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Ultimate cliffhanger:
Who shot J.R.?

By Ed Robertson

Twenty-five years ago to the day, March 21, 1980, at approximately 10:55 p.m., a shot rang out that was heard in millions of households across America. It was the season finale of “Dallas,” television’s No. 1 show at the time. 


Lord knows, if someone deserved to be shot, it was J.R. Ewing. And he got it that night after weeks of backstabbing friends, family and business partners. With only seconds left in the episode, a mysterious assailant popped into Ewing's office and shot the show's resident villain, leaving him at the brink of death as the final credits rolled. 
Just who did shoot J.R.? It was a question that set off an international media frenzy that went on for many long months.

Further, it was a seminal moment on television, defining forever the season-ending cliffhanger at its best. The device became a fixture in network TV and remains so to this day.
Yet no other cliffhanger since has had nearly the impact. It was a masterful device for sure, and it helped that "Dallas," one of the early primetime soaps, was the season's No. 1 show on CBS.
But there were other factors at work as well that summer to make the who-shot J.R. cliffhanger a true pop cultural phenomenon. Here’s a brief look at each.

Hagman’s Power Play

Larry Hagman was actually a secondary player when “Dallas” premiered in 1978. But it wasn’t long before viewers realized that the sheer delight he brought to J.R. made “Dallas” such fun to watch. As the show soared in the ratings, so did the actor’s popularity. The series' producers cashed in, licensing a horde of products bearing J.R.’s likeness. 
  Hagman’s contract with the studio did not entitle him to a share in that wealth. With “Dallas” exploding as a result of the J.R. cliffhanger, Hagman saw a perfect opportunity to leverage his popularity with viewers for a better contract. He staged a walkout. The show resumed production in June 1980, but Hagman did not show. He took off for Europe.
Forget “Who Shot J.R.?” Suddenly the big questions were, “Will Larry Hagman come back?” and “What happens if he doesn’t?”
Rumors flew. There was much posturing on both sides. 
The show’s producers considered throwing an accident into the storyline as a way to write Hagman out of the show. The ambulance transporting J.R. to the hospital crashes. J.R., already suffering from a bullet wound, is terribly injured, especially his face. He'll need plastic surgery, course, and that would allow the producers to substitute another actor (reportedly Robert Culp) to play J.R. Or that was one of the ideas being kicked around as filming began on the next season's first episode, with Hagman still out of the country.
   But Hagman was “Dallas,” and the producers knew it was folly to continue without him. Ten days later, the actor was back on the set with a hefty raise ($100,000 per episode) plus a share of profits from J.R. merchandise.
  
The Emergence of 24/7 News

But Hagman’s walkout, even though it had ended, had the effect of making the question of who shot J.R. a much larger story. It was all over newsstands, including the covers of Time, People and the British magazine Punch. It also proved to be a godsend for an ambitious new cable news network, CNN.
Television news was quite different when CNN launched in June 1980. Viewers were geared toward watching the news at a set time in the evening and late night hours. Doubts abounded over whether there was really an audience for a 24/7 news channel. And who could imagine enough news to keep such a network forever in lively copy?

The timing of the J.R. shooting was perfect, giving the new network an endless stream of stories as it reported on it as a cultural phenomenon, one crossing over into politics and sports and other areas of coverage. Las Vegas laid odds on a wide range of shooting suspects, from J.R.’s beleaguered wife Sue Ellen (3-to-1) to saintly matriarch Miss Ellie (12-to-1). 

The story helped CNN in other ways. As it reported each new clue, big or small, in the unfolding mystery of who shot J.R., it forced the broadcast networks and local newscasts to stay on top of the story. CBS affiliates began running teasers at the end of the 11 o’clock news promising the latest development on the outcome of the mystery.

An America in need of a diversion

Who shot J.R." was also a welcome respite during a particularly troubling year. The economy was down in 1980. Fifty-two Americans were held hostage in Iran. Mount St. Helens erupted, causing mudslides and avalanches in Washington state.
The Olympics were held in Moscow that summer, but there were no American teams. The U.S. had already pulled out of the Games in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. There was a need for diversion that “Dallas” helped fill.

The Actors Strike Heightens the Suspense

Finally, another real-life cliffhanger delayed the outcome of “Who shot J.R.” two months longer than expected.
In July 1980, shortly after Hagman returned from his European holdout, the Screen Actors Guild went on strike, shutting down production throughout the film and TV industries. The key issue was over actors’ share of proceeds from the sale of programs on the then-burgeoning markets of pay television, videotape and video disk.
   The strike lasted three months, forcing the networks to postpone the start of the new TV season from September until November. As a result, viewers would have to wait a total of eight months before finally learning who shot J.R. Yet the delay actually helped “Dallas.”
   CBS took advantage of the delay by repeating early episodes from 1978 that established Hagman as J.R. As “Dallas” had picked up many new viewers as a result of “Who shot J.R.,” these early shows would therefore be fresh to those who hadn’t seen them.
   The strategy worked. By the time the strike settled, interest in “Dallas” was at its peak.
   Who shot J.R was finally resolved on Nov. 21, 1980. The shooter was Kristin Shepard (Mary Crosby), J.R.’s sister-in-law and jilted mistress.
   Seventy-six percent of all U.S. viewers watching television that night were tuned in to “Dallas.” The episode was seen by more than 350 million people in 57 countries, including 83 million in the U.S. alone. The audience figure remains the second-highest for a single episode of a weekly television series, topped only by the final episode of “M*A*S*H” in February 1983.
   Pop culture has seen other crazes emerge over the past 25 years. Ken Jennings’ winning streak on “Jeopardy!” comes to mind, as does “American Idol,” the premiere of “Survivor” in 2000, and the rage over “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” in 1999.
   While all were big in their own way, none came close to the far-reaching media impact “Dallas” had in the summer of 1980. It was a convergence of events the likes of which we may never see again.


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