Dallas creator David Jacobs joined us once again at ultimatedallas.com and gives his thoughts on TNT’s Dallas.
Ultimate Dallas – Welcome back to ultimatedallas.com – David Jacobs, the creator of Dallas and Knots Landing.
David Jacobs– Thank you. It’s good to be here
UD– We got a lot of questions about the new Dallas, original Dallas, the movie that never happened and Knots Landing of course
UD- The new Dallas has aired season one. What were your overall impressions?
David – I am delighted to see Dallas surviving. I have not been involved in the new one, I didn’t want to be because I had already written Dallas and I wanted to see somebody do a different take on it. I do think it’s pretty good. I think it’s finding itself. I think it’s a little too plot heavy, that’s because they don’t quite know the characters yet.
UD – So you think fans should give it a chance for the characters to settle in?
David – Absolutely. Absolutely. First of all it takes a while for television shows, character driven shows, to find their rhythm and to balance character against plot. They shouldn’t be separate things but they generally are. The ten shows are promising.
UD – Is there anything you would do differently? I know you previously mentioned reversing the roles of John Ross and Christopher.
David – I have said that a couple of times but not as a suggestion of what should have been done. I have to say they are more faithful to the original than I would have been. I would want to do something different. One of the first things that came to mind was reversing the kids which made sense because Christopher was the adopted one. He would want to grow up to be the baddest Ewing of them all and John Ross would be Johnny Rockefeller Junior, who spends his life doing good deeds – clearing up the damage his father did to the family name. I liked the idea because it would create two layers of father/son conflict.
UD – What are your thoughts on the portrayals of John Ross & Christopher?
David – They are shaded, I would have done it more radically, but they are shaded – not pure hero and pure villain.
UD – So bits of grey in there
David – In Knots Landing everybody was grey
UD- With that in mind, would you agree that some of characterisation in New Dallas feels quite ‘Knotsian’ – in that the characters seem more three dimensional, more emotionally developed than in the original series? For example, Bobby’s conflicts with Christopher seem to arise out of Bobby’s overprotectiveness towards his son. This resembles Karen Mackenzie’s relationship with her children more than anything we saw on the old Dallas
David – I hadn’t thought of it but it’s true. Whenever you play it ‘grey’ you are more grounded. Everybody is a kid to a parent and those relationships, when you portray them, are long past the time in the fifties when father knew best. I find it not as interesting [as Knots Landing] but it will get there. It’s still early and it’s very plot heavy. It seems overly plotted to me and that’s usually a symptom of thinness in the characters.
UD – That’s interesting. Although it has strong ratings in the US in some other countries there seemed to be a ratings drop off. Some suggest this is down to the being too plot driven or the fact there isn’t a root for character, like Pamela Barnes in the original.
David – I don’t think there needs to be a root for character, although there generally is, but somebody for the audience to hook onto, to take you into it. That was definitely Pamela because she was an outsider coming into this formidable family, this formidable environment, so we all saw it the way Pamela did. Pamela also had very middle class aspirations; she didn’t want to be rich. She never had the same values; she had the values we think ordinary people like to have.
UD – You once stated that Pam was initially your favourite Dallas character to write for. Why was that?
David – When I first wrote it, I never said she was my favourite, I thought she should be more important. She was named after a good friend of mine, a woman who lived in Texas, so I named her Pamela. Bobby was not supposed to be as strong as he was, he was supposed to be a blank piece of paper, and he really didn’t want to go into the family business. It was Pamela who was “you can’t let your brother just do everything, he will come back and slap you in the face and you have to grow up”. JR knew that. It was the first five and then the first season you had that because JR knew she was the enemy and getting rid of her was a necessity. That’s what I mean – if it’s character driven the conflicts are built into the structure of the piece. You can have JR and Pamela in the same room talking about the weather and there is still tension.
UD – Her ending left fans feeling cheated. Is it a difficult decision to kill off a main character? I know you had that dilemma with Laura on Knots Landing.
David – To be open I wasn’t on Dallas, I was running Knots Landing although I consulted every year on the bible. My office was directly down from Lenny Katzman and we discussed things frequently, it wasn’t my decision to get rid of her that way. I don’t think they had a terrific relationship with Victoria and that unfortunately, sometimes when you do something that lasts as long as these shows last, does color some decisions.
UD – What was the issue?
David – I don’t know. I’m not playing hard to get. I know both shows were at a stage where we were having to trim back, which I used to call amputate, but Michael [Filerman) and I decided not to do anymore Knots Landing because of that, even though they would have given us another season but at that time we were just doing harm. So when Victoria left [Dallas], the show was just changing, she didn’t really have any investment in the stories that were coming up. The person to talk to is Camille, oh wait Camille wasn’t there anymore either. Art’s dead, Phil’s dead, Leonard’s dead, I’m waiting any minute. Don’t go anywhere near a guy with a beard and a staff (laughs).
I know your readers are interested in Victoria but if Victoria was on the cover of a magazine it would double their sales. She was very popular with women who read women’s magazines and older women, married women liked Sue Ellen but Pamela was more like Melanie Griffith in Working Girl.
UD – So on Knots Landing was it a conscious decision not to show Laura’s death on screen?
David – Fred Silverman used to be president of ABC and it’s attributed to him – “Did you see the body? No. Then she’s not dead”. If you want to bring her back bring her back, if you see the body in the coffin that’s when you are dead. You have to careful with these shows, as they get a little older and you have to trim down your cast, you have to be careful not to cut off a real limb. When we got to that stage on Knots Landing where it was cut or cancel – Knots Landing and Dallas should have ended four years earlier, they just coasted – you have to make these decisions, horrible decisions. Loosing Julie Harris on Knots Landing, I cried. And Laura, you had to go with who was tuning in to watch the show, you have various ways of measuring that and you have your gut feeling. When we had Lisa Hartman then that little affair between her and Laura made it more fun. If we did it now we would just say they ran off together but then it was all euphemisms and possibilities and we had some fun.
UD - Some would argue that Knots Landing would have been the more successful show to bring back in the way it can relate to the audience. For example Karen being the voice of Middle America. Do you think that would ever happen? What would your take be on a Knots Landing 2012?
David – If Knots Landing ever came back, and I won’t say Michael and I never talk about that, but if Knots Landing came back it would have to come back as new kids on a new cul-de-sac. A whole other new generation. I don’t think it will happen because Knots Landing, as glorious as it was, it was never the worldwide success that Dallas was. It was never the valuable brand that Dallas was. So I doubt anybody would do it again. If they did do it again – how to do it? I don’t know. Maybe the same way they launched Dallas. Karen and Mac and Val and Gary being the only survivors, Devane if you could get him. But really set yourself free fairly early , they will stop watching if you get rid of them too fast but they are not going to watch if they are not there. I think it’s hard. I will say they are succeeding [in new Dallas] balancing the participation of the old with the new but then I hear they are bringing in Gary and Val who were launched on Dallas, but why do that? I think they should be reigning themselves.
UD – Since they are bringing back Gary and Val how would you like to see them depicted or not depicted in the new show?
David – I think you have to activate Lucy a little bit to set it up. Gary is a brother so he could hear Bobby is sick and visit. But you want more than come visit, you want something in the wills or something in the estate that would bring him in. I don’t want to see them down and out; I would like to think they made a good adjustment to their lives.
I have just become a grandfather this year, twice, it’s like no other feeling you have. With your own kids when you raise them you have responsibilities, you have to teach them values but as a grandparent you say don’t do it and here’s some money. But if I could find them in that position and one of their grandchildren was somehow involved that would be nice. I would like to see a real set of grandparents, there hasn’t been a real set of grandparents since the Waltons. I want to be surprised.
UD – There has also been talk of a character like Abby from Knots crossing over. Could you see her crossing over?
David – If they cross her over it’s a whole different story. They can use Gary and Val because they were created on Dallas. Dallas was my first show. I had that deal. It was a prearranged deal, but I never complained, because it greased the skids of my career. By the time of “Knots Landing”, I had a much better contract. They would have to come to me and ask. Then it becomes a legal situation. I don’t know if it’s legal, but it’s hard to think of what to do with her. I don’t know. I haven’t given it any thought..
UD – The Dallas movie I know started off as a dark Enron story and then it changed into the aborted John Travolta and Jennifer Lopez thing that happened. How did it all progress to that point and end up where it ended up?
David – Well that was when I didn’t want to write because I had already written it and I thought somebody should be more twenty first century than I am and then when we had meetings I seemed to be the youngest guy in the room. Nobody really wanted to, nobody being the studio and the writers, wanted to do Dallas. Dallas is a slightly over the top but still grounded serial and a family of enormous wealth and enormous power so I guess it’s natural that the studio wanted to do it comedically. But then it kept becoming more extreme, at one point somebody wanted it to be like Talladega Nights. I said to my producing partner “I think I’m going to take a vacation right now” (Laughs). How the hell do you make it like Talladega Nights? I just wanted to do the ultimate night time soap opera. The main problem was that it was going to be an expensive movie and they never got a script together.
UD – When did you hear Dallas was coming back? Do you think this is a good time opposed to the reunion movie in 1996?
David – That 1996 movie wasn’t very good. Neither of the reunion movies were any good. I think it was too soon for a reunion. But I always thought it could come back again but I never thought of it coming back as weekly television show. But when I found out about it, Micheal Filmerman heard about it in New York and called me up and asked me why I hadn’t told him about it. He said “Why didn’t you tell me about this?” “About what?”, “About Dallas”. So that’s how I found out.
UD – A lot of us flashback to a scene in original Dallas where Miss Ellie warns Sue Ellen about the future and the battle between Christopher and John Ross. So it foreshadowed that the series was going to be about legacies and could come back thirty years later.
David – It has and it is about legacies. Let’s see what they do with it. I said I would have done it differently but I’m not critical of what they are doing. I would have done it differently just to keep myself interested. I’m delighted that it’s back on. I don’t know about right or wrong time. It’s such a crazy time right now. It’s just nuts. In early 2003 one of the versions of the script opened up with Bobby and JR at a meeting with some people in California, the lights went out [the 2003 brownouts], everybody gets alarmed and JR whispers “Don’t worry it’s us”. I thought that would have been a nice topical point. Then you cut to JR coming out of the White House , a friend of Cheney. The Cheney/Bush administration I thought was like watching Dallas.
UD - Regarding original Dallas, you’ve often been quoted as saying that if you had continued to run the show, instead of Leonard Katzman, it would have been cancelled earlier. Why do you think that, i.e. what would your version of Dallas have focused on?
David – That was false modesty (laughs). I never meant that. But if I had run it, it might have been a slightly different show because my own sensibilities are very middle class. Knots Landing was the perfect show for me to do and even as I wrote Dallas I had at the centre of it and a catalyst to all the events was a woman [Pamela] who had very middle class aspirations. When I think about new Dallas what if Ann had been black, it just would have been something audacious you know. That would have fitted in with the times more. But not to make it a plot point but just to color the landscape. By the way I have to say I love the way the show looks. The cinematography, it just looks beautiful.
UD - When asked in interviews, Joan van Ark has often said she likes to imagine a modern day Valene in a position of power, ideally running her own movie studio. In a way, this echoes how Linda Gray has asked Sue Ellen to be portrayed in the new series, i.e. sober, well adjusted, and a kind of powerhouse role model. Dramatically, that seems to have led her character into a dead end. What are your thoughts on this?
David – I don’t see Valene being in a position of power. I don’t see so strong a transition. She became a strong woman before your eyes. But you have to believe the transition and I sort of believe it with Linda. She had so many interesting flaws that it would be fun to see her straighten herself out. I would like to have seen that happen on screen, how she became that woman.
UD – When you have a long running series what is your approach to continuity. I know some issues have come up in the new series. Do you think it’s inevitable?
David – I don’t think we had continuity issues on Knots Landing. I can’t think of any can you?
UD - No I can’t think of any.
David – You do have a bible every year, although you ignore it like we did [on Knots], you still stay with the general shape of the season. The only time I recall playing with the possibility was when Lisa Hartman left and we really wanted her back. We really thought we lost a lot of texture when she went. We brought her back as a look-alike and we made her so different that I remember my mother said “Is that her?” She didn’t even know it was Lisa Hartman. In 1977 when we talked about casting Dallas, Barbara Miller was in charge of casting and she said something I like to requote. Somebody pointed out that Barbara Bel Geddes was only nine years older than Larry Hagman and Barbara Miller said “Only for a minute” and I guess what she meant is that somebody is going to say “isn’t she a little bit young to be his mother?” and then it’s over. That’s the minute. Then it keeps on going and it’s not something you have to live with. Don’t not do the cast that you want just because of those little facts, they are not going to hurt you. The big serious problem was when an entourage of Leonard, Phil, Art Lewis and Camille said “Are you absolutely certain in the pilot that Ray and Lucy had sex in the hayloft?” I said “Absolutely. It was the most famous part of the pilot”. It was because they wanted to make Ray into Jock’s illegitimate son. They really begged me to tell them it wasn’t so. I said “Maybe she just jerked him off. I don’t know. We didn’t see it you know” So they just went with it.
UD– Just going back to new Dallas, what would you say to fans of the original show who are struggling with the new version. To stick with it?
David – Absolutely. They are in the hands of a very good writer. A writer that comes from an entirely different background from mine, a whole different set of experiences. As she relaxes into it, she is very faithful to the old show. I know she has said whatever happened on the original Dallas is history, we can’t mess with that and I admire her for that. I think the show is going to succeed and on some level it’s a big brand and it’s worth a lot of money. Absolutely stick with it, she is going to bring in her life experience and what she knows and that is a completely different thing to what I knew. She’s talented enough that it’s going to ooze through and become its own show.
UD – I guess there is more freedom with Dallas being on Cable.
David – But there are more people looking over your shoulder too
UD – But saying that the original Dallas mini series felt more daring than what we see now in many respects.
David – Thank you for saying that. I happen to believe that. Dallas was audacious and what it is now is not audacious enough. By audacity, if you think of something like make the wife black – do it , not that that is audacious anymore but just do it. And if you want to make a girl have sex with a guy who may later be related – do it and worry about it later. Just do it, don’t take twelve weeks to build up a story, do it in four so it has some shock value.
UD – I kind of draw parallels to Disney buying George Lucas, he is going into retirement and wants someone else to take Star Wars forward. I see a lot of parallels with you saying let someone else do it for the twenty first century.
David – I absolutely feel that. I know it’s not the way you get rich. I didn’t want to do anymore of these continuing dramas so I stopped. I didn’t want to go back and do it again. I would be afraid of getting it wrong. Isn’t that funny because I didn’t knowingly get it right. There is no doubt in my mind what it’s going to say in the first line of my obituary ‘David Jacobs creator of Dallas’ and you know I wish it was cured cancer , brought peace to the world but still creating that show is not nothing.
UD – Is there anything else you are currently working on?
David – I was working on a novel that I really want to finish but then I had an automobile accident in 2004 and had a compound fracture in my back. I never really got back into writing. I have to face up to the possibility that first it was medical but who knows? Maybe it became psychological. I think there is one more thing in but I don’t want it to be another television show. I’d rather it be the novel. But let’s say they do very well with Gary and Val and decide to do a Knots recreation, I would like to be more involved in that than I was in “Dallas”. I had one meeting with Cynthia and they didn’t clarify it. But I didn’t really have a big participation. Let’s see what happens with this. I’m not saying I wouldn’t go in and say how about doing this and how about doing this and leave. If I were writing a show now, I wouldn’t want me there looking over my shoulder.
David – This is the only conversation I have had about Dallas and Knots Landing that makes me remember how much fun it was. Usually I think I’m glad I’m out of there but it was really a lot of fun.
Thanks to David Jacobs and readers of ultimatedallas.com for their questions
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