The Dallas Decoder Interview: Ted Shackelford

Ted Shackelford

Ted Shackelford

Ted Shackelford logged more than 340 hours of prime-time television playing Gary Ewing on the original “Dallas” and “Knots Landing.” Next month, he’ll revive the character for a three-week guest stint on TNT’s “Dallas.” I was thrilled to speak to Shackelford recently about Gary’s return to Southfork.

Did you ever dream you’d be playing Gary Ewing again?

No. I did it for 14 years and that’s a long, long time for anybody to do one character. I thought that would be it.

What was your process to get back into character?

There’s no magic here, man. I just learned the lines and showed up on time. It wasn’t that hard. It came back pretty fast.

Kind of like getting on a bicycle?

Yeah, that’s a pretty good description of it. A little wobbly at first but then it takes off.

I know you can’t give away any plot secrets, but what’s Gary up to these days?

I don’t think this is a plot point: He and Valene are having marital problems, and Bobby wants him to come down [to Texas] because Gary owns a third of Ewing –

The Southfork mineral rights.

Right. Whatever that is. [Laughs] You know, I’m not real clear on that. And Bobby needs me to form a voting bloc, which is why I’m there.

And you sort of get back into the thick of things, I guess.

A little bit. I don’t want to give away anything there.

Well, can you talk about what Gary’s like now? He changed a lot over the course of “Knots Landing’s” run.

Did he? How? Tell me. I’m curious. Because I never saw much change.

Shackelford in “Knots Landing Reunion: Together Again”

Shackelford in “Knots Landing Reunion: Together Again”

Really? [“Dallas” and “Knots Landing” creator] David Jacobs called him a clenched fist in the beginning, but he seemed to mellow out towards the end of the show’s run.

Eh. Here’s the terrible truth about that: When you do a show for 14 years, after a few years, they run out of things for you to do! You’ve just about done them all! I mean, you’ve bedded everybody, you’ve gotten drunk twice and you’re an alcoholic –

Been arrested for murder a few times –

Yeah. You’ve gotten involved with mobsters. I mean, after that there’s not a whole lot they can do with you! So yeah, he does kind of mellow out because he’s just kind of there. They just kind of ran out things for him to do.

Did you like the character?

No, I never liked him.

[Laughs] You never liked Gary?

No, I didn’t.

Why is that?

Oh, I thought he was weak. I thought he never thought anything through. I didn’t see any strength of character. I mean, just once I wanted him to have some courage. And I never saw that.

He certainly attracted beautiful women.

Well, you know, there are women who like weak men they can manipulate. [Laughs] But having said all that, had he been stronger, I’m not sure I would’ve been able to play some of the things I played. I had great material. It was great stuff. There were the drunk things, and then the mobster things, and I don’t know what else. Because he was the way he was, as an actor I got to play a lot of different colors, as they say.

Well, let me share with you my theory of the Ewing brothers: Bobby is the brother you think you’re supposed to be, J.R. is the brother you’d secretly like to be and Gary is the brother you probably are.

[Laughs]

So I’ve always identified with Gary, but maybe that’s not a good thing.

Well, you know, that’s my take on it. And listen, no actor is objective. We’re all very subjective about what we do. So your take on that character is going to be far better than mine.

What was it like to be reunited with your TV wife Joan Van Ark and daughter Charlene Tilton?

Well, I didn’t have much to do with Charlene. I think we had one scene together, maybe. And [our characters] didn’t really speak. Charlene and I spoke, of course. And then they brought in Joanie for one episode for a very real reason – and a good reason. I can’t tell you that, either. But I only had one scene with Joanie. … It was crucial to both her character and my character and how they interact in Dallas.

It must have been great to perform with her again. She’s called you her acting soul mate.

That’s the beauty of it. Working with Joanie, you just learn the words and you show up. There’s already a connection there. There’s nothing to worry about. It’s so simple. I’m one of the lucky men in the business in that I had her to work with for, I guess, 13-and-a-half year because she left during the final season [of “Knots Landing”] for awhile and then came back. But you know, there was always a connection with her.

You two really do have something special.

We’re separated by three years in age but we’re a week apart in birthdays. We’re both kind of from the same part of the country. She’s from Colorado, I’m from Oklahoma. And I knew about her before I even met her. She’d done work at the Helen Bonfils Theatre in Denver. … And I remember being there in the late ’60s, looking at pictures from their past productions, and there was a picture of Joanie. So I knew who she was. And I met her – here’s the real funny part – we did a “Wonder Woman” episode –

Oh, yes. I’ve seen it!

You’ve seen it?

Absolutely.

I recently watched it, just as a giggle. I think it was on YouTube. I don’t know why I ever got work again after that. But that’s the first thing we ever did together. We did that before we did “Knots Landing.” It’s just a funny thing with her. It’s so easy. I just had lunch with her yesterday. There’s a shorthand with us. You know, it’s like a married couple. When we talk, we don’t have to finish the sentence because we know what the other person is going to say.

So let me tell you this: A certain segment of my audience is going to want to know if Gary and Bobby are going to take another dip in the Southfork swimming pool.

No, thank God. I don’t have to worry about holding my stomach in. No swimming pool for this actor!

Some of my readers are going to be disappointed.

Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. You know what, I’m 66 so. … [Laughs]

Well, I know you didn’t do a lot of “Dallas” episodes, but do you have any special memories of working on the show?

Not really. Because when I did the “Dallas” episodes I was in between the “Knots Landing” episodes, so it was pretty fast and furious. It was: Get in there, say the words and then go back to the other soundstage where “Knots” was. It was stuff you do when you’re young because you can. [Laughs]

How about your relationship with Larry Hagman?

We never hung out. I did run into him a couple of years ago at one of those autograph shows. The man was a delight. Just a delight. You could talk to him and you’d walk away feeling a little better about yourself. It was wonderful. He was a great guy.

Well, now that J.R.’s gone, there’s a void on the show for another Ewing brother. Is that something you’d be interested in?

Oh, in a New York minute. In a heartbeat. Of course.

And what about the idea of “Knots Landing” being revived as a weekly series?

I don’t know. I’d be delighted to do it. Nobody’s talking about it, though. I mean, nobody. I don’t really see that happening. But sure, I’d do it.

Even though you weren’t crazy about Gary as a person?

I mean, come on, man. I made a very good living for 14 years. Very few actors get to say that. I’m forever, forever grateful that I got to play this guy.

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The Dallas Decoder Interview: Aaron Allen

Aaron Allen

Aaron Allen

Aaron Allen wrote “Collateral Damage,” one of the standout episodes from the new “Dallas’s” first season, as well as “Venomous Creatures,” the second half of the two-hour season premiere, airing Monday, January 28 on TNT. I spoke to him last week about what we can expect from the Ewings this year.

“Dallas’s” second season is almost here. How is this year going to compare to Season 1?

In broad terms, the first season was about the battle for Southfork. The second season is going to be more about the battle for Ewing Energies. Thematically, the first season was about the characters finding out who they were. Like Christopher, because he’s adopted, felt like he had to prove himself to be a Ewing. And John Ross was kind of conflicted: “Should I be the person my father expects me to be? Or should I be my own person?” And then by the end of the first season, both characters were kind of crystallized into what they were going to be. John Ross had his heart broken by Elena and embraced his bad side, while Christopher felt like he had proven himself. So in the second season, now that these people know who they are, we’re going to see they’ve embraced their destinies and they’re using that to their advantage.

When you look back on Season 1, what do you think worked well? What, if anything, are the writers doing differently?

Some of the later episodes in the first season really worked because you saw all the Ewings banding together to fight one foe. There’s just something energizing about that. So we’ve taken that into consideration, and I think we’ve got a lot more scenes where it’s the family kind of working together toward something. But once they’ve fought off the bad guys, they’re just going to be cannibalizing each other once again.

Dallas Decoder Interview - Aaron Allen 2

J.R. in “Venomous Creatures” (Skip Bolen/TNT)

What about Larry Hagman’s death? I know you can’t give away plot details, but generally speaking, how is the show dealing with this loss?

Larry was an incredible guy and we’ll all miss him very much. Not only was he an incredible human being, but he was an incredible character to write for. When he passed, we knew we had a responsibility to the fans to pay tribute to him and to respect his character, and I believe we have. But even though he’s gone, he’s still very much part of the story. We have some really fun, delicious storylines that are going to come out of this.

Something tells me Hagman would appreciate that. Did you get to work with him very closely?

I didn’t have a ton of direct contact with him. He wasn’t in my first episode from Season 1 very much because he was going through a lot of his treatment at that time. But my first episode in Season 2 is actually a very heavy Larry episode, so I got to see him work quite a bit. And he was just a joy to work with. Everybody loved him. He joked around with everybody. He was a delight.

Well, J.R. has never been more fascinating. Everyone always refers to him as the villain of “Dallas,” but to me he’s the hero, and I think we see that on the new show.

It’s a balance because J.R. loves his family, and he’ll do whatever it takes to protect them. But sometimes that means doing terrible things to other people. That’s my favorite kind of bad guy, the one who has sympathetic qualities. I think J.R. was a very sympathetic character.

Do you have other favorite characters to write for?

Well, speaking of villains, I love writing for Harris Ryland. I mean, he’s a villain, plain and simple. When it comes down to the Ewings versus the world, it’s helpful to have him around. He’s really a devil.

And in “Venomous Creatures,” we’re going to meet his mother, played by Judith Light.

She’s a hoot. Her character chews the scenery. Judith’s a terrific actress to work with. Just watching her swing for the fences with her character was a lot of fun. I think fans will love her.

Her casting raised some eyebrows because she’s only a few years older than Mitch Pileggi. What do you make of that?

[Laughter] I don’t think it really matters in the end. An example would be Harrison Ford and Sean Connery in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” I think there was only a 12-year age difference between those two. People bought that. I think people will definitely buy this too. We wanted there to be something a little strange about Harris and Judith’s relationship, so I think the casting plays in our favor there.

Switching gears for a moment, can you talk a little bit about how the writing process on “Dallas” works?

On our show and most others, you have a staff of writers starting with the executive producers at the top. On our staff we have eight writers. Cynthia Cidre, who developed and runs the show, guides the writing process, along with Robert Rovner, the other writing EP. For the first few weeks of the season, we all sit around a big table and talk about the storylines, the characters and generally where we’re going. And then we start breaking down each episode individually, and that takes a couple of weeks. And then one writer is assigned to write the script for each episode, and as that writer is working on his or her script, the other writers are talking about the next episode.

Once a script is written, how long does it take to produce it?

Well, then you go into pre-production, which takes about a week. You’re meeting with the director, you’re going through the script, you go and scout locations. And then you start production, which lasts about seven or eight days.

It sounds relentless.

It all happens pretty fast. One of the thrilling things about working in TV is that you write something and then a month later it’s filmed, whereas in feature films it can take years to get things done.

Getting back to the show itself, were you a fan of the original “Dallas”?

I’m 31, so when the original show was on, I was too young to be among the target audience. But I’ve always a big fan of the brand of the show – the big family soap opera. I loved “Six Feet Under.” I loved “Big Love.” And I was always conscious of “Dallas.” It was such a phenomenon. I knew it was a huge part of pop culture, like when “The Simpsons” did “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” So I always understood where that came from. But it wasn’t really until I got the job on the new show that I went back and watched a bunch of episodes of the old one. And the whole “Who Shot J.R.?” thing was great. I also liked the storyline when John Ross was kidnapped from the hospital, and when Pam wanted to be a mother to little John Ross and Bobby had to gently remind her it wasn’t her baby. I love the emotional stories.  The business stories can sometimes make my head hurt!

You mentioned “Big Love,” which you wrote for before joining “Dallas.” I’ve always thought there were parallels between those shows. Both are about big western families with lots of secrets.

Yeah, absolutely. I think the Henricksons and the Ewings would definitely respect one another because of the value they place on family. It’s that us-versus-them mentality. When the Henricksons were under attack, they would set aside all their bickering and it was them against the people trying to persecute them. The Ewings are the same way.

And I think J.R. might’ve appreciated having more than one wife at a time.

[Laughter] Yeah, I think he could have flourished in that environment.

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The Dallas Decoder Interview: Michael Preece

Michael Preece

Michael Preece

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.

Larry Hagman in “Changing of the Guard”

Larry Hagman in “Changing of the Guard”

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.

Barbara Bel Geddes in “Acceptance”

Barbara Bel Geddes in “Acceptance”

Oh no!

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.

Mary Crosby’s legs in “Full Circle”

Mary Crosby’s legs in “Full Circle”

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.

Really?

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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The Dallas Decoder Interview: David Jacobs

David Jacobs

David Jacobs

Before J.R. Ewing appeared on our television screens, he existed in the mind of David Jacobs. I was honored last week to speak to Jacobs, who shared his memories of creating “Dallas” and its most famous character, as well as working with the actor who brought J.R. to life, Larry Hagman.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this amazing character, J.R. Ewing, since Larry Hagman’s death. How did you envision J.R. when you created him?

I envisioned him the way he became but not as radical; Larry brought something of his own to the role right away. In the first “Dallas” script [after Pam turns the tables on J.R.], Larry’s last line is, “Well, I underestimated the new Mrs. Ewing. I’ll never make that mistake again.” And the script says he smiles. But Larry didn’t smile. He laughed. It was a small laugh, but he laughed. And that changed it. He took possession of the character at that moment. Because the smile would have said, “Oh, I have a worthy adversary,” whereas the laugh meant, “Hold onto your hats, this is going to be fun.”

It’s funny to think Hagman wasn’t the first choice for the role.

We originally offered it to Robert Foxworth. The producers and I had a conference call with him and he wanted to know why J.R. was the way he was. And we said, you know, he’s made 10 times as much money for the family as his father ever did, yet his father still likes his brother better. Then Foxworth said, “Well, how are you going to make him more sympathetic?” And everyone in the room looked at me to answer that question. At me – this was probably the first conference call I’d been on in my life, and they were waiting for me to answer. And I said, “Well, we’re not. J.R. believes the way business works is, you screw them before they screw you. And he likes that. The process. He loves it.”

Was anyone else considered for the role?

No. After Foxworth passed, Barbara Miller, who was in charge of casting, said Larry Hagman wanted to come in. And my first reaction was, Larry Hagman? He was the Major [on “I Dream of Jeannie”]. I knew he was a good actor because I had seen him in “Harry & Tonto,” where he was just wonderful. And he has a very small role in “Fail Safe,” but it made a big impression on me. He was the translator [who tells the president of the United States about a nuclear disaster]. And Larry walks down the corridor to the president’s office and raises his hand to knock on the door – and he doesn’t. He smooths his hair back with his hand and takes a breath, and then he knocks. I always remembered that gesture.

J.R. (Larry Hagman) in 1978

J.R. (Larry Hagman) in 1978

But you didn’t think he was right for J.R.?

It was more like, “He really wants this role? Hmm.” So he came in the next day. I was sitting in [producer] Phil Capice’s office, with Phil and Mike Filerman, the executive I developed “Dallas” with, and of course Lenny Katzman. My back was to the doorway, and I noticed they all were looking past me, startled, almost. And I turned around and there, in the door was Larry Hagman, in a Stetson and boots. And he came in the room, in character with his Dallas accent. And within two minutes there was never any question J.R. would be played by anyone else.

Oh, wow! I don’t think I’ve heard this story.

It was an amazing performance. You know, he was an established actor. We wouldn’t have asked him to read for the role, but he did read in a sense. He just auditioned in character – for just a few minutes. And then he was back to being Larry Hagman. It was really shrewd of him – intuitively genius.

Now that Hagman’s gone, will you be sad to see this character you created come to an end?

Well, I’m sad that Larry’s gone. Yes, I created the character. And yes, I knew in the phone call with Foxworth the kind of unapologetic villain he should be. But don’t get me wrong: that guy belonged to Hagman. The synergy that created the character of J.R. was the synergy of actor and role more than it was the writer and the actor.

Do you have ideas about how you’d kill him off?

No. I haven’t thought about it. Who knows? I might come up with something brilliant if I thought about it. You know, when they brought back the show [on TNT], I thought about things that I would do differently, but Larry’s death is too fresh. It’s too raw.

How do you think J.R.’s death will affect the new show?

A lot of people have asked me that. I think they’ll probably get a [ratings] bump when they air the episodes that deal with J.R.’s death. But after that, to be perfectly honest, I think the “next generation” has to step up – like every “next generation.” I definitely think the show has the ingredients to stand on its own. Maybe they’re a little afraid of it, but maybe this will get them to do it.

Kind of like the mama bird pushing her baby out of the nest?

Exactly. And of course J.R.’s going to cast a shadow over it forever. But we’ll see.

Gary and Val (Ted Shackelford, Joan Van Ark) in 1979

Gary and Val (Ted Shackelford, Joan Van Ark) in 1979

How do you feel about Gary and Val’s upcoming visit to the new “Dallas”? You played with those characters for 14 seasons on “Knots Landing.” Now they’re going to be in the hands of other writers.

It’s OK. I’m not like [Aaron] Sorkin, whose characters speak Sorkinese and it’s brilliant. I always wrote very stylized dialogue and let fine actors like Joan Van Ark and Ted Shackelford make the words theirs. They’ll still be Val and Gary. So I don’t worry about it.

What do you think Leonard Katzman, the original “Dallas’s” longtime producer, would think of the new show?

He’d hate it.

Really? Why?

He just would. He hated the [original show’s “dream” season] after he’d walked away from it. That season has taken a rap that I don’t believe it deserves. It was trying to freshen up the act. But Leonard hated it.

Well, what about you? Do you like the new show?

I do. It’s great to see Southfork in H.D. and widescreen. Beautiful. I do wish they would slow things down. Mike and I were talking recently and said we could’ve gotten 10 shows from the first five. [Laughter] And not by stretching, but by making it more complex and by making the stories less plot-driven and more character-driven. I think it was Chekov who said plot is character. Whoever said it, I agree with.

Do you think there’s any chance of “Knots Landing” coming back?

No, I don’t think so. “Knots Landing” never had the ratings and the international appeal that “Dallas” had. “Knots” recreated would have to be five younger families living on the cul-de-sac – and not related to the older characters. Because if they were related it wouldn’t be believable. “Knots Landing” was always the hardest show to write because unlike “Dallas,” the conflict wasn’t built into the structure. You always wanted to ask the question: Why don’t they just move out? Why don’t they just stop talking to their neighbors like neighbors everywhere?

Getting back to “Dallas”: Your pilot script is dated December 10, 1977. Thirty-five years later, we’re still watching this show. How does that make you feel?

You know, while it was on the air, it was sort of a guilty pleasure because I wasn’t running it. It was my first show. Afterward I ran “Knots Landing” and my other shows, and “Dallas” was in the hands of Lenny Katzman. But later on, I realized “Dallas” really was the model for all the shows that came after it. Before “Dallas,” there was a great fear of serialization in prime time. Mike and I thought continuing drama was exactly the right form for television. And the form of “Dallas” became the model for all the continuing dramas that followed and are now dominant. So it really did change television in a very not-so-subtle, real way. And I like that.

Well, I know I speak for a lot of fans when I say we’re thankful to you for creating this really fun, fantastic show.

And I’m thankful to Larry Hagman. His loss means something to me. He was a nice man. He was a terrific actor. Absolutely underrated. But God knows he left this earth doing what he loved. A lot of us might wish to go that same way. So I’m glad I was able to provide him with the vehicle that he would use to display his great talent, and I’m certainly grateful to him for being the driving force of a show that has meant a lot to me.

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The Dallas Decoder Interview: Howard Lakin

Howard Lakin

Howard Lakin penned several “Dallas” episodes as a freelancer in the early 1980s, then returned to the series as a writer and producer for its final three seasons. To my delight, he agreed to share his memories of working on the show, as well as his thoughts on the TNT revival.

You wrote some of my favorite “Dallas” episodes, beginning with “The Fourth Son,” the one where Ray discovers Jock is his father. What do you remember about making it?

Not too much, honestly. But my own dad was adopted so I’m sure I was able to find plenty of emotional traction in the Jock-Ray relationship. And I think that also might have been a factor later on when I got to plot the J.R.-Vanessa Beaumont-James Beaumont illegitimate son story.

That’s interesting. Did that happen a lot – your drawing on your own family experiences when writing for the Ewings?

In some of the subtle details, maybe. But not in any real core way.

How did it feel when you’d see “Written by Howard Lakin” appear on screen?

Funny to think back on it. But I was in my 20s during my first three-year stint as a freelance writer for “Dallas” and most of my close friends were not TV watchers. Even my wife wasn’t much of a TV watcher so it was kind of hard to muster up a feeling of self-importance when I saw my name onscreen! Although secretly … yeah, it was cool.

J.R. (Larry Hagman) in “Sunrise, Sunset”

Did you have favorite characters to write for?

Don’t know why this came to mind, but I remember this one scene I wrote for J.R. where he had to walk into a swimming pool fully clothed in order to cut a deal. [“Sunrise, Sunset” during Season 13 – Ed.] But when I saw the dailies, Larry Hagman had ad-libbed a kind of Texas strip tease before getting wet. Off came his hat slowly, off came his watch slowly, out came his wallet, almost seductively. Larry Hagman gave J.R. such character nuance that writing J.R. was fun; whatever I brought to the table, Larry made it better. That said, I also especially enjoyed writing Sue Ellen. Her long character trajectory was one of the most engaging to work on.

Any favorite “Dallas” episodes?

“Wedding Bell Blues” always pops into my head. It was the first “Dallas” episode I both wrote and produced and it marked a change for the show. “Dallas’s” ratings were being impacted by fresh new competition in the late 1980s. These new shows had a much faster pace and a lot more flash. [Producers] Len Katzman and Art Lewis both wanted to keep the show moving forward so it was agreed we’d try to change with the times. “Wedding Bell Blues” was the first step in the process. I guess the feeling at the time was that if we were going to grow old, it wasn’t going to be a rocking chair thing. We were going to take some chances and go down fighting.

J.R. and Cally (Hagman, Cathy Podewell) in “Wedding Bell Blues”

I love “Wedding Bell Blues”! That’s the episode where a storm strands everyone at Southfork on the night of J.R. and Cally’s wedding. It’s probably one of the most light-hearted “Dallas” episodes.

Larry Hagman directed the episode and really had fun with it.

Were there times you’d see one of your scenes after it was filmed and think, “Wow, that’s not how I envisioned it when I wrote it?”

Not really, not that I can remember. More credit to Len Katzman. He was that rare exec producer who came up the hard way, sweeping out sound stages as a teenager – I think I have that right – followed by decades of hands-on experience. He had a great grasp not just of his own job but he really understood the intricacies and elements of everyone else’s job. And in an industry that is known for “creative conflict,” he had a calming influence, it seemed, on everyone. This translated into a “no surprises” kind of show when it came time to look at the rough cut.

What was it like to work on “Dallas” toward the end of its run? It seems like a lot of fans are critical of the final years. What’s your response?

Instead of focusing on negatives, because in a weird way that just tarnishes the show’s overall reputation, I’d love to hear about some upbeat takeaways from the show’s later episodes now that 20-plus years have passed. What was fun, what made folks feel, what do they still remember with fondness, you know? After 20 years, it might be time to look back and re-visit the good stuff. Personally, having experienced both the glory years and the do-not-go-gentle-into-that-good-night years, I prefer the latter. CBS, Lorimar and Elvis had left the building. Len had won the right to bring the ship home all on his own and in terms of working conditions, it had the most relaxed vibe of any show I ever worked on.

Don and Sue Ellen (Ian McShane, Linda Gray) in “The Serpent’s Tooth”

Do you have a favorite storyline from those final years of the show? Something you think worked really well?

Off the top of my head, I think …well, I don’t know if these were the story lines that worked best but I really enjoyed crafting the three romances which featured Bobby-April, J.R.-Vanessa, and especially Sue Ellen and Don Lockwood because I was determined that Sue Ellen should have a powerful, positive walk-off ending. I really enjoyed Ian McShane. He was fun to work with and a cool dude – aside from being an awesome actor. Gayle Hunnicutt was a class act and a nice person to boot. And Sheree Wilson did a good job with the long romantic build-up and payoff in Paris with Patrick Duffy.

If the show had been renewed for a 15th season, do you have any idea what storylines you might have pursued? Any idea how the cliffhanger with J.R.’s “suicide” attempt would have been resolved?

I don’t remember any discussion of “what if” so I can’t help you there. If we had known there was going to be a 15th season, I doubt very much that the suicide storyline would have been used at all.

You’ve talked in past interviews about how every “Dallas” character reflected some facet of Leonard Katzman’s personality. Can you talk a little more about that?

It’s just my opinion. But here’s an example: Art Lewis and I would sit with Len for endless hours in his dark office, windows shut, stuffy as hell, hashing out stories. I would have mock arguments with Art, each of us taking the story choices in different directions. Len would just listen. More argument, Len would just listen. Ideas, ideas, how a character should react, what would Bobby do, whatever, then at some point Len would literally swivel in his chair so we couldn’t see his face – this could last for five seconds or two minutes. Then he’d swivel back and give us a satisfied smile and let us know which of our many ideas were correct according to the grid through which he saw the whole arc of the show. It was like he could slip into the skin of each character.

Any thoughts on what Mr. Katzman might make of the new TNT series? And what do you think of the show?

I definitely like the new show. It’s really remarkable how it remains true to the spirit and mythology of the original and yet adds all this new good stuff. Can’t speak for Len Katzman but I know he’d be very pleased with its success.

John Ross (Tyler Banks) in “Head of the Family”

It’s funny: One of the first episodes you wrote, “Head of the Family,” ends with little John Ross sitting in Jock’s chair at the head of the Southfork dinner table. It kind of predicts the whole TNT series!

Damn, I totally forgot about that.

You’re now a rare book dealer. How did that come about?

Showbiz, especially episodic work, is so adrenaline-driven that I really needed ways to chill. Before I got my MFA degree at UCLA film school, I got a degree in lit from Antioch College. Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy – read everything they wrote. Decided to collect their first editions. Built such a good collection that eventually it morphed into Lakin & Marley Rare Books here in San Francisco.

You just published a novel. What can you tell us about it?

It’s brand new, called “California Noir.” You can buy it on Amazon or ask for it at your local bookshop. It’s an emotional thriller, equal parts suspense and romance. Don’t want to do any spoilers so, in classic TV shorthand, think of it as “Dallas” meets “Casablanca,” a film noir novel that’s just as much a love story as it is a mystery to be solved.

Getting back to “Dallas:” The series has now spanned several decades. What do you think is the secret of its enduring appeal?

Live long enough and you can end up literally watching hundreds and hundreds of television series, many absolutely brilliant, most the usual re-mix or formula. “Dallas” is much more saga than series. Its narrative is expansive, and larger than life and convoluted in a good way. From my point of view, what makes it endure is also what makes it iconic. I mean, despite its oversized Texas storytelling, anti-heroic bluster and Dickensian cast of characters, there is still so much to care about on a human level and a whole lot of universality in how it deals with complex family love, family business and family conflict. That’s my take on it anyway.

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The Dallas Decoder Interview: Ken Kercheval

Ken Kercheval

TNT’s “Dallas” just finished its first season with three big revelations: Cliff Barnes is Rebecca’s father (!), the mastermind behind her scheme (!!), and the owner of a really cool jet (!!!). Ken Kercheval, Cliff’s real-life alter ego, graciously spoke to me this week about his iconic character and what the future might hold for the Barneses and the Ewings.

So tell me: What’s it like to be playing Cliff Barnes again after all these years?

Same old, same old. I know this guy pretty well so it’s just like putting on the same set of clothes that you wore a few years back.

When the producers invited you to reprise the role, did they talk to you about the direction they were planning to take Cliff?

The only thing they said is that he had gone off and become very, very, very rich. Richer than the Ewings. That’s it. That’s absolutely all I know.

Cliff has done a pretty mean thing, using his daughter to get back at the Ewings – including his nephew Christopher. What do you think of that?

Damned if I know. I swear, I don’t have a clue. [The producers] are very, very close-mouthed about where they’re going with it.

Will you be back next season?

I will be. So far they only have four episodes written and I know I’m in the fourth one. I’ll be filming that at the very beginning of November, and then I go to England to do the Irving Berlin musical “White Christmas.”

Maybe you’ll get to work with Linda Gray again. You two always had great chemistry.

She’s always fun to work with. She knows what she’s doing. I think [the writers] should rekindle Cliff and Sue Ellen’s love affair.

Cliff in “The Last Hurrah” (Photo credit: Zade Rosenthal/TNT)

I think that would be great.

I do too!

You two filmed a scene this season that was cut before TNT showed the episode [“The Last Hurrah”] on television. Can you tell us what we missed?

There’s a scene outside the opera house where we’re walking along [and] I’ve offered [Sue Ellen] my financial support for her running for governor. And she says she has to turn it down. And I [say], “Why? Have you got a better offer?” And I just stop her and say, “J.R. is absolutely never going to change. Don’t bank on [him] because the man will never change.”

It’s a shame we didn’t get to see that. Hopefully when the first season is released on DVD, the scenes that were edited out will be included as extras.

Maybe. I never could figure out why they were cut. To begin with, the one scene was replaced by the birthing of that calf.

What did you make of that?

I thought, what’s that relevant to? I didn’t understand it. But, you know, it’s not my place to understand it. I think the writers are extremely clever. And I know that Cynthia [Cidre, the executive producer] told me that her team of writers sat down and watched every single episode that had ever been filmed of the [original] show. I said, “I hope they got paid well.” That’s a lot of work.

What was it like to film the airport hangar scene where Rebecca is revealed as Cliff’s daughter?

Cold. Very, very, very cold. But it was nice working with Julie [Gonzalo, who plays Rebecca]. She’s so good! Among the younger cast, she’s the only one besides [Jesse Metcalfe, who plays Christopher] that I’ve done a scene with.

You think highly of Cynthia Cidre, too.

She’s fantastic. Oh, she is one smart woman. She really knows what she’s doing.

If we can go back in time for a minute, you and Larry Hagman are the only actors who were regulars during all 14 seasons of the original “Dallas.” Do you have favorite scenes from the old show that stand out?

When I first reunited with my mom [Rebecca Wentworth, played by Priscilla Pointer], I think, is my favorite scene.

The “licorice scene” where Cliff tearfully offers his mother her favorite candy. I love that one too.

That was a powerful scene for me.

You also had one with Barbara Bel Geddes, where Cliff sits with Miss Ellie on a park bench and basically makes amends for the whole Barnes-Ewing feud.

Oh, definitely. I remember that scene very well because we almost never worked together. [Before filming] I went to her trailer and we were going over the lines and I said, “Well, right here, when I say this line, can you turn and look at me?” And she thought about it and said, “Well, I don’t think that would be right, Kenny.” So then when we filmed the scene, I delivered that line and she didn’t look at me so I didn’t say my next line. And so finally she looked at me. And when the scene was over, she said, “You dirty dog. I told you I didn’t want to look at you and you tricked me into looking at you!”

Barbara was my best friend on the show, off stage. My very best friend. She’d say, “Kenny, if you were just a little bit older or I was a little bit younger….”

When you were playing Cliff the first time around, did you like him?

Yeah, I did. I really did. I thought he was a nice guy too. J.R. was coming after my ass all the time, so I was always had to defend myself. If I did something that wasn’t quite right, it’s because I had to.

Well, now Cliff seems to have the upper hand. I’m looking forward to seeing what his next move will be.

I am too!

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The Dallas Decoder Interview: David W. of Dallas Divas Derby

The best thing about starting Dallas Decoder has been meeting fellow “Dallas” fans like David W., the genius behind Dallas Divas Derby, a new online brackets game that pits the show’s women characters against each other. David has really interesting ideas about “Dallas” and graciously agreed to share some here. Read what he has to say – and be sure to visit his site to vote for your favorite diva.

Dallas Divas Derby is great! How did you come up with the idea for the site?

Oh, thank you. I’m a lifelong “Dallas” fan and an interactive designer in my previous professional life, and I’d been thinking for years that it would be fun to make an online interactive family tree for the Ewing and Barnes families. Other projects and life prevented me from realizing that, but when TNT’s new show was announced, it struck me that it might be interesting to create some kind of online activity for fans to refresh their memories about “Dallas” history.

I’d always felt pretty strongly that “Dallas’s” best years were seasons 1 through 9, when it focused on a well-rounded ensemble cast and featured strong writing for the men and women alike. If you watch the show in its entirety, you see that the writing for the women begins strong, if a little sexist in some instances, and grows steadily better, peaking during the dream season.

In the years since “Dallas” ended, much of the lore of the show had been framed around the Ewing brothers’ saga. We all know the story. It’s a good one, but it has been told over and over again from the same male perspective. As I watched the show in reruns and on DVD as an adult, I gained a whole new appreciation for the female characters and actresses. I learned about Barbara Bel Geddes, Alexis Smith, Priscilla Pointer and Martha Scott’s stage and film careers, and I appreciated their rich nuanced performances even more. And my admiration for Linda Gray, Victoria Principal and Susan Howard grew deeper watching them evolve over the years. And then you had amazing villains like Kristin and Katherine, which I loved as a boy and appreciated even more as an adult.

For me personally, those actresses made a huge impression when I watched the show as a kid, and I became really interested in looking back at “Dallas” from the perspective of the female characters somehow. When you do, you realize how vital they were to the show’s success. You see huge arcs like Sue Ellen going from repressed alcoholic beauty queen, to strong female executive and mother, and Pam from strong-willed poor country girl from the wrong side of the tracks, to successful, confident independent businesswoman. I think for me personally, I identified closely with those arcs.

Though not a huge sports fan, I’d worked previously on interactive ad campaigns for the March Madness NCAA college basketball games, and I learned about that whole brackets game phenomenon that’s so popular among fans and office pools.

While re-watching “Dallas” this spring, it dawned on me that when you watch over the years, you see some recurring character archetypes common among the women. So I started scribbling down character names and playing around with them on paper, and grouping them based on similarities, and bingo, my earlier ideas about an interactive family tree merged into the brackets game idea!

Talk a little bit about how you came up with your matchups. There seems to be a method to your madness.

I quickly surveyed the entire 14 seasons to see if there’d be enough interesting characters that would work, and there were! Then I researched about how teams are “seeded” in brackets games based on their wins and losses, and it dawned on me, the characters could be similarly “seeded” based on the number of episodes they’d been in. In essence, each episode they were in counted as a “win” for them.

When I did the math, the results were really interesting to me. Similar archetypes often ended up paired against each other, like the case of “Sinister Sisters” Katherine Wentworth and Jessica Montford. When I saw that, I knew I had to make the game, even if only other die-hard “Dallas” geeks would appreciate it. It interested me, so that’s what drove me. And I was unemployed, so that helped too.

Once I did all that math, things happened very quickly to build the site. I knew we’d need a database, so I met with a dear friend who is a Ruby on Rails developer, and he volunteered to help. He made it possible for me to make the site a reality.

You know the characters really well. It sounds like you’ve been a fan of the show for a long time.

I started watching “Dallas” almost at its beginning, even though I was only 8 at the time. My parents, usually very conservative in what they allowed us to watch as kids, were quickly fans of the show, and somehow let us watch along with them.

I remember in the late ’70s being fascinated by the idea of Southfork. I was growing up in suburban Detroit, so the idea of a ranch, with all that land and a big family living together really fascinated me.

I remember often watching the show on Friday nights, and then getting up early the next day to play with my Legos in front of Saturday morning cartoons. I’d sit there for hours building elaborate Lego Southforks and Southern Crosses, and then I’d use Matchbox cars that matched all of the main character’s cars, and I’d re-play “Dallas” all morning. I even built a replica of Sue Ellen’s condo because I thought it was so glamorous and I was so happy to see her on her own, away from evil J.R. Mind you, I was like 10 or something.

I became the go-to guy in the family for episode re-caps. If my grandmother missed an episode, she’d have me re-tell it all to her the next time I saw her. Later in junior high and high school, I’d have “Dallas” finale parties for my entire family, and make cakes with oil derricks on them and things like that. It was ridiculous.

I love it! In general, what do you think of the way “Dallas” depicts women?

I do think the show’s portrayal of women really mirrors the idea of women in our pop culture from the late ’70s through the mid-80s. Not all of that is good, but I think it was pretty spot on.

For example, for my mom and my friends’ moms who were middle-class suburban housewives negotiating the idea of entering the working world, the evolutions of Sue Ellen, Donna, Pam and others was something that resonated. It was the point in time when the option and expectation of being a stay-at-home mom started to evaporate for many American women due to economic needs.

On “Dallas,” much of the early writing for these women focuses on tension between them and their husbands about their roles in the family. Sue Ellen’s meant to be a society wife and crank out Ewing heirs. Her life is booze, ladies’ luncheons and affairs. Pam wants to keep working and hates the society life, but struggles with Bobby’s sexist expectations for her to stay at home, and Ray struggles hugely with the idea that Donna is making more money than him, and what that means for his masculinity. And of course, Ellie is the traditional heart of the show, a true grandmother archetype.

As the Regan era/corporate greed era takes hold in the ’80s, you see Pam, Donna and eventually Sue Ellen staking claim to a desire to be successful professionally in their own right. They each pursue it differently, but they all eventually challenge their partners for respect, and you get to see all these previously traditional men dealing with the idea that their women are becoming fiercely independent. I think again, that mirrored what was happening in society to a degree.

On the “villains” side, you see people like Marilee Stone, Holly Harwood, Kristin and others using their gender and sexuality to gain power, and as weapons. Some of that feels pretty sexist now, but if you look at mainstream films of the era, the meme was everywhere. The mainstream white male was intrigued by – and simultaneously threatened by – strong independent businesswomen.

Of course now, looking back, especially amongst many of the supporting females, you do see lots of stereotypically weak secretaries, hookers, tramps and thieves, and some of that feels dated and uninteresting.

Since voting began on Dallas Divas Derby, what’s been the biggest surprise? Has any diva done better than you expected?

Ha ha, yes! My developer partner and I have kept our hands out of the voting, but based on my personal preferences, I’m not a big Cally Harper fan, no offense to Cathy Podewell. I just thought, in reference to what we were just talking about, that Cally was written as this incredibly one-dimensional country girl caricature, and from a very older white urban male slant. I never really felt like she fit with the rest of the cast.

What we’ve heard from fans online and seen in the voting so far, though, is that she has more fans than haters. She won her Round 1 match against Kimberly Cryder and really never was behind in that vote based on what we saw. She was always the favorite, though the voting was close.

For the purposes of the game though, we’re actually quite happy that the two Mrs. J.R. Ewings will go head-to-head in Round 2 on May 16. It should be a good match for fans of both her and Sue Ellen.

You also had some “Dallas”-worthy drama with a hacker. What happened?

Yes, we did! Well, you know, I’m not a professional programmer, and I wanted to keep the game simple and easy for users. I underestimated the level of security we’d need at first though.

Our Bring Her Back vote was meant to be a straight-up horse race for fans to vote in real-time for any of the “living” characters they wanted to see back on the new series. Unlike the brackets game, where match results are revealed every Wednesday morning – to promote Wednesday as the new day for “Dallas” on TNT – the Bring Her Back vote is always live on the site, so users can see the actual vote numbers.

This bred some fierce rivalry between a few Katherine Wentworth and Lucy Ewing fans earlier this month. We saw first a huge, and rather humanly impossible, spike in BHB votes for Lucy overnight one night. And we started to get complaints from Katherine fans, so we investigated. We found that at least one person, if not a couple, had “hacked” the BHB voting overnight, and within hours we had numbers in the thousands jumping back and forth for Lucy and Katherine. It was headed to the stratosphere, but clear the votes weren’t “real.”

We’d like to think we’re that popular, and though we do allow users to vote more than once, it reached a humanly impossible rate of voting, based on our other stats. So we had to add some more protections to the voting code, to prevent over-the-top gaming of the system, while trying to keep it easy and fun for users.

Since we’d been watching the vote closely, we made the call to remove the hacked BHB votes from the system so our fans could continue to play the game and feel like they had a chance.

Luckily, none of that affected any numbers on the brackets game, so that voting to date hasn’t been compromised. This is just meant to be a fun thing for fans and we hope everyone who wants to participate can and express their preferences in the voting.

OK, I must ask: Do you have a personal favorite “Dallas” diva?

This is a hard one for me. We’re trying to remain agnostic in the vote, and there are so many different types of characters to choose from.

On the heroines’ side, Sue Ellen has been an icon for me since I was a kid. I related to her struggles and her growth towards independence. I still love her and am so happy she’s back.

On a more complicated level, it’s Pam for me. I loved her in the beginning of the show as the tough poor country girl arriving at Southfork, then lost a bit of interest during her obsession to have a baby and the weird writing around some of that, but loved her again in Seasons 7 through 9 as she returned to strength and came into her own. Victoria Principal’s performances leading up to and after Bobby’s death still haunt me today. Those were award worthy in my book. They made a huge impact on my psyche as a teen. In my opinion though, the writers ran Pam into a ditch in Season 10 though, moving her to the periphery and weakening her. The way Pam was written out made many fans dislike her, and I think that was a huge detriment to the show’s legacy. We’re supposed to believe the show’s original leading lady, who desperately fought to have a successful marriage to Bobby and have a child, suddenly decides to leave them to go die alone with a stranger? It was stupid writing and it hurt the character and the show.

On the villains’ side, Katherine was my number one favorite, followed closely by Jessica Montford and Kristin. All could’ve lasted on the show longer in my opinion. Heck, I even enjoyed Angelica Nero as a super-villain. It was fun to see a woman besting J.R. in scheming.

I think you’re wise to praise Angelica. If she doesn’t win her next round against Mandy Winger, she might start blowing stuff up again!

Ha ha, indeed! She was fantastic. I’m keeping my eye out for exploding briefcases. Luckily I don’t own a Ferrari. I will add this though, we’ve learned during the Derby to not underestimate Katherine Wentworth fans. Things could get interesting if Angelica and Katherine face-off later in the Derby. I’m secretly hoping they might.