‘Dallas’ Star Linda Gray Reflects on Iconic Who Shot J.R. Cliffhanger

by Allison Hambrick

Dallas actress Linda Gray opened up about the moment that changed television history: when J.R. Ewing got shot. While it’s hard to remember an era before television seasons ended on cliffhangers, most shows resolved their plotlines within a season. All of that changed in 1980.

Dallas was already an incredibly popular show by its third season. This was only heightened by the incredible amount of speculation that surrounded its finale. As mentioned before, Dallas antagonist J.R. Ewing was shot outside of his office at the end of the third season. The entire summer had fans speculating as to who did it, as almost every character on the show had a motive.

The reveal was shrouded in such secrecy that the producers of the show had each actor film a scene where they shoot J.R., including Larry Hagman, who played the oil tycoon. Fans began wearing t-shirts that said “I Shot J.R.” The 1980 presidential election featured a slogan that said “A Democrat shot J.R.” The phenomenon was such that even Queen Elizabeth and the Queen mother joined the speculation.

After months of waiting, the show aired the episode “Who Done It?” It remains the second highest-rated television broadcast in American history, beaten only by the final episode of M*A*S*H. The episode also received more viewers than the presidential election that year. Popular belief was that Sue Ellen Ewing, Gray’s character, shot J.R.; however, this lead was false.

While the mystery is memorable, the resolution wasn’t. The culprit turned out to be Kristin Shepard, J.R.’s mistress, and Sue Ellen’s sister. Her character was known for stirring up trouble. She had an affair with J.R., got pregnant, and lost his baby. Then she mothered another son, Christopher, who was adopted by J.R.’s brother Bobby.

Linda Grey Discusses ‘Who Shot J.R.?’ on Dallas

Additionally, the cliffhanger became the stuff of legend. Every show wanted the amount of buzz that Dallas received, and so, plot twists became the norm. Moreover, spoofing “Who Shot J.R.?” became commonplace. The most notable example was in The Simpsons episode “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” in 1995.

Gray is well aware of the iconic status of not just Dallas, but that exact story. Granted, she is quick to emphasize how the popularity of the show got as intense as it did.

“During that time, we didn’t have TiVo,” explained Gray on The Queen Latifah Show. “We didn’t have VCR. There were three networks, and that’s it. Now it’s a whole different game. It was lovely to be a part of TV history like that.”

While she is selling Dallas short, it is true that the television landscape changed. Whether or not the same type of storyline could resonate today is a valid question. In fact, the 2012 reboot of Dallas attempted to answer this question–though its degree of success was minimal. Maybe Gray was right. The intrigue of “Who Shot J.R.?” was a one-time phenomenon.