Forty-Three Years Later, Remembering the Shocking Shooting That Changed TV History
On March 21, 1980, two shots rang out that left their mark on a generation of viewers.
Few events shook the television landscape as much in the 1980s as the shooting of J.R. Ewing.
As the cliffhanger for CBS primetime soap Dallas’ second season, it left viewers around the world talking about about who could have pumped two slugs into the devious Texan oil tycoon. For months, the media spent more time speculating as to the perpetrator of the fictional crime than they did some actual news events.
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Working late in his office at Ewing Oil and toasting to his own capacity to screw over both friends and foes, J.R. was shocked when a figure stepped out from the darkness and fired two bullets into his chest.
There was no shortage of suspects.
Ironically, when Dallas was first created, J.R. was intended to be a secondary character, with brother Bobby and his new wife Pam taking center stage as a modern Romeo and Juliet caught between the warring Barnes and Ewing clans. However, Larry Hagman’s charismatic performance as one of TV’s greatest villains, by turns hilarious and menacing, practically demanded that the show revolve around J.R.’s every move.
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While J.R. would often insist that even his most nefarious acts were done in the name of family, his actual kin rarely saw things that way.
After years of battling for a share of the Ewing oil fields that his father Digger helped establish, Cliff Barnes finally thought he’d snagged the legal rights to at least some of them. But no sooner had J.R. poured his nemesis a congratulatory drink than he called his men and had the wells sealed. This disgusted his brother Bobby so much that he was prepared to walk away from the family and the company, breaking the hearts of parents Jock and Miss Ellie.
J.R. had already successfully swung a huge, convoluted business deal that managed to destroy several business rivals, one of whom attempted suicide. Before long, practically everyone whom he’d double-crossed was muttering death threats under their breath.
Things weren’t much better on the personal front, especially for J.R.’s long-suffering wife, Sue Ellen. A continually lapsing alcoholic — pushed repeatedly into the bottle by the antics of her legendarily unfaithful spouse — Sue Ellen had once again fallen off the wagon. And as he’d done before, J.R. was threatening to have her committed in order to gain custody of their young son.
Then there was Sue Ellen’s conniving sister, Kristin Shepherd, who’d had an affair with her brother-in-law only to have him cruelly toss her aside. Furious, she formed a scheme team with one of J.R.’s former henchmen, Alan Beam, in an ill-advised attempt to punish the powerful oil baron for his sins.
Rather than be blackmailed by the pair, J.R. threatened to have Kristin arrested for prostitution and found a woman willing to accuse Alan of rape! As Kristin swore she’d kill him, Alan told her to take a number. Given how many others were out to get J.R., it wasn’t going to be a low number, either!
Then, in the final moments of the season finale, someone made good on their threat, attempting to rid the world of the villain. To keep people guessing all summer — and to prevent the truth from leaking out — the show shot numerous scenarios in which different characters did the deed… including J.R. himself! As speculation reached a fevered pitch, bookies began taking bets as to who would ultimately be revealed as the true culprit.
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Interestingly, one of the most famous moments in TV history came about practically as an accident. Because the was doing so well in the ratings, CBS requested an additional four episodes beyond the 22 which had been planned. Needing several weeks worth of new plot, the writers came up with the storylines which ultimately would result in J.R.’s shooting.
Behind the scenes, a story was unfolding which was almost as dramatic as the one which had all the country talking. As the shooting had been scripted at the last moment, no one actually knew who’d pulled the trigger as those episodes hadn’t yet been written. And given that Hagman was in contract negotiations, speculation ran wild that should he and the production not reach a deal, J.R. might not survive the attempt on his life.
For his part, Hagman spent that summer in England… where even the Queen herself at one point asked, “I don’t suppose you’ll tell me who shot J.R.?”
The truth — that Kristin was the one to pull the trigger — was finally revealed on November 21, 1980. By that time, Dallas was airing in at least 57 countries around the world. 350 million people tuned in to see the shooter revealed, including a whopping 52 percent of all Americans watching television during that time period.
Were you caught up in the “Who shot J.R.?” madness? Share your memories in the comments below. Then relive even more great moments from the heyday of primetime soaps by clicking on the photo gallery below for highlights of Knots Landing during its legendary run.
Video: YouTube/DALLASONDVD, FoundationINTERVIEWS, Vintagereunions