J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman and Me

Dallas, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, TNT

My hero

Like his famous alter ego, Larry Hagman dodged death so many times, I assumed he was going to live forever. Waking up to the news last Saturday morning that Hagman was suddenly gone left me feeling a little dazed. Without putting much thought into it, I grabbed an old J.R. Ewing publicity shot, scanned it and reached for my laptop to tap out a quick tribute for Dallas Decoder.

As fate would have it, my previous post was a transcription of the next-to-last scene from “The Search,” the “Dallas” episode where Jock is presumed dead. When I logged into my site, I was greeted by a shot of Bobby standing in the Southfork dining room, breaking the news to Miss Ellie that Daddy isn’t coming home. In that instant, I wondered: Where is Patrick Duffy right now, and does he look as heartbroken as he does in this old picture?

That’s when I lost it.

I couldn’t believe what was happening. I was weeping over the death of a television actor, a man I’d never met. Yes, I’m a “Dallas” fanatic, but I’m not much of a crier. So as I sat on my sofa shedding tears, I kept telling my husband Andrew how silly I felt. He held my hand and told me I shouldn’t feel embarrassed.

I see now that Andrew was right. Whether or not I knew Larry Hagman wasn’t the point. What mattered is that he had touched my life. Maybe J.R. Ewing wasn’t a real person, but the sense of loss I felt at that moment was very real.

It took me a few days to figure all this out and find the words to express it. The breakthrough came when I realized J.R. has been part of my world almost from the beginning. I don’t remember when I watched “Dallas” for the first time, but it must have been in the spring or summer of 1980, when the show was 2 and I was 6. I didn’t always understand the stories I saw on “Dallas,” but I couldn’t get enough of the glamorous trappings – the ranch, the offices, the cars. Mostly, though, I loved the rapscallion at the heart of it all.

J.R. Ewing was my hero. I can remember spending Saturday afternoons “playing ‘Dallas’” with Joanna, the girl who lived next door. Together, we would recreate the scenes I had watched on the show the night before. In our backyard world of make-believe, I always cast myself as J.R. Joanna was assigned all the other roles: Sue Ellen, Kristin, Cliff.

In middle school, my love of “Dallas,” “Knots Landing” and the era’s other prime time soaps was one of the things that made me realize I was different from the other boys. The other boys realized this too, and they made my life miserable. That’s when my appreciation for J.R. deepened. Even though I saw him do a lot of bad things each Friday night, I so admired how he carried himself. No one pushed J.R. around. Words never stung him. It was the kind of power I wanted for myself.

I used to fantasize about silencing my sixth-grade tormentors with clever, J.R.-style ripostes. Sometimes I’d imagine staging fiendish acts of revenge to make the mean kids sorry for picking on me. What these imaginary ploys entailed, I cannot recall. I couldn’t have been older than 11 or 12 at the time, so how devious could my maneuvers have been? Was I going to frame one of my bullies by making it look like he’d copied his homework?

I eventually outgrew my secret desire to plot and scheme like J.R., but I never outgrew my admiration for his swagger. J.R. never apologized for who he was, and eventually, I learned to be proud of who I am. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not the kind of person who brims with self-confidence. I’ll never have J.R.’s moxie. But I did learn a lot from him about standing up for yourself and having the courage to go after the things that matter to you.

Since I started Dallas Decoder and began re-watching the original series with fresh eyes, I’ve found myself thinking about Larry Hagman as much as I do J.R. What a phenomenal talent. Much has been made in recent days about Hagman’s gifts. There’s not much I can add here, except to say this: Larry Hagman wasn’t an actor. Larry Hagman was a wizard. He didn’t perform. He made magic.

People who knew Hagman have talked a lot this week about how the lines that distinguish him from J.R. blurred with time. I don’t doubt it. But I also believe there was a part of Hagman that was just plain Larry.

I thought about this a few days ago, when I watched the “Dallas Reunion: The Return to Southfork” retrospective. At the end of the special, Hagman and his longtime co-stars are sitting in front of an audience, reminiscing. At one point, the camera cuts to a shot of Hagman laughing. He’s so tickled, his eyes crinkle. This isn’t J.R.’s mischievous chuckle. It’s Larry’s hearty guffaw. It made me think: I know J.R. and I love him, but I wish I could have known Larry too.

I was lucky enough to have one encounter with Hagman. It happened during the fall of 2004, when I was working as a newspaper reporter. CBS announced a conference call for journalists to interview Hagman and Linda Gray about that “Return to Southfork” special, which was going to air in a few days. My editors weren’t interested in a story about a “Dallas” clip show, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to let that stop me from participating in the call. This was my chance to finally speak to my hero.

When the time came, I sat at my desk in the newsroom, dialed the number on the press release and listened to the moderator’s instructions. Each reporter would be allowed to pose a single question to Hagman and Gray. Fair enough. Except when it was my turn, I didn’t ask a question. Not really. I gushed. I went into full-fledged fanboy mode, telling Hagman and Gray how much I loved them, their characters and all things “Dallas.” At one point, I acknowledged I sounded like a sycophant. Hagman chuckled and called me “sickie.” J.R. Ewing took a shot at me! I was over the moon.

I’ve thought about that call a lot this week. I cherish the memory, but I also wish I could get a do-over. I wouldn’t gush this time, and I wouldn’t ask Hagman a question. I’d simply thank him.

What did Larry Hagman mean to you? Share your comments below and read more opinions from Dallas Decoder.

Pam Ewing, Prime-Time Pioneer

Dallas, Pam Ewing, Victoria Principal

O, pioneer!

If re-watching “Dallas’s” first season taught me anything, it’s this: Pam Ewing is one of prime-time television’s pioneering women.

No, really.

When “Dallas” begins, Pam isn’t the Miss Goody Two-Boots many of us remember from the show’s heyday. She’s spunkier, scrappier – and more sexual.

The show makes no secret of the fact Pam isn’t a virgin when she marries Bobby.

In “Digger’s Daughter,” the first episode, J.R. tells his younger brother that Ray, Pam’s ex-boyfriend, has bragged for years about her prowess in the bedroom. Later, in “Barbecue,” the season finale, J.R. ticks off a list of Pam’s past lovers (“Just offhand, she’s known Jack what’s-his-name and Ray Krebbs….”), before dismissing her as “trash, just plain trash.”

In this instance, Bobby belts J.R., but Pam’s reputation doesn’t seem to faze him otherwise. As Bobby tells Ray at the end of the first episode, “Pamela’s past is none of my business. She was not my wife in the past – but she is now.”

Bobby’s attitude is refreshing, but so is Pam’s. She’s never afraid to let her husband know she enjoys sex. In “Spy in the House,” for example, Pam suggestively invites Bobby to help her “try out” their new living quarters.

This makes Pam much different from her sister-in-law Sue Ellen, who feels sexually neglected by J.R. but is almost too afraid to tell him.

Breaking Barriers

Bobby and Pam’s healthy sex life makes them unlike most other couples on television during the 1970s – something Victoria Principal points out during the 2004 “Dallas” reunion special.

Standing next to Patrick Duffy, the actress recalls how unusual it was for them “to portray two happily married people who celebrated their physicality – and who were good vertically and horizontally.”

Yet Pam never seems to get a fair shake from television historians.  (Maybe because “Dallas” is a soap opera?)

When the barrier-breaking women of ’70s television are recalled, the focus is almost always on the characters who pursued careers (“The Mary Tyler Moore Show”), expressed opinions (“Maude”) and raised children alone (“Alice,” “One Day at a Time”).

On “All in the Family,” Gloria Stivic was pretty frisky and “The Bob Newhart Show’s” Emily Hartley seemed to enjoy having sex with her husband, but their experiences were played for laughs.

Pam Ewing is probably the first woman on a prime-time drama who was sexually fulfilled – and not ashamed of it.  She helped make possible “The Good Wife” and other contemporary shows that aren’t afraid to depict women enjoying their sex lives.

Praising Principal

In interviews over the years, Principal has suggested she likes Pam best during “Dallas’s” first season – and when you watch these episodes, it shows. The actress is wonderful – confident, relaxed, charming. She supplies “Dallas” with heart.

Pam’s independent streak continues during the second season, when the character resumes her retail career – a decision that leaves Jock aghast. (“What does she need a job for? Ewing women don’t work!”)

But Pam changes during the third season, when she embarks on an all-consuming quest to give birth – reinforcing the old-fashioned notion that a woman’s fulfillment lies in motherhood.

The evolution in Pam’s character can probably be traced to the departure of “Dallas” creator David Jacobs, who essentially handed over the show’s creative reigns to producer Leonard Katzman after its first season.

Jacobs is a genius at writing for strong women characters, as he demonstrated with his next series, the “Dallas” spinoff “Knots Landing.” Under Katzman, “Dallas’s” depiction of women’s sexuality is different. When women are seen enjoying sex, it’s often under illicit circumstances (J.R.’s mistresses, Sue Ellen’s affairs).

J.R.’s increased popularity with audiences also alters Pam’s character. As he grows nastier, the producers try to counterbalance him by making Pam nobler (read: boring).

But no matter who Pam becomes, we shouldn’t lose sight of who she is when “Dallas” begins – and the trail she blazes during those fascinating first five episodes.

How do you feel about Pam Ewing? Share your comments below and read more opinions from Dallas Decoder.