‘Swan Song’: Making a ‘Dallas’ Classic

Bobby Ewing, Dallas, Pam Ewing, Patrick Duffy, Swan Song, Victoria Principal

End of the road

Ask “Dallas” fans to name their favorite episode and many will say “Swan Song,” the 1985 segment in which Bobby dies heroically after saving Pam’s life. Although the death was later written off as a dream, the episode remains moving and memorable. To mark its 30th anniversary, I spoke to eight “Dallas” insiders who had a hand in making the classic.

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Changes were afoot as production on “Dallas’s” eighth season neared completion in early 1985. The CBS drama was still popular, but the ratings had slipped. The show also was getting ready to bid farewell to star Patrick Duffy, who had been playing Bobby Ewing since 1978.

PATRICK DUFFY I left not for any negative reason. I was at the end of my contract, which was for seven years. I thought, if ever there was going to be an opportunity to try something different, this was it.

STEVE KANALY People who worked on the show were talking about it, wondering what was going to happen. Larry [Hagman] was probably the most upset because he wanted to keep everybody together. That’s how he saw the show succeeding. On the other hand, Larry and Patrick were very, very close, and you want your friend to have his shot. You can’t blame Patrick for wanting to see what’s on the other side of the fence.

MICHAEL PREECE (“Dallas” director) I can understand why he wanted to leave. He got to the point where he said, “I don’t read the scripts. I know what my character is going to say.” Patrick is a very bright guy, and he would look at a long speech — a one-minute speech — and say, “Yeah, yeah. I’ve said this before. I know what to say.” And he would be pretty right on.

Duffy wasn’t the only member of the original cast preparing to exit. The producers decided to not renew the contract of Charlene Tilton, telling the actress they had run out of storylines for her character, Lucy Ewing.

CHARLENE TILTON At the time, they told me to make a statement saying that I chose to leave because I wanted to pursue other ventures, and I said, “Nope. You guys let me go and I’m going to tell the truth.” And I did. In all the interviews I did, I told the truth. I never would have chosen to leave the show, I didn’t want to leave the show. I was heartbroken, devastated, shocked.

LINDA GRAY I felt it was a mistake [to let Tilton go]. When people tune in to see a family drama, they want to see the family. Fans don’t like it when that dynamic is interfered with. As dysfunctional as the Ewings were, the audience wanted the family to stay together.

Bobby Ewing, Dallas, Patrick Duffy, Swan Song

Bobby Ewing, Dallas, Patrick Duffy, Swan Song

Irreplaceable

“Dallas” producer Leonard Katzman decided to write out Tilton by having Lucy leave town. Duffy’s character would receive a more dramatic exit, however. Believing the audience would not accept another actor in the role — and since it was unlikely Bobby would leave Southfork — the decision was made to kill off the character.

DUFFY I never intended to come back, and the death of the hero is a pretty powerful way to [end a season]. It made sense from a dramatic perspective.

DAVID JACOBS (“Dallas” creator) They didn’t want to leave anything open. They wanted the death to be final. The audience is very smart. They’ve been manipulated so much through the years that if they didn’t see the body, they would have expected it was just a ploy, like the show was giving [Duffy] a year off to make a movie or something. But he wasn’t planning to come back.

Katzman — after spending years clashing with executive producer Phil Capice — was quietly preparing to leave “Dallas” too. He was developing his own series at ABC.

JACOBS This is me speculating, but I think Leonard was getting a little tired of it. He was tired of the conflicts with Phil. I also think it annoyed Leonard that when something big happened on “Dallas,” like the “Who Shot J.R.?” episode, that I would get so much press because I created the show. He wanted to develop a show that could be his from the get-go. Leonard had something to prove, just like we all have something to prove.

PREECE Lenny did everything [on “Dallas.”] He wrote it, directed it, produced it. The crew, the cast — everyone was sorry to see him go.

DEBORAH RENNARD (Sly) Every organization is colored by the person at the top. They set the tone, and even if Leonard wasn’t directing an episode and wasn’t literally on the set, somehow his presence was there. … When we found he was leaving, it was like, “How do we go on without him?”

Dallas, Ray Krebbs, Steve Kanaly, Swan Song

Reflections

In March 1985, cameras rolled on the eighth-season finale, which Katzman wrote and directed himself. Details were shrouded in secrecy.

DEBORAH TRANELLI (Phyllis) It was like guarding military secrets for fear that things might leak out to the media before the airdate.

Although the script was titled “Swan Song,” the focus isn’t exclusively on the departing characters. The episode also features a moving scene in which Ray pleads with his estranged wife Donna (Susan Howard) to return to him. In another memorable exchange, J.R. accuses Sue Ellen of drinking again. Her response: “Joan of Arc would have been drunk if she had been married to you.”

KANALY I can recall the scene I played with Susan, outside the house in the dark, next to the pool. From the perspective of an actor in an ensemble, I remember thinking, “Okay, it’s my turn now.” Those scenes don’t come every week. Sometimes they never come. But I had some big moments, and that was one of them.

GRAY I remember [the Joan of Arc line]. I loved all those great lines. Those are like gems. You see those on the page, and you think, “Yes, bring it on.”

Charlene Tilton, Lucy Ewing, Swan Song

Charlene Tilton, Dallas, Lucy Ewing, Swan Song

Goodbye girl

Another emotional high point: Lucy’s second wedding to Mitch Cooper (Leigh McCloskey) in the Southfork living room. The scene ends with Tilton’s character telling the Ewings, “I’m going to miss you all. I’ll never be the same again.”

TILTON I remember filming that like it was yesterday. I was saying it from the heart, but I was also saying it from a point of maturity. I wasn’t taking it personally. They didn’t know what to do with my character. I get that. So that line was very genuine, because these people had become my family.

Tilton also remembers the white suit she wears in the scene, which was filmed shortly before Easter.

TILTON I told [the producers], “I want to wear this to church on Easter Sunday!” And they let me do it. I didn’t wear the veil, though. [Laughs]

Bobby Ewing, Dallas, Pam Ewing, Patrick Duffy, Swan Song, Victoria Principal

Til death

Although “Dallas” usually filmed in Los Angeles during the winter and spring, Katzman secretly took a skeleton crew to Texas to shoot the pivotal scene in which Bobby pushes Pam (Victoria Principal) out of the path of a speeding car being driven by vengeful Katherine Wentworth (Morgan Brittany). The scene ends with Pam crawling to Bobby and cradling him in her arms — a move Principal later said was improvised.

DUFFY I totally understand that. I don’t think she thought, “Oh, this would be charming if I crawled to him.” I think she was in the moment, and I think that’s why she screamed so loud. I know she wouldn’t have done that had she thought about it ahead of time. And it was loud! It made my ears ring. But that’s because it was real for her.

That night, Duffy and a friend from the crew went out to dinner.

DUFFY He had a couple of beers. But I drank more than I normally would, and I know it’s because [the driveway scene] affected me. I had just filmed what I thought was going to be the end of Bobby, other than the death scene at the hospital. It was a there’s-no-going-back-now kind of thing.

Dallas, Deborah Tranelli, Phyllis Wapner, Swan Song

For real

In another touching sequence, J.R. is visiting mistress Mandy Winger (Deborah Shelton) when he calls the office to tell the secretaries he won’t be coming into work that day. When Sly answers the phone, Phyllis is in tears.

TRANELLI It’s a very simple scene. I don’t speak a word. Someone once said to me, “The tears look so real.” I jokingly said, “Well, of course they were. I thought I was out of a job!” [Laughs] But the truth is, I loved Patrick, and Phyllis loved Bobby, and I was losing both. So the tears were genuine.

RENNARD She did lovely work on that scene. She always did excellent work on the show.

TRANELLI Deborah and I were good friends. So it was very touching to have someone that I trusted, as a friend and an actor, there sharing that very vulnerable moment with me.

Bobby Ewing, Dallas, Leonard Katzman, Patrick Duffy, Swan Song

Dallas, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, Swan Song

Trail of tears

Scenes in each “Dallas” episode often were filmed out of order and then edited together before broadcast. With “Swan Song,” Katzman insisted the final scene shown — Bobby’s hospital deathbed farewell — should also be the last episode filmed. It was shot Friday, March 29, 1985.

DUFFY There was no way to film that scene and then shoot a scene of Bobby at the office, and then do J.R. coming home from work. [The deathbed scene] was the last scene of that episode, and we filmed it on the last day of production. Leonard knew that after that, everybody was going to be gone emotionally.

Bobby dies surrounded by his family, but there are two notable absences: Sue Ellen and Lucy.

GRAY I didn’t take it personally like, “Oh dear, Sue Ellen should be at the deathbed.” When you work on a show like “Dallas,” the hours are long, and so when you get a day off, you’re thrilled. And I was never one to go to Leonard and say, “I should be there.”

TILTON I was disappointed, but that’s the business.

The scene is filled with tears — especially from Ray, who holds Donna and sobs.

KANALY I was feeling both the pain of Bobby Ewing dying and the pain of losing my friend Patrick Duffy from the show. Those are real tears on my part. Reality and acting get all mixed up for awhile. I think that’s where I was. We all had a big cry.

Katzman arranged the actors around Bobby’s deathbed, placing the character’s two love interests — Pam and Jenna Wade (Priscilla Presley) — side by side.

DUFFY Leonard did that intentionally, because when Bobby says, “We wasted so much time,” you never know which one he’s talking to. It was brilliantly directed.

When Bobby takes his last breath, the monitor near his bed flat lines. The sound jolts Principal and prompts Hagman to step forward and deliver J.R.’s tearful plea, “Don’t do this to me, Bobby. Don’t leave me.”

DUFFY When the flat line happens, they actually had the sound on stage because Leonard wanted everybody’s reaction to that piercing, monotone note. And I knew the sound would go on for a while so Leonard could pan to each person for their reaction. But [the sound] kept going, and it kept going, and it kept going. And that’s because Leonard was crying and couldn’t cut the camera. He couldn’t bring himself to say the word “cut” and end the scene, and end his association with the show. He was the life of “Dallas.”

Dallas, Ray Krebbs, Swan Song, Steve Kanaly

Bobby Ewing, Clayton Farlow, Dallas, Donna Krebbs, Donna Reed, Howard Keel, Jenna Wade, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, Miss Ellie Ewing Farlow, Pam Ewing, Patrick Duffy, Priscilla Beaulieu Presley, Ray Krebbs, Susan Howard, Swan Song

Death be proud

“Swan Song” aired May 17, 1985. The episode earned critical raves and was the week’s most-watched show — the last time “Dallas” ever hit No. 1 in the ratings.

DUFFY A day or so after it aired, I trucked off to the local supermarket to do my shopping and got accosted in the parking lot by a weeping, wailing woman. She was straddling two worlds of reality, telling me how sad she was that I was dead, and yet she was standing there in the parking lot, talking to me. She couldn’t, at that moment, divide herself and say, “Boy, what a devastating scene that was. I’m really going to miss your character.” No, she was actually talking to dead Bobby. And I realized television can be a very influential thing in somebody’s life. A lot of people responded that way to his death.

The following season, “Dallas” dropped out of Nielsen’s top 5 while Katzman’s new show, “Our Family Honor,” was canceled after 13 episodes. By the spring of 1986, Katzman agreed to return to “Dallas,” this time replacing Capice as executive producer, and Hagman persuaded Duffy to return as Bobby.

JACOBS When Leonard told me the [dream scenario] idea, I said, “That is horrible. I think that’s terrible.” And Leonard said, “Okay, give me a better one. He’s no good to me except as Bobby Ewing.” I knew from experience that he was right.

DUFFY [Fans] invested in that moment, and they were told that what they invested in wasn’t real. So they feel cheated a bit. But they stayed with us as an audience. And there was no other way to bring Patrick Duffy back on the show “Dallas” as Bobby Ewing. There was no other way.

Today, “Swan Song” is seen as a watershed moment for “Dallas.” Audiences continue to admire the performances and Katzman’s writing and directing.

KANALY If you look at all the episodes, I think it’s probably a real standout. It had everything that made the show so popular.

DUFFY “Dallas” was so big then. I felt very proud — and I don’t know, fulfilled — to take part in something that was as big as the death of Bobby Ewing. I don’t mean that in an arrogant way. It’s just that as huge as “Dallas” was, we knew this was going to be a big deal. And it was kind of fun to be a part of it.

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What do you love about “Swan Song”? Share your comments below and read more features from Dallas Decoder.

Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 183 — ‘Dead Ends’

Dallas, Dead Ends, Pam Ewing, Victoria Principal

Inner sanctum

The title “Dead Ends” refers to Pam’s fruitless search for Mark Graison, but it also describes “Dallas’s” final batch of eighth-season episodes. This show is now killing time. The writers don’t have enough story to fill 30 hours of television, and so the material they’ve come up with is getting stretched thin. There are occasional flashes of inspiration — in “Dead Ends,” most of them are supplied by Victoria Principal and the always reliable director Michael Preece — but for the most part, “Dallas” has entered its weakest era since its earliest days, when the series was still figuring itself out.

Here’s an example: “Dead Ends” shows J.R. receiving a visit from Swiss business associate Conrad Bunkhouser, who reviews their scheme to sell Ewing Oil assets to one of J.R.’s dummy corporations. The scene is virtually identical to an exchange these two characters had during the previous episode, right down to J.R.’s reminder that Bobby must never find out about the deal. There’s also a scene of Sue Ellen and Pam having their umpteenth conversation about the latter’s conflicted feelings about Mark, as well as a meeting where Bobby and Scott Demarest cross-reference the passenger lists from the two flights Veronica Robinson took from Tokyo to Dallas. We actually see Bobby start to tick off the names, one by one (Abbott, B.; Anderson, G.; Avildson, H. …), which is every bit as exciting as it sounds.

The only thing more tedious than Bobby’s attempt to clear Jenna for murder is J.R.’s pursuit of Mandy. He shows up on her doorstep and begs her to see him in “Dead Ends,” just like he did two episodes ago in “Sins of the Fathers.” I appreciate the show’s willingness to mix things up by denying J.R. what he wants, but this has been going on for almost an entire season. I’m ready to see him win again. Even this episode’s clash between J.R. and Cliff lacks punch. (Well, not literally.) In fact, the only time Larry Hagman’s character comes alive is when J.R. is moping around his office and Sly arrives to say she’s ready to come back to work. Preece cleverly stages the scene by having Hagman sit at J.R.’s desk in the foreground, and then Debbie Rennard pops through the door in the distance. It’s almost as if J.R.’s angel has appeared on his shoulder.

Principal figures into this episode’s other good scenes. First, after Mr. Chan refuses to allow Pam to visit the clinic he runs, she calls him and declares she isn’t going to back down from her attempt to see “Mr. Swanson,” the mysterious patient she believes is Mark. “You see, I’m very rich, and very determined. And if I have to, I’ll buy that damned clinic and walk in as the owner,” Pam says. It’s another example of how Principal’s character has finally regained her spirit after taking those detours into lunacy and wishy-washiness during previous seasons. Then, in the final scene, Principal is quite moving when Pam bribes her way into the clinic and comes face to face with Swanson, only to discover it isn’t Mark after all.

Or is it? After Pam leaves the room in tears, we’re led to believe her escort, Mr. Wong, has tricked her, although we can’t be sure why. Is J.R. leading Pam on another wild goose chase, or could Wong be working for Mark? When I watched this episode as a kid, I was absorbed with this storyline, as well as Jenna’s murder trial, J.R. and Mandy’s romance and Cliff and Jamie’s lawsuit. (I’m sure I also was fascinated by the perfectly placed wisps of hair that peek out from Marilee Stone’s hat in the Oil Baron’s Club scene, although I can’t say for sure.)

Now I watch “Dead Ends” and realize how lackluster it is. “Dallas” is capable of much better, as we see in the classic “Swan Song” episode that ends the eighth season. I look forward to revisiting that installment, which probably will seem that much sweeter once I’ve finished slogging through the remaining hours that precede it.

Grade: C

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Dallas, Dead Ends, Debbie Rennard, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, Sly Lovegren

Happy returns

‘DEAD ENDS’

Season 8, Episode 22

Airdate: March 1, 1985

Audience: 21 million homes, ranking 7th in the weekly ratings

Writer: Leonard Katzman

Director: Michael Preece

Synopsis: Pam comes face to face with the mystery man whose trail brought her to Hong Kong, but it turns out to not be Mark. The police rule Veronica’s death an overdose, but Bobby sets out to prove she was murdered. J.R. and Mandy go on a date, while Cliff and Jamie grow closer. Eddie bids Lucy farewell.

Cast: Sam Anderson (Inspector Frank Howard), Burke Byrnes (Pete Adams), Philip Chan (Edward Chan), Roseanna Christiansen (Teresa), Pat Colbért (Dora Mae), Ben Cooper (Parrish), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Stephen Elliott (Scotty Demarest), Fern Fitzgerald (Marilee Stone), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Jenilee Harrison (Jamie Ewing), Erik Holland (Conrad Buckhouser), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Howard Keel (Clayton Farlow), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Sam Lam (Wong), Fredric Lehne (Eddie Cronin), Priscilla Beaulieu Presley (Jenna Wade), David Price (Swanson), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Donna Reed (Miss Ellie Farlow), Debbie Rennard (Sly), Sherril Lynn Rettino (Jackie Dugan), Dean Santoro (Raymond Furguson), Deborah Shelton (Mandy Winger), Don Starr (Jordan Lee), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), Deborah Tranelli (Phyllis)

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

Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 166 — ‘Family’

Bobby Ewing, Dallas, Family, Jenna Wade, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, Patrick Duffy, Priscilla Beaulieu Presley, Ray Krebbs, Steve Kanaly

Welcome to the family

I want to like Jamie Ewing. Really, I do. She arrives at Southfork at the end of the eighth-season episode “Jamie,” but we don’t get to know her until the following installment, “Family.” The character has a lot of potential: She’s a fresh face when the show badly needs one, and the fact that she’s a long-lost Ewing cousin from the wrong side of the tracks makes her a natural adversary for J.R., something this show can never have enough of. Nevertheless, Jamie’s debut falls flat. It’s another example of how middling “Dallas’s” middle years can be.

With Jamie, the producers seem to be trying to recapture the J.R.-vs.-Pam dynamic from the show’s earliest seasons. “Family” even includes a scene where J.R. offers Jamie a bribe to leave Southfork, just like he did with Pam in “Digger’s Daughter.” But unlike Pam, who felt like a real threat to J.R., Jamie comes off more like a nuisance. Much of this has to do with Jenilee Harrison, who is a fine actress but who lacks Victoria Principal’s spark. Consider the “Family” dinner scene where J.R. tests Jamie’s self-proclaimed knowledge of the oil industry. Sure, she aces his quiz, but there’s no joy in Harrison’s performance. Imagine how much fun this scene would have been if it had been about Pam outsmarting J.R.

I’m also no fan of how “Dallas” brings Jamie into the fold by making her the daughter of Jock’s dead brother Jason. So Jock Ewing has an estranged sibling, huh? You’d think this fact might have come up when Jock was alive and trying to get his sons to get along. On the other hand, I like how Sue Ellen immediately embraces Jamie — not to annoy J.R., but because the newcomer fills a void in Sue Ellen’s life. The instant friendship between the two women demonstrates how much Linda Gray’s character has grown since “Dallas’s” early days, when Sue Ellen went out of her way to make Pam feel unwelcomed. By the end of “Family,” Sue Ellen has even taken Jamie out and bought her a new wardrobe. I only wish the shopping spree occurred on camera.

This episode is a mixed bag for the other “Dallas” characters too. I continue to be charmed by Mandy Winger, who seems much savvier when paired with Cliff than she does later with J.R. In this episode’s best twist, Jeremy Wendell — making a welcome return to “Dallas” after three-season absence — runs into Mandy, who gets him to open up about what he really thinks of Cliff. Uh-oh, is Mandy pumping Jeremy for information so she can betray Cliff? Nah. After Jeremy leaves, Cliff steps out of the shadows to congratulate Mandy on playing Jeremy like a fiddle. It’s another example of how much smarter Cliff has become, although if you prefer the self-absorbed, self-destructive Cliff, don’t worry, he’s still around. Witness the “Family” scene where he meets Sly outside the Ewing Oil building and asks her to spy on J.R. again. Cliff never really learns his lesson, does he? (By the way: I love how director Leonard Katzman shoots Debbie Rennard on a dramatic angle as she exits the building for this scene.)

Elsewhere, Lucy waits on a rowdy table at the diner — and of course handsome construction worker Eddie Cronin comes to her rescue. Wouldn’t it have been nice to see her resolve this problem on her own? Likewise, I’m tempted to deride Jeremy’s sexism when he orders for Pam at lunch, except the point of the scene is to show how Jeremy must control every situation in which he finds himself. If he were dining with Cliff instead of Pam, he probably would have ordered for him too. This scene also allows Principal to show off her on-camera eating skills. Notice how effortlessly she slides that forkful of Crab Louie into her mouth, in contrast to William Smithers, who seems to struggle with his bite before the camera cuts away.

The other reason I’m relieved to see Jeremy show up is because it means he’ll soon be at war with J.R., who hasn’t had enough to do in recent episodes. Think about it: Here we are in the eighth season’s fifth hour, and the biggest deal we’ve seen is Donna’s purchase of a small oil company. I have to wonder: Where’s the wheeling? Where’s the dealing? This is “Dallas,” right?

Grade: B

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Dallas, Debbie Rennard, Deborah Rennard, Family, Sly Lovegren

Street smarts

‘FAMILY’

Season 8, Episode 5

Airdate: October 26, 1984

Audience: 20.9 million homes, ranking 2nd in the weekly ratings

Writer and Director: Leonard Katzman

Synopsis: Sue Ellen insists Jamie stay at Southfork and buys her a new wardrobe, but J.R. refuses to make her feel welcomed. Cliff is suspicious when Jeremy offers to buy Barnes-Wentworth and offers him a seat on Westar’s board of directors. Cliff asks Sly if J.R. and Wendell are working together. Lucy’s co-worker Betty warns her to stay away from her boyfriend, construction worker Eddie Cronin. Pam is rattled when she spots someone driving Mark’s car.

Cast: Roseanna Christiansen (Teresa), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Shanette Eckols (Lydia), Eric Farlow (Christopher Ewing), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Jenilee Harrison (Jamie Ewing), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Omri Katz (John Ross Ewing), Howard Keel (Clayton Farlow), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Fredric Lehne (Eddie Cronin), Shalane McCall (Charlie Wade), George O. Petrie (Harv Smithfield), Priscilla Beaulieu Presley (Jenna Wade), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Debbie Rennard (Sly), Sherril Lynn Rettino (Jackie Dugan), Deborah Shelton (Mandy Winger), William Smithers (Jeremy Wendell), Christopher Stone (Dave Stratton), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), Kathleen York (Betty)

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

Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 149 — ‘Twelve Mile Limit’

Dallas, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, Twelve Mile Limit

What a nice man!

The final scene in “Twelve Mile Limit” begins with a shot of a man in a brown suit carrying a big bouquet of flowers into Edgar Randolph’s hospital room. We don’t see the mystery man’s face until he places the basket on a tray table and the camera pans up, revealing that it’s J.R. “Hello, Edgar. Thought I’d bring a little something to brighten your room,” he says. The words are perfectly innocent, but when Larry Hagman delivers them, they sound positively chilling. This isn’t going to your typical “Dallas” social call, not that such a thing really exists.

Indeed, Edgar is in the hospital because he overdosed on pills and booze to avoid being blackmailed by J.R. What’s J.R. up to? The show hasn’t made that clear. We know J.R. wants Edgar, a high-ranking federal official, to leak him top-secret information about a forthcoming public auction of offshore oil leases. We also know J.R. plans to use this information to get revenge against Cliff, although we’re not entirely sure how. Additionally, J.R. has told Edgar that if he doesn’t cooperate, J.R. will expose a dark secret from his past, although we don’t know what the secret is.

That’s a lot of missing information, and yet the absence of these details does nothing to detract from the power of the hospital scene. Like so many great moments on “Dallas,” this one allows the audience to experience a lot of contradictory emotions at once: We feel sorry for Edgar, but heaven help us, we also get a kick out of watching J.R. exert his power over him. At one point, J.R. tells Edgar that if he tries to kill himself again and succeeds, J.R. will expose his secret to his wife and children anyway. Edgar is horrified. “But why? What purpose would it serve?” he asks. J.R.’s response: “It would testify to the fact that J.R. Ewing always keeps his promises.” My goodness, how mean — and how delicious — is that?

I discussed this scene the other day with Hill Place Blog, who suggested J.R. is so vicious here because Edgar’s sins are so dark; for once, J.R. gets to feel morally superior to somebody. This is an interesting idea, although I’m not sure J.R. cares that much about morality one way or the other. Whatever his character’s motivation may be, I love how Hagman plays off Martin E. Brooks, who is entirely believable as poor, flustered Edgar. After J.R. threatens to expose his secret if he dies, Edgar shouts, “You’re not a human being, you’re scum!” J.R. calmly responds, “Edgar, I know how you feel. But it’s not going to change the way things are. Now don’t make it hard on yourself.” Hagman then takes a beat, smiles and says, “I’m really a nice fellow when I get what I want.” Perfect.

The “scum”/“nice fellow” exchange was one of the first clips shown during last year’s PBS retrospective of the 1980s prime-time soap operas. At the time, I was surprised by the scene’s inclusion — I figured the producers would’ve chosen one of J.R.’s more memorable acts of cruelty, like one of the scenes where he smacks down Cliff Barnes — but now that I’ve seen J.R. and Edgar’s clash with fresh eyes, I appreciate it more. If you’re looking for a singular scene that showcases both J.R.’s villainy and Hagman’s genius, this one is as good as any.

A few more moments in “Twelve Mile Limit” deserve mentioning. In one, Ray and Donna storm into J.R.’s office to accuse him of blackmailing Edgar to win the auction, only to have J.R. tell them he has no intention of bidding. Before you know it, Ray and Donna are essentially apologizing to J.R., who gleefully plays up his indignation. “I sure am glad the wheels of justice are not controlled by people like you,” he says. In another fun scene, Cliff meets Sly in a darkened restaurant so he can reluctantly pay her the money she requested for inside information about J.R.’s dealings. As Cliff reaches inside his jacket to retrieve his checkbook, he says, “Ten thousand dollars, right?” Sly furrows her brow. “Yes, but cash, please.” Debbie Rennard’s oh-so-innocent delivery is downright Hagman-esque.

The other standout moment in “Twelve Mile Limit” is a little more sober-minded. At the end of the show’s previous episode, when Miss Ellie tells Clayton about her mastectomy, he embraces her warmly and tells her it doesn’t matter. In “Twelve Mile Limit,” Clayton confesses to Ray that he’s not as comfortable as he let on. “It bothered me, and I’m not proud about that. Why does a man have to feel that way about something like that?” Clayton says. His confession is a bit surprising, but it also feels very honest. I would imagine a lot of men who find themselves in these situations in real life struggle with the same kinds of feelings.

I also like how Howard Keel never makes Clayton feel like anything less than a gentleman. If another actor was playing this character, we might think Clayton was a lout for saying he was afraid to see Miss Ellie without her clothes on; the character could also come off as weak or namby-pamby. Not with Keel, who strikes the perfect balance between strength and sensitivity in this scene and so many others. If anything, Clayton’s willingness to give voice to feelings he isn’t “proud” of makes him feel even stronger.

In fact, the only thing that gives me pause about this scene comes at the end, when Ray tells Clayton, “Well, I just got this feeling that when the time comes, it’s all going to turn out fine.” I certainly hope not! What fun would that be?

Grade: A

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Clayton Farlow, Dallas, Ray Krebbs, Steve Kanaly, Twelve Mile Limit

Real men

‘TWELVE MILE LIMIT’

Season 7, Episode 18

Airdate: February 3, 1984

Audience: 22.4 million homes, ranking 1st in the weekly ratings

Writer: David Paulsen

Director: Patrick Duffy

Synopsis: Clayton harbors private reservations about having sex with Miss Ellie. J.R. learns Clayton may have killed his first wife to collect the insurance money. When Edgar tries to commit suicide, Ray and Donna suspect he was being blackmailed by J.R. Sly tells Cliff that J.R. plans to bid on three offshore leases. Mark proposes to Pam, but she tells him she needs time to think about it. While Afton is out of town, Cliff sleeps with Marilee. Katherine comes closer to finding Naldo.

Cast: John Beck (Mark Graison), Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Morgan Brittany (Katherine Wentworth), Martin E. Brooks (Edgar Randolph), James L. Brown (Detective Harry McSween), Danone Camden (Kendall), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Fern Fitzgerald (Marilee Stone), Ray Girardin (Richard Stevens), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Sherril Lynn Katzman (Jackie Dugan), 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), Deborah Rennard (Sly), Donegan Smith (Earl Johnson)

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

Dallas Scene of the Day: ‘I Wonder What It Is?’

Dallas, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, Past Imperfect

Who shoved J.R.?

In “Past Imperfect,” a seventh-season “Dallas” episode, J.R. and Sly (Larry Hagman, Debbie Rennard) stand in the Ewing Oil reception area, reviewing papers.

J.R.: All right, Sly. I’ll check these out. You can work on them tomorrow. Good night.

SLY: Thank you, J.R.

She grabs her purses and approaches the elevator as the doors open. Clayton (Howard Keel) steps out and brushes past her.

CLAYTON: Where’s J.R.? Is he still here? [Heads toward J.R.’s office]

SLY: Uh, I don’t know. Mr. Farlow, you can’t go in there.

CLAYTON: The hell I can’t.

J.R.: [Begins to exit his office] What’s going on our here anyhow?

CLAYTON: I’m going to see you. [He smacks the papers in J.R.’s hand, sending them flying and marches into the office, forcing J.R. to walk backwards.] Now what the hell do you mean, poking around in my life?

J.R.: What are you talking about?

CLAYTON: Sending people to San Angelo to investigate me.

J.R.: I didn’t send anybody anywhere.

CLAYTON: You are a liar. [Grabs J.R.’s jacket lapels] Now I got a call from the sheriff that somebody’s been snooping around in my affairs. And the only person that could be is you.

J.R.: Now, Clayton, please. Let me explain.

CLAYTON: I was a fool to fall for that line of yours at lunch yesterday. You’re just as devious as you ever were. [Pushes J.R. onto his couch]

J.R.: Just give me a chance to explain, would you please? You would’ve done the same thing under the circumstances. I told you at lunch I love my mama and I’d do anything in the world to see that she’s safe.

CLAYTON: And you don’t think that she’d be safe with me, huh?

J.R.: Look, Clayton, you’ve been around the family a long time. But we really don’t know that much about you. The only reason I was having you checked out was to make sure that Mama didn’t have any surprises after she married you. That’s all.

CLAYTON: [Leans forward] When are you going to get it through that thick skull of yours that I love your mother and all I want is a chance to make her happy? And I’m going to have that chance, whether you like it or not.

He turns and leaves, walking past Sly, who stands in the doorway.

SLY: J.R., are you all right?

J.R.: I’m fine.

SLY: That is a very angry man.

J.R.: He sure is. And a man who gets that angry over a little snooping around must have something interesting to hide. [Chuckles] I wonder what that is?

Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 144 — ‘Past Imperfect’

Clayton Farlow, Dallas, Howard Keel, Past Imperfect

Bull run

In “Past Imperfect’s” best scene, Clayton Farlow storms off the elevator at Ewing Oil, barges into J.R.’s office and shoves him onto the sofa. Clayton, who is newly engaged to Miss Ellie, has just discovered J.R. has been poking into his past — and he’s none too pleased about it. “When are you going to get it through that thick skull of yours that I love your mother and all I want is a chance to make her happy?” he says. J.R. looks a little rattled as Clayton stomps away, but a big grin soon breaks across his face. He turns to a shaken Sly and says, “A man who gets that angry over a little snooping must have something interesting to hide. I wonder what that is?”

Larry Hagman steals this scene with his smile, but the sequence also demonstrates why Howard Keel was an ideal successor to Jim Davis. This requires a somewhat lengthy explanation, so hang with me. First, consider the dilemma “Dallas” faced when Davis died at the end of the fourth season. The producers could have gone in several directions, including recasting Jock with another actor. Wisely, they decided instead to kill off the character and give the audience time to adjust to life without the show’s beloved patriarch. Then, in Season 6, “Dallas” began testing possible love interests for Ellie, including Dale Robertson’s Frank Crutcher, who was just as crusty as Jock but not nearly as intimidating. I also get the impression the show toyed with the idea of turning Donald Moffatt’s character, regal lawyer Brooks Oliver, into a beau for Ellie, which would have represented a total departure from Davis.

Finally, the producers turned Clayton into Ellie’s new mate. Perhaps they realized Keel offered the best of all options: He’s a big, commanding presence like Davis, but he’s also gentlemanly enough to ensure Clayton will never be accused of being a clone of the crotchety Jock. Since joining the show a few years earlier, Keel — a onetime star of MGM musicals — had become one of “Dallas’s” most reliable utility players, dutifully fulfilling whatever role the writers assigned to Clayton: Sue Ellen’s father figure/suitor, J.R.’s business adversary, Rebecca Wentworth’s gentleman caller. Clayton eventually became Ellie’s friend, which offered the first hint of the warm rapport that Keel and Barbara Bel Geddes would perfect as their on-screen relationship progressed.

Clayton also became a strong character in his own right, as we see in the wonderful scene in “Past Imperfect” where he summons J.R., Bobby and Ray to the Oil Baron’s Club — not to get their permission to wed Ellie, but to give them an opportunity to air any grievances they may have with him before the nuptials take place. Keel’s exchange with Steve Kanaly in this scene, when Clayton confidently assuring Ray that his opinion matters too, is especially good. But never forget: No matter how well Clayton got along with Ellie, Ray or anyone else, “Dallas” was J.R.’s show, and so Keel’s chemistry with Hagman mattered most of all. And since J.R. was destined to despise any man who courts his mama, the producers needed to fill this role with an actor who could play off Hagman. In Keel, they found their man.

This is why J.R. and Clayton’s confrontation in “Past Imperfect” is so crucial: It establishes that Clayton is no pushover. In the scene, Keel is fire and Hagman is ice; it’s not unlike the dynamic that exists between Hagman and Victoria Principal when Pam gets riled up. Perhaps not coincidentally, Clayton, like Pam, is an outsider who isn’t afraid to stand up to J.R., which earns Clayton instant respect from the audience — and perhaps from J.R. himself. Keel’s physical stature doesn’t hurt (the actor stood well over 6 feet, so he can look Hagman in the eye), but his booming baritone matters even more. In “Past Imperfect,” when Clayton tells J.R., “You are a liar!” the line sounds like it should be accompanied by a lightning bolt. Can you imagine Frank Crutcher or Brooks Oliver pulling off a scene like this?

J.R. and Clayton’s confrontation is a technical achievement too. Hagman, who directed “Past Imperfect,” films Keel coming off the elevator and marching into J.R.’s office in a single, continuous shot. This kind of camerawork requires a lot of coordination: Keel must deliver his lines while in motion — when Sly tells Clayton he can’t enter J.R.’s office, Clayton exclaims, “The hell I can’t!” — and the dialogue must be timed so Keel and Deborah Rennard complete their lines before Keel rounds the corner and begins his exchange with Hagman. We don’t see a lot of complicated shots like this on the original “Dallas,” but when they pop up, they’re often in episodes helmed by Hagman or Patrick Duffy. Why do actors make such inventive directors?

There are also quite a few comedic scenes in “Past Imperfect,” a reflection, perhaps, of Hagman’s sitcom roots. The best of these moments occurs when Clayton sweeps into the Southfork living room during cocktail hour to present Ellie with an engagement ring. He faces her and J.R. stands between them, with Jock’s portrait looming over J.R.’s shoulder — a harbinger of the two obstacles Ellie and Clayton will have to overcome on their way to the altar. The funny part comes when Keel takes the drink out of Bel Geddes’ hand and hands it to Hagman; Ellie and Clayton never take their eyes off each other, and the sneer on J.R.’s face makes it clear he doesn’t appreciate Clayton treating him like a servant.

Hagman also showcases Ken Kercheval’s comedic timing throughout “Past Imperfect.” In one scene, Cliff is talking about offshore oil leases at dinner with Pam and Mark when Afton asks him when he’s going to take a break and taste his meal. Cliff ignores her and keeps talking, so she gracefully sticks a forkful of food into his mouth. The blabbing continues, but after a few moments, Cliff finally realizes what happened. “Oh, this is good. Afton, it’s terrific,” he says. In another scene, Cliff interrupts a romantic moment between Pam and Mark with another monologue about the offshore oil deal he’s pitching to them. They ignore him and walk away. “Well, I thought I was talking to somebody,” he says.

I like how Hagman frames the latter scene, with Pam and Mark facing each other and Cliff in the middle, looking at both of them. (It echoes the earlier cocktail scene with Ellie, Clayton and J.R.) Hagman delivers several other nifty shots in “Past Imperfect,” including one where Sue Ellen drops off John Ross on his first day of school and watches workers raising the Texas flag in front of the building. Hagman opens with a tight, stationary close-up of the flag; as the flag rises out of the frame, it reveals Peter Richards leaning against his jeep in the distance, waiting for Sue Ellen. It’s a cool effect, although it also illustrates how stalkerish Peter is becoming.

Speaking of John Ross’s first day of school: “Past Imperfect” seems to confirm what I suspected — that the beginning of “Dallas’s” seventh season takes place in the summertime. This makes sense, since John Ross attends a day camp in these episodes, and that’s the kind of thing kids do in the summer. But if we assume John Ross’s school year begins on the first Tuesday of September, how do we explain the scenes in this episode that take place one day earlier, when J.R., Bobby and their secretaries are shown going about their business during a typical day at the office? You don’t suppose J.R. was heartless enough to make everyone work on Labor Day, do you?

Grade: A

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Barbara Bel Geddes, Clayton Farlow, Dallas, Howard Keel, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, Miss Ellie Ewing, Past Imperfect

Four’s a crowd

‘PAST IMPERFECT’

Season 7, Episode 13

Airdate: December 23, 1983

Audience: 20.1 million homes, ranking 1st in the weekly ratings

Writer: David Paulsen

Director: Larry Hagman

Synopsis: Clayton tells the Ewing brothers he wants to make Miss Ellie happy, but he becomes angry when he finds out J.R. has been snooping into his past. Cliff, believing J.R. wants to bid on offshore oil leases, approaches Mark about bidding too, but Mark is skittish. After Sue Ellen breaks up with Peter, Lucy learns he’s dropped out of school. Bobby buys a boutique for Jenna to run. In Rome, Katherine searches for Naldo Marchetta, Jenna’s ex-husband.

Cast: Christopher Atkins (Peter Richards), John Beck (Mark Graison), Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Morgan Brittany (Katherine Wentworth), James L. Brown (Detective Harry McSween), Roseanna Christiansen (Teresa), Pat Colbért (Dora Mae), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Eric Farlow (Christopher Ewing), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Michael Griswold (Thomas Hall), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Omri Katz (John Ross Ewing), Howard Keel (Clayton Farlow), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Audrey Landers (Afton Cooper), Alberto Morin (Armando Sidoni) Priscilla Beaulieu Presley (Jenna Wade), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Debbie Rennard (Sly), Danone Simpson (Kendall), Paul Sorensen (Andy Bradley), Don Starr (Jordan Lee), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), Deborah Tranelli (Phyllis)

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

Dallas Scene of the Day: ‘Sly, Why Did You Betray Me?’

Dallas, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, To Catch a Sly

What he always wanted

In “To Catch a Sly,” a seventh-season “Dallas” episode, J.R. (Larry Hagman) stands in his office doorway as Sly (Debbie Rennard) gets ready to leave for the night.

J.R.: Sly, would you mind hanging around for just a few more minutes? There’s something I’d like to discuss with you.

SLY: [Nervous] Uh, yes, sir.

He goes to his bar and opens a wine bottle. She slowly enters the room.

J.R.: Join me?

SLY: No, thank you.

J.R.: You’re not going to let me drink alone. You’re a white-wine lady, aren’t you?

SLY: Mm-hm.

J.R.: You know, you’ve been looking a little peaked lately, Sly. [Pours a glass]

SLY: Well, I’ve just been having some personal problems. It’s nothing serious.

J.R.: [Turns to face her] If it’s the problem I’m thinking of, it’s very serious indeed. [Hands her the glass] You nervous? [Silence] Well, maybe you have your reasons. Sit down, Sly. [She moves to a chair in front his desk. He stands near the desk and retrieves a stack of photographs.] You recognize anybody in these pictures? [He sits next to her and flips through the pictures, which show her with Cliff in various settings.] Hm? Sure, you do. This is you, and this is Cliff Barnes, a man you know feels as kindly towards me as I do to him.

SLY: [Weeping, looking down] I’m sorry, J.R.

J.R.: Sly, why did you betray me to that man?

SLY: He forced me. He found out my brother is in jail and that he’s up for parole soon. And he promised that if I helped him, he’d talk to the right people and get him off. Cliff used to be with the district attorney’s office.

J.R.: Yes, I know. One of the darker periods of our city’s history. Why didn’t you come to me, Sly?

SLY: I couldn’t. I was so scared. Don’t you see? He threatened me. He said if I didn’t help him, he’d make sure my brother served his full sentence. And he had years and years to go. [Faces him] J.R., I love my brother. I couldn’t pass up a chance to help him. I’m so sorry. I didn’t want to do it. You have every right to fire me. Even to call the police.

J.R.: I’d never do that. You didn’t try to cover up after I showed you these pictures. That pleases me.

SLY: I didn’t mean to hurt the company, J.R.

J.R.: No, of course you didn’t. As a matter of fact, I’m glad I found out it was you. Not somebody else. Because I can trust you, Sly. And you’ve given me something I’ve always wanted: a way of communicating with Cliff Barnes.

SLY: What do you mean?

J.R.: He doesn’t have to know I found out about you. And you can be very useful in passing on information — information I control.

SLY: You’re going to set him up?

J.R.: Mm-mm. He set himself up. What I’m going to do is bring him down — and bring him down very, very hard.

Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 142 — ‘To Catch a Sly’

Dallas, Debbie Rennard, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, Sly Lovegren, To Catch a Sly

Spy another day

One of the reasons J.R. Ewing is so entertaining is because he’s always a few steps ahead of the “Dallas” audience. We watch him plot and scheme, never knowing what trick he’s going to pull out of his sleeve next. That’s why the show’s seventh-season corporate espionage storyline is so unusual. From the beginning, viewers know Cliff Barnes is blackmailing J.R.’s secretary Sly into leaking Ewing Oil secrets, but J.R. is in the dark. Interestingly, this never makes Larry Hagman’s character seem weak or even vulnerable. In fact, it has almost the opposite effect, because we know once J.R. finds out who’s betraying him, there’s going to be hell to pay.

Indeed, that’s pretty much what happens in “To Catch a Sly.” When the episode begins, J.R. has just learned Cliff has a spy at Ewing Oil but he doesn’t know who it is, so he goes to work trying to root out the fink. He finally discovers Sly is the culprit in the fourth act, and in the closing moments, he confronts her. This scene begins with Sly at her desk at the end of a workday, getting ready to go home. J.R. appears in his office doorway and summons her inside. She swallows hard before entering the room, where J.R. makes small talk and begins opening a bottle of wine. “You know, you’ve been looking a little peaked lately, Sly,” he says. She tells him she’s been having “some personal problems,” adding that “it’s nothing serious.” J.R. turns toward her, hands her the glass of wine he just poured and says, “If it’s the problem I’m thinking of, it’s very serious indeed.” Uh-oh.

What follows is one of the great “Dallas” moments. Sly sits in one of J.R.’s guest chairs as he walks to his desk and retrieves a stack of photos that show her and Cliff during some of their secret meetings. The director, Michael Preece, keeps Debbie Rennard in the foreground as Hagman hovers in the distance, holding the pictures aloft. With this shot, Preece encapsulates the whole storyline: Here’s J.R., the businessman who’s been betrayed; Sly, the secretary who’s been forced to double-cross her boss; and Cliff, the smarmy enemy who’s stooped to a new low in his never-ending quest for vengeance. As soon as I saw how Preece framed this scene, I knew it would be the image that accompanied this critique.

As the sequence continues, J.R. slowly shuffles through the photos, showing them to Sly one by one. “You recognize anybody in these pictures?” he asks. She stares at the floor in silence. “Sure, you do,” he says. “This is you, and this is Cliff Barnes.” Hagman’s voice is calm, soft, almost melodic. It reminds me of Mister Rogers addressing an audience of children, although when J.R. speaks this way, it’s anything but reassuring. Preece, who has been focusing on the pictures in a tight close-up, pans upward and allows Hagman’s face to fill the frame. Finally, J.R. poses the question he’s been waiting to ask: “Sly, why did you betray me to that man?”

The line alleviates the tension because it suggests J.R. is going to stop torturing Sly with politeness and cut to the chase. He listens as she tearfully explains how Cliff pressured her to sneak him advanced information about J.R.’s business dealings by threatening to prevent her jailed brother from being paroled. In a clever touch, Rennard doesn’t make eye contact with Hagman until Sly says, “J.R., I love my brother. I couldn’t pass up a chance to help him.” Preece cuts to a reaction shot from J.R., whose face displays a flicker of recognition. He knows a thing or two about brotherly love, after all.

Indeed, this is the moment we know J.R. is going to show Sly mercy. He tells her that he’s pleased she didn’t try to “cover up” when he confronted her with the pictures, and then Hagman lifts the corners of his mouth, ever so slightly. You can practically see the wheels turning inside J.R.’s head. He suggests he’s going to turn Sly into a double agent, using her to feed Cliff bad information. “You’re going to set him up?” she asks. J.R. shakes his head no. “He set himself up,” he says. “What I’m going to do is bring him down — and bring him down very, very hard.”

The episode ends there, leaving us with plenty to ponder. For starters: How twisted is it that J.R. turns out to be pleased by this turn of events? He now has an excuse to go after Cliff with gusto, not that he needs one; batting around Cliff has always been J.R.’s favorite sport. For a moment, I also wondered if J.R.’s vow to “bring him down” reflected paternal feelings toward Sly. In other words: Does he want to avenge her honor after Cliff took advantage of her? Ultimately, I decided that’s not what’s happening here. I have no doubt J.R. has affection for Sly, but if he really cared about her, would he turn her into a double agent? Isn’t he treating her like a pawn, just like Cliff did?

Regardless, Rennard does a nice job conveying Sly’s shame and guilt, as well as the character’s paranoia in her earlier scenes in “To Catch a Sly,” when Sly realizes J.R. is closing in on her. This episode also reminds us how much Hagman’s performance has evolved over the years. Remember: This isn’t the first time one of J.R.’s secretaries has betrayed him. In “Spy in the House,” the show’s third episode, Julie Grey sneaks a copy of Ewing Oil’s notorious “red file” to Cliff. When J.R. discovers Julie double-crossed him, he looks devastated, but Hagman offers no hint that J.R. feels personally wounded by Sly’s treachery. At this point during “Dallas’s” run, the actor had long since honed J.R.’s killer instincts, and that’s what he gives the audience here.

David Paulsen’s sharp script gives us lots to consider besides this final scene. For example, when J.R. drops by Cliff’s office and plants the recording device in his phone, I wondered: Would Cliff really be foolish enough to allow J.R. to use his office when he isn’t there? I decided he would be. I’ve always believed Cliff doesn’t want to beat J.R. as much as he wants to be J.R. Cliff mimics his enemy as far back as the second-season episode “For Love or Money,” when he uses one of J.R.’s own lines to break up with Sue Ellen. Cliff also emulates him when he blackmails Sly, tossing around the word “baby” the way J.R. does “darlin’.” So in “To Catch a Sly,” when J.R. shows up on Cliff’s doorstep to congratulate him on his recent victories over Ewing Oil, I can buy that Cliff is so blinded by the idea that J.R. is impressed with him that he lets down his guard and leaves him alone in his office. Besides, just because Cliff is devious doesn’t mean he’s smart.

“Dallas’s” various romantic entanglements also take interesting twists in “To Catch a Sly.” The episode opens with the newly divorced Pam awakening after sleeping with Mark for the first time, while Bobby continues to resist bedding Jenna, even though she says she wants to have sex with him. Did you ever expect to see a Ewing man insist on taking things slowly with a woman? Meanwhile, Sue Ellen’s ongoing May/December flirtation with Peter Richards leaves me feeling a little cold, at least in this episode. Until now, I’ve been intrigued by Sue Ellen and Peter’s connection, but he seems a little bratty — not to mention stalkerish — when he follows her to her appointment with hairdresser Mr. David. (By the way: Mr. David has evidently moved to new digs since the exterior of his salon doesn’t match the building used in the previous season. And where’s the valet parking?)

Finally, a few words about the technology displayed in “To Catch a Sly.” This episode seems to offer more than the usual share of gadgets and gizmos that were considered cutting-edge in 1983 and now seem hopelessly dated. Examples: J.R. wears a pager on his belt when he visits Cliff’s office, and after he bugs his phone, he listens to the recorded conversations on what appears to be a Sony Walkman. (How, exactly, does the little device that J.R. drops into Cliff’s receiver yield audiocassette recordings of Cliff’s calls?) Later, when Katherine goes to the library to dig up dirt on Jenna, she looks up old newspaper articles on microfiche. Finally, when J.R. brings John Ross to the Ewing Oil offices, the little boy pounds on the keyboard attached to Sly’s computer, which has a monitor that seems to display graphics in two colors: white and blue.

Look closely and you’ll also see the logo of the company that made the machine: Texas Instruments. What else would you expect from the Ewings?

Grade: A

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Dallas, Debbie Rennard, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, Sly Lovegren, To Catch a Sly

Busted

‘TO CATCH A SLY’

Season 7, Episode 11

Airdate: December 9, 1983

Audience: 23 million homes, ranking 3rd in the weekly ratings

Writer: David Paulsen

Director: Michael Preece

Synopsis: J.R. discovers Sly is spying on him for Cliff and decides to turn her into a double agent. Bobby is bothered when he discovers Pam slept with Mark. Katherine noses around in Jenna’s past. Sue Ellen begins planning the annual Ewing Barbecue and feels envious when Lucy expresses interest in dating Peter.

Cast: Mary Armstrong (Louise), Christopher Atkins (Peter Richards), John Beck (Mark Graison), Morgan Brittany (Katherine Wentworth), James L. Brown (Detective Harry McSween), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Eric Farlow (Christopher Ewing), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Omri Katz (John Ross Ewing), Sherril Lynn Katzman (Jackie Dugan), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Lisa LeMole (Judy Baker), Edward Mallory (Stanger), Shalane McCall (Charlie Wade), Priscilla Beaulieu Presley (Jenna Wade), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Debbie Rennard (Sly), Danone Simpson (Kendall), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), Deborah Tranelli (Phyllis)

“To Catch a Sly” is available on DVD and at Amazon.com and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.

Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 137 — ‘Check and Mate’

Bobby Ewing, Check and Mate, Dallas, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, Patrick Duffy

Endgame

“Check and Mate” brings J.R. and Bobby’s contest for control of Ewing Oil to a satisfying but somewhat silly conclusion. In the final scene, the brothers learn J.R. boosted the company’s profits by $40 million, making him the clear-cut winner. With his victory clenched, J.R. announces he’s reneging on his earlier promise to split the company with Bobby, even if Bobby comes up short. Suddenly, Bobby receives some last-minute news: He just made a killing on his Canadian drilling deal, making him the contest’s winner. J.R. wants to go back to their original power-sharing deal — and of course Bobby agrees. Would we expect anything less from this show?

Indeed, this is another example of “Dallas’s” rather fanciful approach to big business. J.R. and Bobby receive the contest results while meeting with lawyer Harv Smithfield on the last day of the competition. Legally, shouldn’t this meeting have taken place the following day, when all the profits could have been counted? Also, in the previous episode, Bobby’s Canadian partner Thornton McLeish still hadn’t struck oil; now we learn Bobby and McLeish not only hit big, they managed to sell their shares to some bigger oil companies. Talk about a fast sale!

But even if this scene stretches credulity, it remains one of the best corporate showdowns from a series that practically invented them. Bobby’s 11th-hour victory is surprising and dramatic; I usually don’t like to see J.R. get beat, but when Bobby does it, I let it slide. Besides, Larry Hagman gets to show a lot of range here — unabashed smugness when J.R. thinks he’s won, muted humility when he realizes he’s lost — and that’s always fun to watch. (I also appreciate how the sequence includes one last letter from Jock, whose explanation that the true purpose of the contest was to bring his sons together makes the storyline feel like Jock’s version of J.R.’s master plan from the TNT series. Or maybe it’s the other way around.)

The lasting consequences of J.R. and Bobby’s fight yields mixed feelings too. There’s no doubt the battle has changed Bobby, who compromised his integrity in his quest for power and ended up losing his wife and son along the way. Bobby is now a damaged man, and Patrick Duffy does a nice job imbuing his character with a sad, soulful weariness. I wish we could say something similar about J.R. After the Southfork fire, J.R. had an attack of conscience and agreed to jointly run Ewing Oil with Bobby, regardless of which brother won the competition. He changed his mind pretty quickly and spent the episodes before “Check and Mate” secretly plotting to stab Bobby in the back when the final results were announced. No one wants to see J.R. turn into a good guy, but wouldn’t it have been more interesting to watch him wrestle with breaking his promise to Bobby? It would have revealed a new depth to J.R.’s character and made the yearlong battle for Ewing Oil, one of “Dallas’s” milestone moments, feel even more meaningful.

Even with these slight shortcomings, “Check and Mate” remains the seventh season’s strongest hour yet. With J.R. and Bobby’s war ending, the show shifts its attention to two supporting characters: Ray and Donna, whose marriage is rocked after Ray is arrested for Mickey’s mercy killing. (This makes Mickey one of the last casualties in the war for Ewing Oil, along with Rebecca Wentworth and Walt Driscoll.) Did Ray pull the plug? Or was it Lil, the only other person in the room at the time? Steve Kanaly is a portrait of quiet resolve as Ray goes through this episode refusing to discuss what happened in the moments before Mickey’s death. The silence is frustrating, but it’s also perfectly in keeping with the character of Ray, a laconic cowboy if ever there was one. Whether Ray pulled the plug himself or he’s simply taking the fall to protect Lil, we wouldn’t expect him to talk about it.

Even if Ray doesn’t have much to say, Kanaly still manages to give the audience a sense of Ray’s inner torment. In “Check and Mate’s” moving next-to-last scene, he sits at the patio table outside his home and asks the deeply depressed Lil for permission to bury Mickey at Southfork. Kanaly’s delivery breaks my heart, but as I watched this scene I remembered Ray and Jock’s memorable conversation at that very table in “The Fourth Son,” when the old man told Ray he was his son. It’s a subtle but poignant reminder of how Ray tried to take Mickey under his arm, the way Jock did with Ray, and how Ray’s efforts ultimately fell short. On the other hand, whether Ray killed his cousin himself or he’s just protecting Lil, is he not exhibiting a Jock-like sense of duty and honor?

Like Kanaly, Susan Howard also makes the most of her time in the spotlight. She has two terrific moments in “Check and Mate.” In the first act, Donna speaks to Ray in jail after his arrest; the glass partition separating the couple feels like a stand-in for the bigger barrier, which is Ray’s willingness to open up about the circumstances surrounding Mickey’s death. Donna seems to believe Ray disconnected Mickey’s life-support system, and Howard makes her character’s disappointment palpable. “Nobody has the right to play God,” she says with signature breathiness. Donna’s reaction makes sense, given the character’s strong moralistic bent. It’s another example of how well “Check and Mate” scriptwriter David Paulsen knows these characters.

Howard’s second great moment comes at the beginning of the third act, when Donna rides out to a Southfork pasture to confront Ray about his lack of willingness to defend himself. She reminds her husband that his only duty wasn’t to ease Mickey’s suffering; Ray also has an obligation to his marriage. Once again, Paulsen gives Howard a great line, and she delivers it beautifully: “You’re what I wanted all my life. You may not think your life is worth saving, but I sure as hell do.” With this single line, Paulsen manages to encapsulate Donna’s entire history with Ray, including her affair with him during her marriage to Sam Culver and when she rescued Ray from depression after Jock’s death.

The other great performance in “Check and Mate” comes from Charlene Tilton, who is moving and believable in the scene where Ray comes home from jail and is greeted by the Lucy, who in her grief-stricken rage beats on his chest and cries, “You murdered him!” It’s another example of how Tilton, when given good material, is a terrific actress. I also have to hand it once again to Howard, who allows the scene to end on a graceful note. “For God’s sake,” Donna says as she tries to comfort Lucy. “Don’t you know that it’s tearing him apart too?”

Like all great “Dallas” episodes, the details in “Check and Mate” are also worth paying attention to. Toward the end of the scene where Sue Ellen offers to throw a barbecue for Peter and his fellow camp counselors, Linda Gray touches Christopher Atkins’ shoulder; right at that moment, composer Bruce Broughton brings a few piano keys into the background score to ensure the audience doesn’t miss the significance of the gesture. Moments later, when Peter runs back into the building to retrieve John Ross, watch how Atkins bounds up the stairs. Peter is still a boy himself, isn’t he?

Elsewhere, director Leonard Katzman also gives us a great shot during the scene where Cliff approaches Sly as she leaves Ewing Oil for her lunch break. Debbie Rennard stands with her back to the building, facing Ken Kercheval, whose face is reflected in the façade. It’s a clever way to get both performers’ faces in the frame, but is it not also a symbol of how Cliff is increasingly reflecting the underhanded sensibilities of the enemy who works there?

Grade: A

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Cliff Barnes, Dallas, Debbie Rennard, Ken Kercheval, Sly Lovegren

Two-faced

‘CHECK AND MATE’

Season 7, Episode 6

Airdate: November 4, 1983

Audience: 22.5 million homes, ranking 1st in the weekly ratings

Writer: David Paulsen

Director: Leonard Katzman

Synopsis: The contest for Ewing Oil ends with Bobby the winner, but he agrees to share the company with J.R. When Ray is arrested in Mickey’s death, Donna hires Paul Morgan to represent him, while Lil slips into a deep depression. Pam goes to work with Cliff, who uses inside information from Sly to steal a big deal out from under J.R. Bobby tells Holly can never date her.

Cast: Dan Ammerman (Neil), Christopher Atkins (Peter Richards), John Beck (Mark Graison), Morgan Brittany (Katherine Wentworth), Lois Chiles (Holly Harwood), Roseanna Christiansen (Teresa), Jack Collins (Russell Slater), Glenn Corbett (Paul Morgan), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Eric Farlow (Christopher Ewing), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), John Hostetter (Gerber), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Omri Katz (John Ross Ewing), Howard Keel (Clayton Farlow), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Kenneth Kimmins (Thorton McLeish), Audrey Landers (Afton Cooper), George O. Petrie (Harv Smithfield), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Kate Reid (Lil Trotter), Debbie Rennard (Sly), Bill Thurman (Allen Murphy), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), Morgan Woodward (Punk Anderson)

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