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.

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