The Dallas Decoder Interview: Lisa Seidman

Lisa Seidman

Lisa Seidman

Lisa Seidman was a writer on the original “Dallas” during its final two seasons and penned many of the show’s best episodes from that era. She later wrote for “Knots Landing” and now serves as associate head writer for “The Young and the Restless.” I was thrilled when she agreed to answer some of my questions about writing for three of my favorite TV series.

“Dallas” was one of the first shows you ever wrote for. How did you get the job?  Howard Lakin and I worked together on “Falcon Crest.” He moved on to “Dallas” and when CBS told Len Katzman, the executive producer, they wanted a female writer on the show, Howard recommended me. Len read and liked a spec script I had written, a murder mystery that Patrick Duffy eventually optioned, which he planned to direct and star in, but alas, he moved on to “Step by Step” so it fell through. I met with Len, he liked me, and the rest as they say….

Bobby and J.R. in “Cry Me a River of Oil,” Seidman’s first “Dallas” episode

Bobby and J.R. in “Cry Me a River of Oil,” Seidman’s first “Dallas” episode

History, indeed! What was it like to work on “Dallas” as it was nearing the end of its run? Was it a struggle to come up with new things for the characters to do?

At the time, we didn’t know the show was nearing the end of its run. We were hoping the show would be picked up for another year but knowing there was a possibility it would not be, the mood was wistful, bittersweet. While I remember days when we struggled to come up with story, I don’t think it was any more difficult than any other show I’d been on before or after — except for the final, two-hour show. Now that was a struggle. Len really wanted to go out with a bang and I remember long, frustrating story meetings where we were really trying to find that great hook.

Oh, wow. Do you remember the other ideas for the series finale that you considered but discarded? And what did you think of the final product?

Unfortunately, I don’t remember the other ideas, although I remember exactly where I was sitting in Len’s office as we plotted out the “It’s a Wonderful Life”-themed finale: on his sofa, which is a strange thing to remember as I usually sat in the chair next to him while Howard sat on the sofa and [producer] Ken Horton was in the armchair across from Len and me. As far as the final product: At the time, I thought it was a terrific idea, but in retrospect I see the flaws. J.R. learns that people led happier lives without him so he was going to kill himself in despair and Bobby had to save his life. It was an anti-J.R. story.

Cliff in “The Decline and Fall of the Ewing Empire,” Seidman’s final “Dallas”

Cliff in “The Decline and Fall of the Ewing Empire,” Seidman’s final “Dallas”

Did you have a favorite character to write for? 

Cliff Barnes. What a kick! The character would do or say anything. He had no filters. I loved it. I loved him. I also loved writing the female characters: Cally, April, Michelle, Lucy. Sadly, Linda Gray left the season before I came on so I never got to write Sue Ellen. I was always sorry about that.

Are there any scenes or episodes that you are particularly proud of? 

The scene between J.R. and Lee Ann De La Vega in “Designing Women.” First, I got to write for Larry Hagman and Barbara Eden, who had both been in “I Dream of Jeannie,” a show I loved as a kid. What a thrill! Second, Lee Ann is confronting J.R. about their shared past, and I remember how much I loved her getting back at J.R. for how he screwed up her life. I watched them shoot the scene and it was exciting to see how they both got into it.

Lee Ann and J.R. in “Designing Women”

Lee Ann and J.R. in “Designing Women”

That scene contains one of my favorite J.R. quotes. I love when he tells Lee Ann and Michelle, “You two belong together, hatching your silly little plots in your silly little heads.” I’ve been quoting that line for 22 years!

Funny you should bring that up. I have all drafts of the script in front of me. In the writer’s draft, J.R. said, “Hatching your puny little plots in that empty brain of yours.” In the first draft it became, “Hatching your puny little plots in that empty head of yours” — suggested to me by Len — where it remains in the final draft, so Larry Hagman obviously changed it on set to the line you love.

After “Dallas,” you wrote for “Knots Landing.” How were those experiences similar? How were they different? 

Writing for “Knots” and “Dallas” were similar in that both shows had strong writer-producers — Ann Marcus and Len Katzman, respectively — who respected their writers and never micro-managed us. What you saw on air was the writer’s work, not a rewrite by either Ann or Len. They were different in that Len preferred to be in charge of the production of each script while Ann let each writer attend casting, tone meetings, production meetings. If the actors had concerns about their story on “Dallas” they went to Len. If the “Knots” actors had concerns they went straight to the particular writer of the script. On both shows, stories were created and laid out with all the writers in the room. While Len and Ann had the final say, they listened to all their writers’ contributions. Both were fantastic bosses!

Gary and Val in “Knots Landing: Back to the Cul-de-sac”

Gary and Val in “Knots Landing: Back to the Cul-de-Sac”

What are your memories of co-writing the “Knots Landing” reunion miniseries?

Where do I begin? Ann Marcus taught me so much about structure, high stakes, letting character drive story. We wrote the miniseries in her home office and I remember spending a lot of the time staring at her Emmy for “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” feeling incredibly lucky that I was getting to write with Ann, who is still a dear friend. Ann would come in with a lot of ideas and then we would discuss each one at length, discarding what didn’t work and developing in more detail what did.

Do you watch the new “Dallas”? What’s your opinion?

Fantastic. Fun. It’s great to see how the series successfully uses J.R., Bobby, Sue Ellen and Cliff with the young ’uns. It’s a kick.

You’ve written a lot for daytime television too. How is that different from writing for prime-time television? 

Daytime TV is much harder to write than anybody thinks. You’re writing a detailed outline or a script every week while in prime time you’re writing one script a month or even less, depending on how many writers are on staff. You have two days to write an 11-page outline on daytime, whereas in primetime you have a week or a week and a half to write your script. In daytime you have many more characters to deal with — at least 10 to 15 — and you have to know all their voices, their stories. You have to know their histories from before you went on the show — and those histories are much more complicated than prime time back story because these characters have been on the air anywhere from 10 to 40 years!

In daytime, is it hard to balance giving fans what they want and trying to pursue your own artistic vision? 

Yes, absolutely, because the reality is you can’t really give the fans what they want, which is happy couples. Once a couple is happy, they’re boring. So the writers have to keep creating complications for characters that keep couples apart while at the same time keeping fans wanting to watch every day, rooting for them to get together.

You’re currently writing for “The Young and the Restless.” If J.R. Ewing had ever faced off against Victor Newman in business, who do you think would win?

Ha! Good question. Neither of them would ever have a total win. J.R. might defeat Victor in some aspect of business but then Victor would pick himself up, dust himself off and go after J.R. with a vengeance. Neither would be down for long. The battle would go on forever!

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