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.
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.
“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?”
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.”
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]
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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