“Through technology, we’re going to have him there in a lot more episodes than we expected,” reveals his Dallas co-star Brenda Strong (Desperate Housewives), who plays Ann Ewing, Bobby Ewing’s third wife.
What is now known — and you might want to skip the next three paragraphs, since this is something of a spoiler — is that the season’s eighth episode, which just finished shooting and airs March 11, involves a massive funeral, attended by several additional members of the original cast, including Charlene Tilton and Ted Shackelford, and possibly even the elusive Victoria Principal.
But, appropriately enough, J.R. Ewing will not go gentle into that good night. In an intentional echo of the original Dallas’s infamous 1980 cliffhanger “Who Shot J.R.?” it will be revealed that the iconic schemer was murdered.
“I know a lot of scripts passed through the hands of Larry and Linda and Patrick where they just went, ‘What is this? We’re not going to put our names to this,’” says Strong.
It was an immediate hit, in cable terms, pulling an average weekly audience of 6 million in the U.S., where it was the highest-rated new cable drama in all key demographics. In Canada, it drew an impressive average of close to 500,000, ranking third in non-sports specialty programming overall and No. 1 with women 25 to 54.
But the show’s re-creators were doubly ambitious. They wanted to remain faithful to the adult fans of the original show, while at the same time attracting a new and younger viewer who wasn’t even born at the time.
“We were pretty trepidatious ourselves,” confesses Strong. “It’s very difficult to reintroduce a pre-existing commodity with such a very loyal following and then to try to do something new with it.
“But there’s a whole new generation now, saying, ‘Wow, these are great characters,’ and not really realizing that it comes with this whole legacy and history. They’re tuning in just because they think it’s a great show.”
It’s essentially the same show, with all the scheming and plotting and sexual intrigue and backstabbing and betrayal that is so distinctly Dallas.
And on through an entire season. “What’s intriguing about Season 2 is that all of the characters are facing a moral challenge,” she says. “So everybody has an opportunity to maybe go against the grain and do something that’s unpredictable. And I think that creates a lot of electricity.
“I am having the best time of my career playing Ann Ewing. I love her. She’s surprising and she has secrets, and her internal mettle as a human being is being challenged this season in new and unusual ways. And that is so much fun to play.
This is not Strong’s first rodeo; in 1987, she had a bit part on the original Dallas playing Cliff Barnes’ one-night stand.
“I was just a young actress and I was a fan,” she says. “I had just come to Hollywood. I remember I pitched the idea that maybe I was the mother of one of the other characters on the show. I thought that would be an interesting reveal. They didn’t go for it. It would have complicated matters way too much.”
“Larry lived and leaves a big imprint on your heart,” she says. “He was just an extraordinary human being. I mean, his outlook on life . . . I learned so much from him this last year, as he was going through the cancer treatments. The dignity, and the positivity, and his commitment to his work ethic. He loved what he did and I think it showed onscreen.”
Hagman worked right up to the end, going out, as would have wanted, with his boots on.
“If we actually have a choice of how our life ends, and I believe we do, then he designed it perfectly,” marvels Strong. “He went out on top, still relevant, still doing the work that he loved, completely surrounded by his family. He designed the whole thing. It really was a masterpiece. His final tour de force.
“Larry’s motto was ‘Don’t worry, be happy, feel good.’ And he wouldn’t have wanted us to mourn. He wanted to be remembered, certainly, but for the goodness, for the fun and not for the grief.
“He is still with us. But he is so much missed.”