A Farewell to Barnes: Remembering Ken Kercheval

Cliff Barnes, Dallas, Ken Kercheval

Lone star

Cliff Barnes was a loser, but Ken Kercheval was anything but. By portraying Cliff as an endearing jackass, Kercheval won the hearts of “Dallas” fans and created a character who, in some ways, was as essential to the show’s success as Larry Hagman’s J.R. Ewing. Cliff could be petty, foolish and hopelessly oblivious, but Kercheval brought so much humanity to the role, you couldn’t help but like the schmuck. Deep down, I bet some of us even rooted for him.

Kercheval’s death this week has unleashed a torrent of Cliff clips on social media, reminding everyone how good he was in his career-defining role. Talk about an actor with range! Cliff was the bumbling nemesis who prompted many of J.R.’s most memorable quips (“Oh Barnes, you just get dumber and dumber every day”) and the unlikely lothario who treated so many of the show’s leading ladies like Texas dirt, but he also was the wounded soul who sweetly reconciled with his runaway mama over a bowl of licorice; the protective big brother who knowingly winced when he heard the radio bulletin announcing that Pam’s true love Bobby had been mowed down in her driveway; the humbled avenger who sat on a park bench with Miss Ellie and sought forgiveness for waging war on her family. In the hands of a lesser actor, Cliff would have been just another soap opera character whose motivations changed with the wind. Kercheval made him real.

The true secret to Cliff’s appeal, though, lay in his rivalry with J.R. With the exception of Patrick Duffy and perhaps Hayden Rourke, did Larry Hagman ever have a better on-screen foil than Ken Kercheval? I couldn’t possibly pick a favorite scene between J.R. and Cliff, but their schoolyard showdown-style exchange of insults in the 1984 episode “And the Winner Is …” stands out. Kercheval and Hagman are fire and ice here: While Cliff rages (“You can’t stand the fact that Barnes-Wentworth is going to be bigger than Ewing ever dreamed of being!”), J.R. stands his ground, calmly burrowing ever deeper under Cliff’s skin (“You’re going to bankrupt your mama’s company and wind up just like your daddy: a drunk and a bum”). Despite all the bluster, Kercheval always injected a hint of envy into his performance, letting the audience see that Cliff didn’t want to beat J.R.; he wanted to be J.R. Once you realize that’s where Cliff is coming from, how can you not feel for the poor slob? After all, who among us doesn’t want to be J.R.?

Cliff Barnes, Dallas, J.R. Ewing, Ken Kercheval, Larry Hagman

Mutual admiration society

Truth be told, I think J.R. secretly admired Cliff’s tenacity, although like his character, Kercheval never got the respect he deserved. Despite being the show’s most delightfully unpredictable performer — you didn’t watch Ken Kercheval, you experienced him — he never scored an Emmy. (Neither did Hagman, but at least he got nominated.) Just as puzzlingly, Kercheval was in “Dallas” from the beginning and did as much as anyone to transform the show into a hit, yet he wasn’t promoted to the opening credits until the third season. Of course, once he finally showed up, the close-ups chosen for his three-way split screen captured the character in all his multi-faceted glory: Confused Cliff, Chipper Cliff, Crabby Cliff. Perfect.

Regardless, Kercheval ended up getting the last laugh. Besides Hagman, he was the only member of the cast to appear in all 14 seasons of the original series before going on to appear in the first reunion movie and all three seasons of TNT’s sequel series. Altogether, Kercheval logged 360 hours of “Dallas” across its various incarnations, second only to Hagman, who clocked more than 380 hours. And while Cliff never became an icon like J.R., Kercheval’s character made his mark in popular culture nonetheless. A Washington Post editorial once derided then-Vice President George H.W. Bush as “the Cliff Barnes of American politics — blustering, opportunistic, craven and hopelessly ineffective all at once” (ouch). Kercheval also deserves credit for making pocket squares seem so stylish in the 1980s — and is it possible his cheapskate character did more to popularize Chinese food in the American diet than Panda Express?

It’s been touching to see so many of Kercheval’s former cast mates honor him online this week, especially Audrey Landers, whose Afton Cooper did so much to humanize Cliff, and Julie Gonzalo, who holds the distinction of being the last “Dallas” actor to share a scene with Kercheval during the final season of the TNT series. Linda Gray, Charlene Tilton and both of Kercheval’s on-screen sisters, Victoria Principal and Morgan Brittany, also wrote nice things about him, along with Leigh McCloskey. As far as I can remember, McCloskey’s character, pretty-boy plastic surgeon Dr. Mitch Cooper, never shared a meaningful moment with Cliff, yet McCloskey penned a lovely tribute to Kercheval on Facebook, remembering how kind the actor was to him when he joined the cast. Everyone, it seems, had affection for “Kenny.”

Tributes like these are a reminder that while the rest of us have lost a favorite TV star, the cast members are mourning the death of an old friend. Kercheval somewhat famously used to say he never watched “Dallas” when it was on the air. As he explained when I interviewed him in 2012, once he played a scene in front of the cameras, he felt no compulsion to tune in on Friday night and watch it. But Kercheval also talked about how much he enjoyed working with actors like Gray, Landers and his close pal Barbara Bel Geddes, and he expressed amazement that people still recognized him as Cliff, even when he traveled abroad. I didn’t include this in the published interview, but I asked him if he thought it was strange that fans like me still obsess over “Dallas” after all these years. His matter-of-fact answer: “Yeah.” He added that he appreciated the fans and was thankful for their support, but in the end, the show was just a show. “I mean, you know, to me, it was just a job,” he said.

Fair enough. To him, maybe “Dallas” was just a job. But didn’t he do it well?

What are your favorite memories of Ken Kercheval on “Dallas”? Share your comments below and read more opinions from Dallas Decoder.

Dallas Scene of the Day: ‘You’re in Over Your Head, Barnes’

Mr. Curious

Mr. Curious

In “And the Winner Is …,” a seventh-season “Dallas” episode, Cliff (Ken Kercheval) is at the Oil Baron’s Club when he spots J.R. (Larry Hagman).

CLIFF: What are you doing here?

J.R.: Curiosity. I wanted to see if the biggest idiot in the oil business was really going to show his face here tonight.

CLIFF: Well, you are a sore loser.

J.R.: Yeah, maybe. But I’ve been in this business a long time, Cliff. And you’re just a rookie. You’re in over your head, Barnes. You’re not going to bring those wells in, so I’m going to give you a little piece of advice: Cut your losses. Forfeit that 20 percent deposit you had to give the government.

CLIFF: You suggesting I get out?

J.R.: Well, I’m telling you that a $32 million loss is a hell of a lot better for you than the loss of your whole company that your mother gave to you.

CLIFF: That’s a rich tract. There are millions of dollars worth of oil down there.

J.R.: You wouldn’t recognize oil if it was dripping out of your crankcase.

CLIFF: And you can’t stand the fact that Barnes-Wentworth is going to be bigger than Ewing ever dreamed of being.

J.R.: Barnes, you’re as dumb as your daddy used to be. You know the difference between your daddy and my daddy? My daddy knew how to invest in the right talent and the right tools. He knew how to pump oil out of the ground. But your daddy claimed that he could sniff oil out of the ground. Didn’t need anything but his nose. The only place his nose ever led him was skid row.

CLIFF: I’ll tell you where your mouth’s going to lead you.

J.R.: You were right about one thing, Cliff. There is oil in that tract. Millions and millions of dollars worth of oil. But you’re not going to get it. You’re going to bankrupt your mama’s company and wind up just like your daddy: a drunk and a bum.

CLIFF: I’ll show you who can find oil because I am drilling full out and there isn’t anybody who’s going to stop me. And when I hit, I’m going to buy and sell Ewing Oil.

J.R. chuckles and walks away.

Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 153 — ‘And the Winner Is …’

And the Winner Is ..., Cliff Barnes, Dallas, Ken Kercheval

Everybody loves Cliff

Is Cliff Barnes the most lovable jackass in television history? I can think of no other character who manages to remain so endearing despite being such a jerk. Exhibit A: “And the Winner Is ….” In this episode, Cliff wins the auction for the government’s offshore oil leases, but only after J.R. has tricked him into inflating his bid by tens of millions of dollars. Realizing he’s in over his head but not willing to admit it to himself or anyone else, Cliff insults Pam, ignores Afton, alienates Marilee and treats Jackie rudely. And yet you can’t help but like the schmuck.

The question is: Why? I suppose several factors explain Cliff’s appeal, including the vulnerability he’s displayed in previous episodes. Yes, he’s a boor in “And the Winner Is …,” but he’s also the sweet-natured guy who famously reconciled with his estranged mom by offering her a bowl of licorice. We’re also willing to cut Cliff some slack because we recognize how much of him resides in each of us. Consider the “And the Winner Is …” scene where he gets mad at Sly and she smartly disarms him by saying he’s become more ruthless than her boss. It’s music to Cliff’s ears, reminding us that he doesn’t want to beat J.R. as much as he wants to be him. Once you realize that’s Cliff’s motivation, how can you not excuse his bad behavior? I mean, we all want to be J.R., don’t we?

Of course, if you really want to know why Cliff remains a sympathetic figure, look no further than Ken Kercheval. No “Dallas” actor is better at wearing his character’s obliviousness on his sleeve, and no one brings more electricity to their performances. You can feel Cliff’s manic energy throughout this episode: when he runs into Bobby while storming out of Pam’s house (“What the hell are you doing here on a weekday?” Cliff demands); when he pops out of Afton’s loving embrace to call Mark Graison about business; when he summons Jackie to his office to fix him a drink because he’s too wound up to do it himself. You don’t watch Kercheval, you experience him.

This is why J.R. and Cliff’s confrontation in “And the Winner Is …” is so entertaining. Kercheval and Larry Hagman are fire and ice; while Cliff rages, J.R. stands there, coolly burrowing deeper and deeper under Cliff’s skin. Watching this scene, it occurred to me: Just as Cliff wants to emulate his enemy, I have to believe J.R. harbors a secret, grudging respect for Cliff. Who else but “Barnes” would have the courage to stand in the middle of a crowded restaurant and shout at J.R.? Who else has the capacity to keep getting up and dusting himself off after J.R. has knocked him down? If nothing else, J.R. must enjoy having Cliff to bat around whenever he gets bored.

Kercheval’s scenes elevate “And the Winner Is …,” but this episode has several other good moments. I love seeing J.R. helpfully explain to Edgar Randolph that he did him a favor by blackmailing him because it will force Edgar to come clean to his wife. After Edgar punches him in the gut, J.R. deadpans to Sly and Phyllis, “I saved that man’s marriage and gave him a new lease on life. He doesn’t have a grateful bone in his body.” I also like when Miss Ellie and Clayton dine with Punk and Mavis, who reminisce about the beginning of their 25-year-old marriage. It turns out the Andersons were previously married and divorced from other people. Who knew? Speaking of divorcees: I’m charmed by the scene where Bobby and Pam take Christopher out for ice cream — especially when little Eric Farlow “photo bombs” one of Victoria Principal’s close-ups.

Not everything about “And the Winner Is …” works: The auction sequence is far-fetched — does half the population of Dallas show up to see Edgar and his fellow bureaucrats open a handful of sealed envelopes? — and so is the post-auction reception at the Oil Baron’s Club. Is this a government exercise or the Academy Awards? As silly as this is, nothing compares to the ridiculousness of Lucy and Peter’s fashion photo shoot at Southfork. Between the extras who hover in the background holding sparklers and the sight of Charlene Tilton and Christopher Atkins vamping through massive eyeglasses, I have to believe this sequence was every bit as campy when it aired in 1984 as it is today. On the other hand: If Lucy and Peter wore those frames today while walking down a street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, or some other hipster neighborhood, I’m sure everyone would think they looked very cool.

Especially if Peter wore his Speedo too.

Grade: B

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And the Winner Is …, Charlene Tilton, Christopher Atkins, Dallas, Lucy Ewing, Peter Richards

Give a hoot

‘AND THE WINNER IS …’

Season 7, Episode 22

Airdate: March 2, 1984

Audience: 21.5 million homes, ranking 3rd in the weekly ratings

Writer: Arthur Bernard Lewis

Director: Nick Havinga

Synopsis: Before the government auctions its offshore oil leases, Sly feeds Cliff false information, driving up his offer. After submitting his inflated bid, Cliff wins the auction to drill in Gold Canyon 340, only to learn Marilee has backed out of the deal, leaving Cliff on the hook with the government. Ray and Donna urge Edgar to come clean about his past to his wife. Bobby and Pam grow closer, alarming Katherine. Peter tells Sue Ellen he believes he was the father of the child she lost, which leaves J.R. seething when he overhears their conversation. Ellie encourages Clayton to invite his sister to their wedding.

Cast: Mary Armstrong (Louise), Christopher Atkins (Peter Richards), Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Morgan Brittany (Katherine Wentworth), Martin E. Brooks (Edgar Randolph), Roseanna Christiansen (Teresa), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Eric Farlow (Christopher Ewing), Fern Fitzgerald (Marilee Stone), Wendy Fulton (Jan Higgins), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Alice Hirson (Mavis Anderson), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Rosanne Katon (Billie), Sherril Lynn Katzman (Jackie), Howard Keel (Clayton Farlow), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Audrey Landers (Afton Cooper), Joanna Miles (Martha Randolph), Priscilla Beaulieu Presley (Jenna Wade), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Debbie Rennard (Sly), Don Starr (Jordan Lee), Paul Sorensen (Andy Bradley), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), Deborah Tranelli (Phyllis), Debi Sue Voorhees (waitress), Morgan Woodward (Punk Anderson)

“And the Winner Is …” is available on DVD and at Amazon.com and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.