Writer Reflects on Three Decades Since Ultimate Cliffhanger 'Who Shot J.R.?'
By Loraine Despres Posted Nov 25th 2010 07:00PM
In 1979, 'Dallas' had become a phenomenon. People actually stayed home on Friday nights to watch it. The show had become so successful that near the end of the writing cycle, CBS ordered two more episodes. The season was supposed to end with Sue Ellen crashing her car. Now the staff of three -- two producers and a story editor -- met to figure out what to do, when one of them suggested, "Let's shoot the bastard."
The bastard, of course, being J.R. Ewing, the man all of America loved to hate. The show-runners called in a freelance writer -- I believe it was Rena Down -- and told her to shoot J.R. but leave the killer up in the air. Implicate everyone. The staff would figure out who did it later, when they worked out the "bible," or plot lines for the next season.
On Friday, March 21, 1980, J.R. was shot on national TV. When I walked into the production office at 10AM the following Monday, the phones were ringing off the hook. Newspapers and magazines across the country were calling. The staff was euphoric. They were pros and knew this media frenzy was a once in a lifetime experience. They'd given the audience a triple whammy of a cliffhanger -- physical jeopardy, mystery, and they'd shot a national icon.
I was given the prize assignment of the decade, maybe any decade: I was to write the 'Who Done It' episode, the one where the world finally found out who shot J.R.
I went to a party in New Orleans that summer. Oil-men and -women came up to me and announced, "I am J.R." I generally moved away. Others asked me tremulously, "What does that mean, you write for 'Dallas?' You ... you don't write J.R.'s words, do you?" I had to admit I did.
Over the summer, T-shirts appeared with the words, 'I SHOT J.R.' Time Magazine put actor Larry Hagman on the cover. My script was stolen from an unlocked file cabinet at the studio. Betting parlors around the world were taking bets. To keep the secret from the cast and large crew, they shot multiple endings.
At one point, a lawyer cornered me at a party. He told me to mortgage my house and give him the money. He would fly to London and place a bet. (Apparently 'Dallas' was even more popular in England than America.) The eager lawyer assured me it would be perfectly legal. When I told him I would not betray the secret, he was furious. I had cheated him out of a valuable financial opportunity.
In August, six months after J.R. was shot on CBS, I faced my greatest threat. I was at the home of an acquaintance in Malibu and her husband, a body builder with a tough attitude, ordered me to step into the gym. I shook my head. "I'd rather not."
"Into the gym, Loraine." I figured if he hit me, I'd probably have to tell him. Instead he offered me $20,000.
"What are you going to do if I tell you?"
"Lay it off in Vegas," he said.
I had to think fast. "They shot lots of endings," I said. "And I just couldn't live with myself if you lost money because of me." I knew they'd use my ending; they hadn't picked up Mary Crosby's contract. But this burly hulk thankfully let me walk away.
'Who Shot J.R.?' was the perfect storm -- a popular TV show, an iconic character, physical jeopardy (would J.R. die? Fat chance...) and a mystery. On Nov. 21, 83 million Americans tuned in along with viewers in 53 countries around the world. Someone said more people watched that episode than have seen Shakespeare since the 16th century.
Will that level of media mania happen again? Probably not, although the TV landscape is scattered with suspenseful serials, 'Desperate Housewives,' 'Breaking Bad,' 'Dexter,' 'The Vampire Diaries,' and 'Weeds' to name a few. In 1980 there were only three channels, now there are hundreds. Today, plot lines are stolen and bandied about the Internet. Appointment TV is a thing of the past. Shows are recorded and watched when convenient.
But writers will always turn to the essential components of cliffhangers: jeopardy, plot twists, mystery, and suspense to keep the audience glued to the set, to keep the reader turning the pages. I know I will.
Loraine Despres is a novelist and former screenwriter, who wrote the 'Who Shot J.R.?' episode of 'Dallas.' Her books include 'The Scandalous Summer of Sissy LeBlanc' and 'The Bad Behavior of Belle Cantrell.' Read her blog on Red Room!
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