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.

Share your comments below and read more interviews from Dallas Decoder.

The Best & Worst of Dallas: Season 1

“Dallas’s” first season is comprised of just five episodes, but there’s no shortage of things to cheer and jeer.

Performances

Dallas, Digger's Daughter, Pam Ewing, Victoria Principal

Own it, honey

Sorry Mr. Hagman, but Victoria Principal owns Season 1. The actress makes Pam confident and charming, with a laugh that would make Julia Roberts envious. Pam is also unapologetically sexual, making her one of television’s breakthrough women characters. If you’ve forgotten how intriguing Pam is when “Dallas” begins – and how terrific Principal is in the role – go watch any of the first five episodes. She’s the best thing about each one.

Episodes

I tend to like my “Dallas” dark, which might be why “Digger’s Daughter” is my favorite first-season entry. Some of this has to do with the writing, but a lot of it has to with the weather: This episode was filmed in the real-life Dallas in early 1978, when the city was in the midst of its coldest-ever winter, and all those stark landscapes and lifeless skies make it one of the show’s moodiest, broodiest hours. It’s also remarkable how many “Dallas” hallmarks are present from the very beginning: the Southfork cocktail hour, J.R. and Bobby’s Cain-and-Abel shtick, J.R.’s daddy issues, everyone’s obsession with the firstborn grandson.

Some fans consider “Lessons” the season’s lowlight. I don’t. Yes, the episode’s main plot – Lucy is skipping school! – makes “Lessons” feel more like an “ABC Afterschool Special” than “Dallas,” but don’t overlook the many wonderful character-building moments here, including Miss Ellie and Pam’s coffee talk and the precedent-setting office scene between J.R. and Bobby. As an added bonus, “Lessons” concludes with that ’70stastic disco sequence, which only gets more fabulous with age.

Scenes

Hands down, the season’s best scene showcases two characters you’ve probably forgotten: Tilly and Sam, the gossipy caterers who appear in “Barbecue” and are never seen or mentioned again. Irma P. Hall and Haskel Craver are a hoot; imagine the cheeky, “Downton Abbey” vibe they would have lent the show if they had become regulars.

No scene qualifies as the first season’s “worst,” although hindsight being what it is, I could do without all those shots of Lucy and Ray cavorting in the hayloft.

Supporting Players

Dallas, Julie Grey, Tina Louise

Grey matters

Oh, how I love Tina Louise in “Spy in the House.” Of all of J.R.’s mistresses, Julie Grey will always be my favorite because Louise makes the character feel so heartbreakingly real. I can’t help but root for Julie, even when she doesn’t root for herself.

My least favorite guest star: Cooper Huckabee, who cackles his way through his role as Payton Allen, Brian Dennehy’s “Winds of Vengeance” sidekick.

Locales

I know this puts me in the minority among “Dallas” diehards, but I like the estate used as Southfork during the first season. The compound-style setting – one big house for Jock and Miss Ellie, surrounded by a series of smaller homes for each son and his wife – feels more credible as a wealthy family’s homestead.

Worst set: Sky Blue, the Braddock disco where the Ewings shake their booties in “Lessons,” is the least convincing nightclub I’ve ever seen. Was this place a Sizzler in real life?

Costumes

Dallas, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman

Seeing red

Bobby’s leather jacket is iconic and also metaphorical: He’s wearing it at the beginning of “Digger’s Daughter” when he and Pam are nervously headed to Southfork to announce their nuptials. We wonder: Are the Ewings are going to tan Bobby’s actual hide when they discover he has wed a Barnes?

Worst wardrobe choice: J.R.’s garish red belt buckle. Of course, as gaudy as it is, at least it’s not covered in gold and stamped with the character’s initials like the one he sports on the new TNT series.

Behind the Scenes

Every time I watch these early episodes, I can’t help but wonder what direction “Dallas” might have taken if creator David Jacobs had retained control of the series after the first season. Jacobs is a television genius; if he had stuck around, I have no doubt this great show would have turned out even greater.

What do you love and loathe about “Dallas’s” first season? Share your comments below and read more “Best & Worst” reviews.

Critique: TNT’s ‘Dallas’ Episode 5 – ‘Truth and Consequences’

Ann Ewing, Brenda Strong, Dallas, TNT, Truth and Consequences

The ex files

“Truth and Consequences” offers a nice showcase for Brenda Strong and Julie Gonzalo, who haven’t had much to do on TNT’s “Dallas” until now. Both actresses make the most of the opportunities they’re given, delivering solid performances that add dimension to their characters, Ann and Rebecca, the newest Ewing wives.

Throughout this episode, Ann reminds me of “Dallas” heroines past. Seeing her stand up to J.R. (“They warned me. My whole marriage, they told me about you.”) recalls some of Pam’s best confrontations with him, while the scene where Ann, clad in her signature pearls, offers Rebecca some much-needed motherly advice evokes warm memories of Miss Ellie. This isn’t a coincidence. Ann exists to fill the void left by both Pam and Ellie, two of the old show’s most beloved characters, which means Strong might have the most thankless job of all among TNT’s “Dallas” cast.

This is why Ann’s visit to smug ex-husband Harris Ryland, played to the hilt by Mitch Pileggi, is so pivotal. With this exchange, Ann begins to come into her own as a character. She may not share Pam’s history with Bobby or Ellie’s connection to the land, but at least now we know Ann is willing to stick her neck out to help her husband fight for Southfork. This is the kind of wife our hero deserves, and the classy Strong fills the role nicely. Bravo.

Gonzalo does impressive work in “Truth and Consequences,” too. The young actress is moving during Rebecca’s tearful confession to Christopher in the barn (“You need to believe I love you!”), and her desperation is palpable when Rebecca turns to Ann for comfort and counsel. I’m not convinced the audience should trust Rebecca, but Gonzalo is helping transform her into “Dallas’s” most intriguing character.

Given this episode’s emphasis on the women of Southfork, it seems like this would have been an ideal time to let viewers continue getting reacquainted with Sue Ellen, but she doesn’t appear in “Truth and Consequences.” This is the second TNT episode in which Sue Ellen is missing in action; the character is also absent from “The Price You Pay.”

I find this astonishing. Like I wrote last month, with the exception of Larry Hagman, no actor on TNT’s “Dallas” has as much presence as Linda Gray, and it’s a shame the producers have struggled to find a meaningful storyline for her.  The good news is this begins to change with next week’s episode, and not a moment too soon.

Overall, “Truth and Consequences” is a strong hour, with good writing from Robert Rovner and stylish direction from Randy Zisk, whose past credits include “Revenge” and the David Jacobs-produced “Lois & Clark” and “Bodies of Evidence.” I especially like the “Truth and Consequences” scene where J.R. quotes Jock (“Daddy always said beautiful women were the most dangerous”), which prompts an exasperated Bobby to respond, “I know all the things Daddy used to say.” This might be the season’s best line.

Other highlights: the scenes where John Ross and Christopher each show up on Elena’s doorstep at different points during the same night. (Some girls have all the luck.) Elena’s exchange with John Ross is particularly good. I love when he tells her, “You’ve accused me of awful things that I did not do, and yet I’m still here, at your door, asking you to take a chance on me.” Josh Henderson really makes me care about John Ross here; this is probably the actor’s best scene so far.

Moments like these compensate for some of “Truth and Consequences” shortcomings, beginning with J.R. and John Ross’s silly scene at Cowboys Stadium. On “Dallas,” J.R. is supposed to be a prominent Texan, but I don’t think he’s famous enough to warrant having his face flashed on a Jumbotron. The sequence makes TNT’s “Dallas” too self-aware; J.R. is a folk hero in real life, not within the context of the narrative. Not helping matters: Jerry Jones’ cameo, an unwelcome reminder of his appearance in “War of the Ewings,” “Dallas’s” abysmal 1998 reunion movie.

J.R.’s purchase of Southfork, just days after Marta bought it from Bobby, strains credibility, too. It reminds me of “The Decline and Fall of the Ewing Empire,” the next-to-last episode of the original series, when Ewing Oil changed hands two or three times in the course of a single episode.

Likewise, I find it hard to believe Bobby’s hands are as legally tied as Lou, his new lawyer (played by terrific “24” vet Glenn Morshower), claims. The sale to Marta was fraudulent because Marta isn’t really Marta, yet her sale to J.R. is perfectly legal? I wanted Lou to run that by me one more time, but alas, the show moved on instead.

That’s the thing about TNT’s “Dallas:” It’s always moving on.

Grade: B

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Christopher Ewing, Dallas, Julie Gonzalo, Rebecca Sutter Ewing, Truth and Consequences, TNT

Double life wife

‘TRUTH AND CONSEQUENCES’

Season 1, Episode 5

Telecast: July 4, 2012

Writer: Robert Rovner

Director: Randy Zisk

Audience: 5.1 million viewers (including 3.4 million viewers on July 4, ranking 16th in the weekly cable ratings)

Synopsis: Rebecca confesses Tommy sent the e-mail to Elena, prompting Christopher to kick the Sutters off Southfork. Bobby vows to reclaim the ranch after J.R. reveals he’s the new owner and departs Dallas, leaving John Ross in charge until he returns. To slow down J.R. and John Ross, Ann persuades her ex-husband, trucking magnate Harris Ryland, to not haul the oil pumped out of Southfork. Christopher discovers proof John Ross knew Marta’s true identity before she tricked Bobby into selling the ranch.

Cast: Jordana Brewster (Elena Ramos), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Julie Gonzalo (Rebecca Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Callard Harris (Tommy Sutter), Josh Henderson (John Ross Ewing), Jerry Jones (himself), Jesse Metcalfe (Christopher Ewing), Glenn Morshower (Lou), Kevin Page (Bum), Mitch Pileggi (Harris Ryland), Brenda Strong (Ann Ewing), Leonor Varela (Marta del Sol)

“Truth and Consequences” is available at DallasTNT.com, Amazon.com and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.

Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 46 – ‘Paternity Suit’

Dallas, John Ross Ewing, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, Paternity Suite, Tyler Banks

Father and son, at last

“Dallas” creator David Jacobs has called the final scene in “Paternity Suit” – when J.R. picks up his son for the first time – his favorite moment during the series. I understand why. Nothing humanizes J.R., Jacobs’ most famous creation, quite like this.

In the scene, J.R. – clad in a tuxedo because he’s on his way to one of Miss Ellie’s charity dinners – enters the Southfork nursery moments after receiving the blood-test results that prove he is, indeed, the father of newborn John Ross Ewing III. J.R. picks up the child, holds him close and kisses him. No dialogue is spoken, and none is needed. The expression on Larry Hagman’s face – pride, relief, love – says it all.

This is one of several stellar scenes in another standout episode from “Dallas’s” third season. I also love when Miss Ellie refuses to act embarrassed when she and Lucy run into phony-baloney society matrons Marilee Stone and Linda Bradley while shopping. Barbara Bel Geddes is wonderful here, but so is Joan Lancaster. Each actress gets a great line at the end of the scene. Linda whispers to Marilee (“Honey, the Ewings have nerves of steel.”), while Miss Ellie imparts a little family wisdom to Lucy (“No one’s ever made a Ewing back down yet. I doubt if they ever will.”). Perfect.

I also get a kick out of the whole Southfork cocktail party sequence, which makes me appreciate the number of semi-regular characters – Harv Smithfield, Jordan Lee, the Stones, the Bradleys – the show has introduced in just two-and-a-half seasons. “Dallas” really does feel like its own little world now, doesn’t it?

Of course, not everything in “Paternity Suit” rings true: Cliff’s withdrawal from the congressional race feels a bit rushed, and the Dallas Press’s splashy headline (“BARNES CLAIMS EWING CHILD HIS”) is typically over-the-top, but these quirks are really part of “Paternity Suit’s” charm.

Similarly, Jock spends a lot of time in this episode huffing and puffing about Cliff’s lawsuit. Some might find the Ewing patriarch’s incredulousness annoying, but to me, his behavior is rather sweet. It’s as if the old man is incapable of fathoming the idea of Sue Ellen cheating on J.R.

Jock’s faith in his daughter-in-law’s virtue is misplaced, but it exists – and in the Ewing family, that’s saying something.

Grade: A

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Dallas, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, Linda Gray, Paternity Suit, Sue Ellen Ewing

Facing the truth

‘PATERNITY SUIT’

Season 3, Episode 17

Airdate: January 11, 1980

Audience: 21.9 million homes, ranking 2nd in the weekly ratings

Writer: Loraine Despres

Director: Harry Harris

Synopsis: After Cliff’s financing dries up and he quits his congressional race, he realizes J.R. set him up and seeks revenge by publicly claiming he is baby John’s father. A blood test proves the father is J.R., who finally embraces the child.

Cast: Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Mary Crosby (Kristin Shepard), Jim Davis (Jock Ewing), Martina Deignan (Deborah Johns), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Fern Fitzgerald (Marilee Stone), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Stanley Grover (Dr. Miles), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Stephen Keep (Barry Lester), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Joan Lancaster (Linda Bradley), Jared Martin (Dusty Farlow), George O. Petrie (Harv Smithfield), Randolph Powell (Alan Beam), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Paul Sorensen (Andy Bradley), Don Starr (Jordan Lee), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), Keenan Wynn (Digger Barnes)

“Paternity Suit” is available on DVD and at Amazon.com and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.

Critique: ‘Knots Landing’ Episode 1 – ‘Pilot’

Bobby Ewing, Dallas, Joan Van Ark, Knots Landing, Patrick Duffy, Pilot, Valene Ewing

North Texas, West Coast

Gary and Valene Ewing begin a new life in “Knots Landing’s” pilot, but it’s hard for me to get excited for the couple, given all the unfinished business they leave behind in Texas.

In “Dallas’s” third-season episode “Return Engagements,” which aired one week before “Knots Landing’s” debut, Gary and Val remarry and decide to relocate to Southern California. Incredibly, they don’t bother to share this news with their daughter Lucy, who is now a college freshman.

In the “Knots Landing” pilot, Gary explains this decision to Bobby, who appears in two scenes at the top of the hour. According to Gary, he and Val don’t want Lucy to know they’ve remarried until the couple is sure their second union is for keeps. “Our marriage was short the first time around. This time, Val and I have to know it’s gonna last,” Gary says.

If Gary and Val aren’t sure their relationship will succeed, why get married at all?

Don’t get me wrong: I like Gary and Val, but I’ve never bought their tortured explanations for allowing the Ewings to raise Lucy. When you think about it, Gary and Val are kind of deadbeat parents, which makes CBS’s decision to build a show around them a bit surprising.

Oddly, the “Knots Landing” producers choose to have their pilot revolve around neighbor Sid Fairgate’s attempt to tame his rebellious daughter, Annie. The storyline seems designed to echo Gary and Val’s strained relationship with Lucy, giving the couple plenty of opportunities to moon over her. But if the producers wanted “Knots Landing’s” first episode to be about parents reconnecting with an estranged child, why invent a surrogate?

Of course, while David Jacobs’s plotting in this episode might be curious, his dialogue is first-rate, as always. I’m particularly fond of Val and Annie’s beach scene. I love when Val asks the girl, “Home come you hate your daddy so much?” and Annie responds, “Grandma’s dead. I got no one else to hate.”

Joan Van Ark and Karen Allen’s performances here are as beautiful as Jacobs’ writing, but I can’t help thinking: Why isn’t Val having this conversation with her own daughter?

Grade: B

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Bobby Ewing, Dallas, Gary Ewing, Joan Van Ark, Karen Fairgate, Knots Landing, Michele Lee, Pilot, Ted Shackelford, Joan Van Ark

Meet the neighbors

‘PILOT’

“Knots Landing” Season 1, Episode 1

Airdate: December 27, 1979

Audience: 15.3 million homes, ranking 23rd in the weekly ratings

Writer: David Jacobs

Director: Peter Levin

Synopsis: Bobby helps Gary and Valene move into their new home in Knots Landing, where the couple befriends next-door neighbors Sid and Karen Fairgate. Val helps settle a dispute between Sid and Annie, his rebellious daughter from a previous marriage.

Cast: Karen Allen (Annie Fairgate), Justin Dana (Jason Avery), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), James Houghton (Kenny Ward), Kim Lankford (Ginger Ward), Michele Lee (Karen Fairgate), Claudia Lonow (Diana Fairgate), Constance McCashin (Laura Avery), Don Murray (Sid Fairgate), Pat Petersen (Michael Fairgate), John Pleshette (Richard Avery), Ted Shackelford (Gary Ewing), Steve Shaw (Eric Fairgate), Joan Van Ark (Valene Ewing)

“Knots Landing’s” pilot is available on DVD. Watch the episode and share your comments below.

Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 41 – ‘Ellie Saves the Day’

Barbara Bel Geddes, Dallas, Ellie Saves the Day, Miss Ellie Ewing

Savior

“Ellie Saves the Day” is essential viewing for anyone who loves “Dallas” and its mythology. The story brings the Ewings to the brink of financial ruin, and their darkest hour turns out to be one of the show’s finest. This is a great episode.

The plot of is straightforward – the Ewings discover J.R. has secretly mortgaged Southfork, and they must scramble to raise the money to pay the banks – but the subtext is rich. There are allusions to the consequences of codependence and parallels to the real-life economic morass of the 1970s. These themes prove resilient.

In many ways, “Ellie Saves the Day” is the flip side of “The Kristin Affair,” which aired six weeks earlier in the fall of 1979. “The Kristin Affair” is also a classic episode, but it is relatively breezy, while “Ellie Saves the Day” is moodier, broodier and ultimately, more satisfying.

‘I Never Taught Him When to Stop’

Dallas, Ellie Saves the Day, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman

Sinner

“Ellie Saves the Day” opens with J.R. panicked because he has hasn’t struck oil in Asia and the deadline to pay the Southfork mortgage is looming. The crisis leaves him gloomy and full of self-pity. “I’ll write you a nice reference,” he tells Kristin.

Seeing J.R. this way invites us to consider the roots of his greed. To say the character is power hungry tells only half the tale. J.R. really craves Jock’s respect, and he believes boosting Ewing Oil’s size and stature is the only way to earn it. For J.R., power is a means to an end.

Unfortunately, J.R. becomes addicted to his own ambition. In “The Kristin Affair,” he gets drunk with dreams of making Ewing Oil “the biggest, most powerful independent in Texas” and mortgages Southfork to finance his overseas drilling venture. It’s a risky scheme, and when it finally unravels in “Ellie Saves the Day,” it’s not unlike watching a drunkard coming off a bender. This idea is reinforced by the five o’clock shadow that shows up on Larry Hagman’s face in the third act.

Make no mistake: J.R. is as compulsive as Sue Ellen. She is an alcoholic, but he is powerless over his own ego, and just as the Ewings indulge her, they also enable him. Jock alludes to this in “Ellie Saves the Day” when he discovers the mortgage scheme and tells Bobby, “I trained J.R. and taught him everything he knows. Gave him the fever for big business. But I never taught him when to stop.”

‘Sweat and Hope and Dreams’

Bobby Ewing, Dallas, Ellie Saves the Day, Jim Davis, Jock Ewing, Patrick Duffy

Humbled

This is just one achingly poignant scene in an episode full of them. In another, Bobby finds Jock sitting alone on the Southfork patio in the dark of night. Bobby sees his father is worried and tells him he can “start over” if Ewing Oil collapses, but Jock waves him off. “Not enough time left for me to do that,” Jock says, and as we watch his silvery hair catch the moonlight, we know he’s probably right.

Jock is nothing if not realistic. “It’s not the oil business that I’m worried about,” he tells Bobby. “There’s just no way that you can build another Southfork. Not in six lifetimes.”

Bobby, true to his nature, doesn’t give up. He implores his father to persuade the banks to extend their loan. “We’ll try, Bobby. We’ll try,” Jock responds. “But this feels like the end of 40 years of sweat and hopes and dreams.”

Jim Davis and Patrick Duffy’s performances in this scene are beautiful, and so is the dialogue. “Ellie Saves the Day” was written by Arthur Bernard Lewis, perhaps “Dallas’s” best scriptwriter, and David Michael Jacobs, who apparently is not the same person as “Dallas” creator David Jacobs. Regardless, Lewis and this second David Jacobs demonstrate they understand better than most what makes “Dallas” tick.

Gunnar Hellström’s direction during Jock and Bobby’s conversation is also inspired. It is intensely quiet, with the faint sound of crickets in the background and a 17-second, longer-than-it-seems pause at the beginning of the scene.  Hellström shrouds Davis and Duffy in blackness, making them look a bit like actors in a stage play. This is fitting, given how Jock and Bobby’s conversation – with all those references to the passage of time, respect and failed dreams – feels like something out of “Death of a Salesman.”

Hellström concludes the scene by slowly pulling back the camera, leaving us with a wide shot of Jock and Bobby, dressed in their pajamas and brooding over what the next day might bring. Never before have these big men seemed humbler.

‘It’s Time That Southfork Repaid Those Debts’

Barbara Bel Geddes, Dallas, Ellie Saves the Day, Miss Ellie Ewing

Capped

The somber tone of “Ellie Saves the Day” reflected the national mood in 1979, when gas shortages and the Three Mile Island meltdown were seen as signs of American decline. For some people in today’s audiences, these themes will still resonate.

Jock’s “six lifetimes” line also reminds us the collapse of Ewing Oil and the foreclosure of Southfork wouldn’t be equal losses. These twin institutions define “Dallas” and its characters, but the ranch is by far the more precious of the two. It’s no accident Miss Ellie, “Dallas’s” moral center, personifies Southfork, while the corrupt J.R. embodies the company. (It’s also no surprise the virtues of drilling on Southfork will again be debated during TNT’s new “Dallas” series.)

From this vantage point, “Ellie Saves the Day” resembles a parable about the inequities in American capitalism and conservationism. In the real world, we rush to relax our environmental standards when the economy suffers – even President Obama has weakened clean-air rules – just as Ellie decides to bail out Ewing Oil by lifting the generations-old embargo against drilling on the ranch.

As she tells Jock at the end of this episode, “Forty years ago, Ewing Oil paid off the mortgage on Southfork – and saved it. Now I think it’s time that Southfork repaid those debts.”

‘I May Never Forgive You for This, J.R.’

Barbara Bel Geddes, Dallas, Ellie Saves the Day, Miss Ellie Ewing

Giant

Barbara Bel Geddes’ performance in “Ellie Saves the Day” might be her best during the series. She delivers her lines with her trademark quiet conviction, but I also love the way she carries herself. Bel Geddes might be small, but her grace makes her a giant.

This is best illustrated in the final scene, when Miss Ellie refuses to use Vaughn Leland’s pen to sign away the mineral rights to her family’s land. If we saw another actress do this, it might make Ellie seem petty. When Bel Geddes does it, it’s a moment of triumph.

Of course, this scene also exposes the just-below-the-surface flawed logic in “Ellie Saves the Day.”

To make the storyline work, the producers fiddle with the show’s continuity: When “Dallas” begins, Ewing Oil and Southfork seem to operate independently of each other, but at the beginning of the third season, they suddenly are referred to as subsidiaries of “Ewing Enterprises,” a parent company that is rarely mentioned again after this season. From this perspective, the Ewings kind of get what they deserve. Who in their right mind makes the family home dependent on the family business?

Another quibble: In the episode’s closing moments, when Ellie is leaving the Ewing Oil office, she glances at her eldest son and says, “I may never forgive you for this, J.R.” Bel Geddes’ face isn’t shown when she delivers the line, which sounds like it was dubbed in after the scene was filmed. I don’t know why the people who made “Ellie Saves the Day” felt the line was needed. Imagine if Ellie had simply turned to J.R. and cut him a withering look. Her silence would have been more unsettling than anything she might have said.

Regardless, the fact Ellie is unmerciful toward J.R. is telling. It lets us know she may be able to save Southfork and Ewing Oil, but she knows she can’t save her son’s soul. He’s too far gone for that.

Grade: A+

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Barbara Bel Geddes, Dallas, Ellie Saves the Day, Miss Ellie Ewing, Ray Krebbs, Steve Kanaly

Thinker

‘ELLIE SAVES THE DAY’

Season 3, Episode 12

Airdate: November 30, 1979

Audience: 18.5 million homes, ranking 13th in the weekly ratings

Writers: David Michael Jacobs and Arthur Bernard Lewis

Director: Gunnar Hellström

Synopsis: The Ewings learn J.R. mortgaged Southfork to finance his Asian deal. To stave off foreclosure, Miss Ellie decides to allow Ewing Oil to drill on the ranch.

Cast: Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Mary Crosby (Kristin Shepard), Jim Davis (Jock Ewing), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Jeanna Michaels (Connie), Dennis Patrick (Vaughn Leland), Randolph Powell (Alan Beam), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Don Starr (Jordan Lee), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), Jimmy Weldon (Sy Stevens)

“Ellie Saves the Day” is available on DVD and at Amazon.com and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.

Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 12 – ‘Runaway’

Charlene Tilton, Dallas, Lucy Ewing, Runaway

Diary of a teenage brat

“Runaway” is one of “Dallas’s” weakest episodes. Almost everything about it – the writing, the directing, the acting, the music – is bad.

The episode treats Lucy, who was so daring during “Dallas’s” first season, like just another bratty TV teenager. She spends the beginning of “Runaway” whining about how the Ewings are ignoring her. At one point, Jock sends her to her room.

Is this the same Lucy who was blackmailing her teacher and seducing Ray a few episodes ago?

“Dallas” clearly wants us to feel sorry for the poor little rich girl. John Parker, who scored the music for “Runaway,” punctuates each of Lucy’s outbursts with a cloying violin solo that becomes the character’s theme music in later episodes.

By the end of “Runaway’s” first act, Lucy has run away from Southfork and fled to the outskirts of Dallas, where she hooks up with armed robber Willie Gust.

Greg Evigan, who plays Willie, must have prepared for the role by watching Cooper Huckabee’s performance in “Winds of Vengeance.” Both actors seem to believe maniacal laughing is the best way to signal their characters’ villainy.

When Willie isn’t in hysterics, he’s waging a one-man war on Texas’s cash registers, leaving Lucy to cower in the passenger seat of his far-out custom van. But if she’s so afraid of him, why doesn’t she just hop out and run away?

Another mind boggler: How does frightened Lucy manage to deliver such a confident performance during the talent show Willie makes her enter?

“Dallas” creator David Jacobs has said the show’s producers were crunched for time when CBS renewed the series for a second season. According to him, the writers scrambled to produce scripts for the season’s first seven episodes, which were filmed in Texas during the summer of 1978.

“Runaway” is the last of these seven episodes, and you can tell. This feels like something cobbled together by people who were eager to get out from under the hot Texas sun.

Making matters worse: “Runaway” doesn’t end – it stops.

In the final scene, Miss Ellie announces Bobby is bringing Lucy home.

“There’s just one thing,” Jock says. “I was hoping to have a dance with my granddaughter.”

“Well,” Ellie responds, patting his arm. “What about tomorrow?”

Parker’s cloying violin music swells, the frame freezes, the credits flash – and we’re finally done with “Dallas’s” most prophetically titled episode.

Run away, indeed.

Grade: D

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Charlene Tilton, Dallas, Greg Evigan, Lucy Ewing, Runaway, Willie Gust

Bonnie and Clod

‘RUNAWAY’

Season 2, Episode 7

Airdate: October 28, 1978

Audience: 12.8 million homes, ranking 35th in the weekly ratings

Writer: Worley Thorne

Director: Barry Crane

Synopsis: Lucy, feeling ignored, runs away and hitches a ride with an armed robber. Bobby tracks Lucy to Austin, where he rescues her and the robber is arrested.

Cast: Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Jim Davis (Jock Ewing), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Greg Evigan (Willie Gust), Jim Gough (Congressman Oates), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing)

“Runaway” is available on DVD and at Amazon.com and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.

Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 7 – ‘Reunion, Part 2’

Charlene Tilton, Dallas, David Ackroyd, Gary Ewing, Joan Van Ark, Lucy Ewing, Valene Ewing

Enter at your own risk

I’m not a big fan of “Reunion, Part 1,” but I love “Reunion, Part 2.” The writing and acting are beautiful.

In this installment’s most memorable sequence, a drunken Digger barrels onto Southfork in his nephew Jimmy’s beat-up sports car and asks Jock to “pay” him for Pam. The Ewings watch as Jock pulls a wad of cash from his pocket and tosses a $100 bill at the feet of his onetime business partner, who scoops it up and proclaims his daughter “sold.”

The attention shifts to Pam, who is humiliated, but I find myself wondering what Gary makes of this embarrassing scene. To him, Digger must seem like a ghost from the future – a vision of the person he’ll become if he doesn’t get away from the Ewings.

Think about it: Gary is already following in Digger’s footsteps. Like Digger, Gary is an alcoholic. Like Digger, he has failed to live up to Jock’s expectations. And like Digger, he has “lost” a daughter to the Ewings.

I believe Gary leaves Southfork at the end of “Reunion, Part 2” not just because he feels pressured by J.R., but also because he doesn’t want to become as embittered as Digger. He says as much when he bids farewell to Valene and tells her, “I’m alright. It took me a long time to realize that. I just don’t belong with them – and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

David Ackroyd is really good in this scene, but Joan Van Ark is magnificent. When Val tells Gary she’s never loved another man like she loved him, you feel her pain.

I also love Van Ark’s performance in the next sequence, when the actress spins on a dime and channels Val’s tears into anger at J.R., who’s been watching her from Southfork’s front porch.

“So what’s my future?” she asks him.

“None around here,” J.R. responds.

“Any choices?”

“Well, $5,000 and an escort out of the state?”

“Any others?”

“An escort out of the state.”

Dialogue this sharp – and acting this good – make me wish scriptwriter David Jacobs and Van Ark had spent more time at Southfork before heading west to “Knots Landing” during “Dallas’s” third season.

The farewell scene is also elevated by Robert Jessup’s cinematography, which makes Southfork’s blue skies and gold-green pastures look stunning. Jessup’s work here reminds us of one of “Dallas’s” great dichotomies: No matter how ugly the characters on this show behave, the scenery around them is always gorgeous.

Grade: A

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Dallas, David Ackroyd, Gary Ewing, Joan Van Ark, Valene Ewing

Goodbye, for now

‘REUNION, PART 2’

Season 2, Episode 2

Airdate: September 30, 1978

Audience: 9.5 million homes, ranking 59th in the weekly ratings

Writer: David Jacobs

Director: Irving J. Moore

Synopsis: Pam is humiliated when her father, Digger Barnes, asks Jock to “pay” him for her. J.R. gives Gary a Ewing Oil subsidiary to run, but when Gary feels pressured, he leaves Southfork without saying goodbye. Val also departs, and J.R. lies and tells the family she asked him for money to leave.

Cast: David Ackroyd (Gary Ewing), Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Sarah Cunningham (Maggie Monahan), Jim Davis (Jock Ewing), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), Joan Van Ark (Valene Ewing), David Wayne (Digger Barnes)

“Reunion, Part 2” is available on DVD and at Amazon.com and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.