Dallas icon Larry Hagman broke down how his iconic character J.R. Ewing became the show’s most slippery villain.
“The first script I read, everybody was a scoundrel,” Hagman said on an episode of Pioneers of Television. “Even Mama, in her own way, was a scoundrel. Over the period of five or six shows that we did, the pilot, the miniseries, it kind of narrowed down to me, which was fun because good guys, you know, that’s the hard work. Like Bobby, Bobby has the hard work. He’s such a nice guy, and the bad guys get the ladies and the money and all that kind of stuff. I had more fun with that, and I still am having more fun with that part.”
Additionally, Hagman felt that the reason J.R. Ewing became iconic was simple. Each and every family has that one member.
“I think one of the reasons that the show is so popular, especially overseas in European in South America, is that everyone in the world has a jerk like J.R. in the family,” said Hagman. “A father, an uncle, a brother, a cousin. Somebody who asserts authority. Everybody can identify with that.”
Hagman starred in Dallas from 1978 to 1991. Other stars included Linda Gray as J.R.’s wife Sue Ellen, Patrick Duffy as his brother Bobby, and Barbara Bel Geddes as Miss Ellie Ewing, their mother. While Bobby was the romantic lead, J.R. typically had the more interesting stories. The series revolved around the Ewing family’s two businesses: Ewing Oil and Southfork Ranch. J.R. took control of the oil company and tried to rule it with an iron fist.
His unscrupulous business practices and horrendous treatment of his wife made for must-see TV in the early 1980s. In fact, a storyline involving his character being shot launched one of the most iconic reveals in American television.
Dallas Created History with “Who Shot J.R.?”
In 1980, Dallas sent the world into a frenzy. When J.R. was shot, audiences everywhere went mad with speculation. More or less every character on the show had a bone to pick with J.R., so it was anybody’s guess who did it. Because the event happened at the end of the season, the entire summer was centered on “Who Shot J.R.?”
The producers of the show had each actor film a scene where their character shot J.R., including Hagman himself. T-shirts that said “I Shot J.R.” were everywhere. The slogan “A Democrat shot J.R.” became popular during the 1980 Presidential Election. Months later, the episode “Who Done It?” aired and became the second-highest-rated television broadcast in American history, beaten only by the finale of M*A*S*H.
Even now, “Who Shot J.R.?” remains a calling card for iconic television mysteries.