “Swan Song,” the focus isn’t exclusively on the departing characters. The episode also features a moving scene in which Ray pleads with his estranged wife Donna (Susan Howard) to return to him. In another memorable exchange, J.R. accuses Sue Ellen of drinking again. Her response: “Joan of Arc would have been drunk if she had been married to you.”

KANALY I can recall the scene I played with Susan, outside the house in the dark, next to the pool. From the perspective of an actor in an ensemble, I remember thinking, “Okay, it’s my turn now.” Those scenes don’t come every week. Sometimes they never come. But I had some big moments, and that was one of them.

GRAY I remember [the Joan of Arc line]. I loved all those great lines. Those are like gems. You see those on the page, and you think, “Yes, bring it on.”

Charlene Tilton, Lucy Ewing, Swan Song

Charlene Tilton, Dallas, Lucy Ewing, Swan Song

Goodbye girl

Another emotional high point: Lucy’s second wedding to Mitch Cooper (Leigh McCloskey) in the Southfork living room. The scene ends with Tilton’s character telling the Ewings, “I’m going to miss you all. I’ll never be the same again.”

TILTON I remember filming that like it was yesterday. I was saying it from the heart, but I was also saying it from a point of maturity. I wasn’t taking it personally. They didn’t know what to do with my character. I get that. So that line was very genuine, because these people had become my family.

Tilton also remembers the white suit she wears in the scene, which was filmed shortly before Easter.

TILTON I told [the producers], “I want to wear this to church on Easter Sunday!” And they let me do it. I didn’t wear the veil, though. [Laughs]

Bobby Ewing, Dallas, Pam Ewing, Patrick Duffy, Swan Song, Victoria Principal

Til death

Although “Dallas” usually filmed in Los Angeles during the winter and spring, Katzman secretly took a skeleton crew to Texas to shoot the pivotal scene in which Bobby pushes Pam (Victoria Principal) out of the path of a speeding car being driven by vengeful Katherine Wentworth (Morgan Brittany). The scene ends with Pam crawling to Bobby and cradling him in her arms — a move Principal later said was improvised.

DUFFY I totally understand that. I don’t think she thought, “Oh, this would be charming if I crawled to him.” I think she was in the moment, and I think that’s why she screamed so loud. I know she wouldn’t have done that had she thought about it ahead of time. And it was loud! It made my ears ring. But that’s because it was real for her.

That night, Duffy and a friend from the crew went out to dinner.

DUFFY He had a couple of beers. But I drank more than I normally would, and I know it’s because [the driveway scene] affected me. I had just filmed what I thought was going to be the end of Bobby, other than the death scene at the hospital. It was a there’s-no-going-back-now kind of thing.

Dallas, Deborah Tranelli, Phyllis Wapner, Swan Song

For real

In another touching sequence, J.R. is visiting mistress Mandy Winger (Deborah Shelton) when he calls the office to tell the secretaries he won’t be coming into work that day. When Sly answers the phone, Phyllis is in tears.

TRANELLI It’s a very simple scene. I don’t speak a word. Someone once said to me, “The tears look so real.” I jokingly said, “Well, of course they were. I thought I was out of a job!” [Laughs] But the truth is, I loved Patrick, and Phyllis loved Bobby, and I was losing both. So the tears were genuine.

RENNARD She did lovely work on that scene. She always did excellent work on the show.

TRANELLI Deborah and I were good friends. So it was very touching to have someone that I trusted, as a friend and an actor, there sharing that very vulnerable moment with me.

Bobby Ewing, Dallas, Leonard Katzman, Patrick Duffy, Swan Song

Dallas, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, Swan Song

Trail of tears

Scenes in each “Dallas” episode often were filmed out of order and then edited together before broadcast. With “Swan Song,” Katzman insisted the final scene shown — Bobby’s hospital deathbed farewell — should also be the last episode filmed. It was shot Friday, March 29, 1985.

DUFFY There was no way to film that scene and then shoot a scene of Bobby at the office, and then do J.R. coming home from work. [The deathbed scene] was the last scene of that episode, and we filmed it on the last day of production. Leonard knew that after that, everybody was going to be gone emotionally.

Bobby dies surrounded by his family, but there are two notable absences: Sue Ellen and Lucy.

GRAY I didn’t take it personally like, “Oh dear, Sue Ellen should be at the deathbed.” When you work on a show like “Dallas,” the hours are long, and so when you get a day off, you’re thrilled. And I was never one to go to Leonard and say, “I should be there.”

TILTON I was disappointed, but that’s the business.

The scene is filled with tears — especially from Ray, who holds Donna and sobs.

KANALY I was feeling both the pain of Bobby Ewing dying and the pain of losing my friend Patrick Duffy from the show. Those are real tears on my part. Reality and acting get all mixed up for awhile. I think that’s where I was. We all had a big cry.

Katzman arranged the actors around Bobby’s deathbed, placing the character’s two love interests — Pam and Jenna Wade (Priscilla Presley) — side by side.

DUFFY Leonard did that intentionally, because when Bobby says, “We wasted so much time,” you never know which one he’s talking to. It was brilliantly directed.

When Bobby takes his last breath, the monitor near his bed flat lines. The sound jolts Principal and prompts Hagman to step forward and deliver J.R.’s tearful plea, “Don’t do this to me, Bobby. Don’t leave me.”

DUFFY When the flat line happens, they actually had the sound on stage because Leonard wanted everybody’s reaction to that piercing, monotone note. And I knew the sound would go on for a while so Leonard could pan to each person for their reaction. But [the sound] kept going, and it kept going, and it kept going. And that’s because Leonard was crying and couldn’t cut the camera. He couldn’t bring himself to say the word “cut” and end the scene, and end his association with the show. He was the life of “Dallas.”

Dallas, Ray Krebbs, Swan Song, Steve Kanaly

Bobby Ewing, Clayton Farlow, Dallas, Donna Krebbs, Donna Reed, Howard Keel, Jenna Wade, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, Miss Ellie Ewing Farlow, Pam Ewing, Patrick Duffy, Priscilla Beaulieu Presley, Ray Krebbs, Susan Howard, Swan Song

Death be proud

“Swan Song” aired May 17, 1985. The episode earned critical raves and was the week’s most-watched show — the last time “Dallas” ever hit No. 1 in the ratings.

DUFFY A day or so after it aired, I trucked off to the local supermarket to do my shopping and got accosted in the parking lot by a weeping, wailing woman. She was straddling two worlds of reality, telling me how sad she was that I was dead, and yet she was standing there in the parking lot, talking to me. She couldn’t, at that moment, divide herself and say, “Boy, what a devastating scene that was. I’m really going to miss your character.” No, she was actually talking to dead Bobby. And I realized television can be a very influential thing in somebody’s life. A lot of people responded that way to his death.

The following season, “Dallas” dropped out of Nielsen’s top 5 while Katzman’s new show, “Our Family Honor,” was canceled after 13 episodes. By the spring of 1986, Katzman agreed to return to “Dallas,” this time replacing Capice as executive producer, and Hagman persuaded Duffy to return as Bobby.

JACOBS When Leonard told me the [dream scenario] idea, I said, “That is horrible. I think that’s terrible.” And Leonard said, “Okay, give me a better one. He’s no good to me except as Bobby Ewing.” I knew from experience that he was right.

DUFFY [Fans] invested in that moment, and they were told that what they invested in wasn’t real. So they feel cheated a bit. But they stayed with us as an audience. And there was no other way to bring Patrick Duffy back on the show “Dallas” as Bobby Ewing. There was no other way.

Today, “Swan Song” is seen as a watershed moment for “Dallas.” Audiences continue to admire the performances and Katzman’s writing and directing.

KANALY If you look at all the episodes, I think it’s probably a real standout. It had everything that made the show so popular.

DUFFY “Dallas” was so big then. I felt very proud — and I don’t know, fulfilled — to take part in something that was as big as the death of Bobby Ewing. I don’t mean that in an arrogant way. It’s just that as huge as “Dallas” was, we knew this was going to be a big deal. And it was kind of fun to be a part of it.

***

What do you love about “Swan Song”? Share your comments below and read more features from Dallas Decoder.

Comments

  1. Dallas needs to come back to TV. @CBS are you listening??

  2. Thank you for this insiders interview. Makes me miss the show even more.

  3. Great Piece, very well written thank you.. Swan Song was one of the best, emotional and pivotal episodes in the shows history. In a way it also marks one of the worst moments, that being Katzman, or the networks decision to cut Tilton from the cast. Up until this point, no original cast members had been let go, the only exits were by Jim Davis who died and Bel Geddes who reportedly left on her own. (to return the following season of course). When Lucy left, especially at the same time as Bobby, the family as we knew it was now history. Big mistake. After Tilton, the producers decided each season another ‘Ewing’ was expendable and by the shows last season almost all but but Bobby and J.R. (and Cliff) were gone. Swan Song was wonderful, but sadly, also the beginning of the end.

    • I have to believe Lucy is probably a bit divisive. I for one was not a fan. I felt the occasions where she added something to the show were few and far between. Certainly at this point they had run out of the storylines so it was as best to make the move.

      As for each season finding another cast member expendable: Its been pretty well documented that was wasn’t the reasoning for letting people go. It was more a simply math equation. As rating drops advertising based revenue drops yet the salary of the stars doesn’t go down. That’s unsustainable. It’s undeniable the ratings never fully recovered after the return of Patrick Duffy. There is no way the show would have lasted the 14 seasons it did if production savings weren’t made. New people were cheaper. It’s cold. It’s heartless. It’s not what the fans who stuck what the show wanted. But it is pure and simple math.

      • Thank you, Dan. As you point out, it’s always worth remembering that television is a business.

      • Simple math maybe, but I also think the shows writers and producers made choices after Swan Song that started viewers turning off. Tilton’s salary certainly didn’t rival some of her co-stars, and Lucy being at Southfork added family and history. Most of the actors who left after Tilton including Gray, Kanaly and Howard all have stated they were let go. Even Principal would have stayed for the right money. I believe the ratings reflected the shows shift of focus away from Southfork and the Ewing Family. Most of what fans were familiar with and wanted to see began to disappear. It is possible the ratings may not have dove (at least not so fast or so low) had the producers remembered it was that family, especially together at Southfork fans loved so much. So many new faces, so many scenes away from Southfork spread the focus too thin and fans began peeling away.

      • I think it’s telling that “Dallas” finished the 1988-89 season in 26th place, which was still pretty respectable, and then it plunged to 43rd during the 1989-90 season, which was the first without Linda Gray.

      • The biggest choice that affected ratings wasn’t a choice of the producers. It was Duffy’s choice. That is what the began the ratings decline. And again even his return never got everyone back it lost. That set into place the defensive actions of letting people go and it spiraled from there.

      • To me, the character of Lucy could (and should) have been a vital part of the series. The fact that they “ran out” of storylines for her is the fault of the writers and producers, not the character or the actress.

        My opinion has always been that the big mistake they made was in watering her down. Lucy should have remained the “bad girl” that she was in the first season/miniseries (back when she was secretly banging her Ray). I would have had J.R. guiding her as his protege, doing dirty deeds for him (spying, seducing, blackmailing, etc.), eventually coming to work at Ewing Oil for him. She could have been an integral character for years.

        And, really, was it worth it for the show to last 14 seasons if those last few seasons it was a shell of its former self (as even us most hardcore fans have to admit)? Instead of cutting great actors and characters like Sue Ellen, Donna and Ray, and Miss Ellie, so they could save money to hire cheaper actors to play Cally, James, Michelle, etc., Maybe when the ratings started falling to the point where they needed to cut costs, they should have cut their losses and ended the show, on their own terms. Go out on top, planning a satisfactory ending in advance (instead of what we eventually got). Maybe season 12 should have been their final season?

      • J.R., your ideas for Lucy are brilliant. Imagine how fun that would have been! Thank you.

  4. Chris,
    Just curious what was the source of the quotes you pieced together for this piece. Is any of this new material? Is any of it from interviews you’ve done?

  5. Chris, I like the strong sequence where Jenna Wade & Brother Bobby are sort of realizing during the wedding of Lucy & Mitch that they are not really meant to be together. Its subtle & understated, but its excellent acting!

    • Thank you, R.J. I agree. That’s another wonderful scene from this episode. You describe the performances perfectly — subtle, understated and excellent overall.

  6. Chris! This is a treasure to read! I’ve been road tripping and missed the last Dallas chat. What a cool surprise to return to. Absolutely love all the insight from everyone you spoke with. I’ve read and reread. Thanks for this!

  7. There have only been two moments in my life when I have been moved to tears by a TV show. The first was Bobby’s hospital deathbed scene in the Swan Song episode of Dallas, and the 2nd was Laura’s final episode on Knots Landing when she said goodbye to Meg and Greg before driving away to die. As far as Swan Song, the emotional impact of seeing the Ewing family in tears around Bobby’s hospital bed while he spoke his final words – “Be good to each other. Be a Family. I love you…” – was over-whelming and devastating, even after multiple viewings (thank you VHS!). It spoke to the power of love that Patrick’s fan base had for Bobby Ewing. We ALL felt like we lost a family member that day. If I could change anythig in that scene, it would be to have Lucy and Sue-Ellen in that room as well. The fact that they were missing made it incomplete for me. Also wish Barbara Bel Geddes would have been there in place of Donna Reed, who could not convey the same depth of emotion over Bobby’s death that Barbara would have.

    I remember at the time that I could not fathom Dallas moving on without Bobby. Patrick was such a strong presence, so integral to the show, and so beloved, that the loss seemed inconceivable to the show moving on. However, upon it’s return, seeing the direction turn to Pam administrating control of Bobby’s share of Ewing Oil that was left to Christopher, and the subsequent conflicts that set up between her and J.R. gave the producers a chance to fulfill the original story-line initially pitched to networks during Dallas’ inception. Originally, Bobby was to be killed off shortly after marrying Pam, leaving her his share of the Ewing fortune, thereby pitting her against J.R. for control of Ewing Oil. Those first few episodes of the 9th season, which included the eventual return of Mark Graison were fantastic and in my opinion, up to par with the previous seasons of Dallas. How sad that they went off-track somewhere around mid-season with the Angelica Nero story, Pam searching for emerald mines in Colombia, and Jenna going off the deep end. No wonder they paniced and scrambled to get Patrick back!

    Regrettably, the series never recovered from the “it was all a dream” explanation, even tho the 10th season, which I believe was Victoria’s last, had some good story arcs that temporarily returned the show to it’s former soapy glory. I think they should have wrapped it up at that point. Losing Pam and Donna for season 11, Ray marrying Jenna, and the introduction of Carter and Tracy McKay took Dallas in a direction that no one wanted to see, and it just went downhill from there.

    I also agree that Lucy never should have been written out. If the writers could not come up with a way to fit Lucy in the story, they should have gotten rid of the writers, not the character. Ultimately, I was still glad Patrick returned because…well…who else could look as hot and fill out a black speedo as fully as Bobby Ewing?!!

  8. I really like reading the responses and the article itself. There are two tragedies. Bobby “death” and Patrick Duffy leaving the show. It is a very rare and wonderful quality Patrick Duffy has to be so likable. I do not think people would despise J.R. as he was if the audience did love Bobby as much as they did.
    If the writers could not come up with story lines for Lucy Ewing, they should’ve hired new writers. A soap opera is pretty open to a wide variety of story lines and twists so any good competent writer could’ve come in.
    “Dallas” is a show that was “metaphorically” created by capturing lightning in a bottle and anyone that thinks they have the ability to do that on their own or by following some sort of formula or their own gut instinct should seek professional help.
    I think that it is much easier and also a better idea to replace executives, producers, and directors of great television shows that it is to replace the stars of the shows. We appreciate “Dallas” mainly because of the characters.No matter how well something is produced, written, or negotiated, if that actors do not deliver an entertaining and convincing characters all the other things do not matter.

    I enjoyed watching the show on #DallasChat the other night. I cut my finger and I really appreciate the concern that the fellow “Dallas Chatters” expressed. What happened was that a little while before watching this episode with everyone, I went to my garage and I saw a broom had a bent metal stick. I picked it up to throw away but first I started to sweep out some leaves. This is when the bent handle closed on the front tip of my middle finger puncturing it real bad. It is healing just fine now and I just wear a band aid.

    • Michael, I’m glad you wrote in. I read about your injury during our #DallasChat. Thank you for participating even though you were hurt. Glad you’re healing!

      Thanks again for all your support,
      Chris

  9. I have seen this ep probably 10 times and I still get…..you know what I mean.

  10. It’s mentioned early on of course but the 800 lb gorilla in the room was that it was all fake. Its true it would have been fake even if the next season was not a dream but rather bobby was secretly revived by a nurse and then bobby went into hiding as one possible non dream explanation went. But its a lot of excellent quotes here and how that episode was filmed and what it was really like!!

  11. Kelley Tyler says:

    I go back and read your write-ups from time to time. This one is one of my favorites. It’s too bad you couldn’t get Victoria Principal’s take on this subject. In my opinion, the scene after Bobby is hit by the car is her very best. Someone just starting to watch Dallas would have found that scene amazing, but only the true Dallas fans would have known where the emotion truly came from. So moving.

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