The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
2. Who Shot J.R.?

Copyright 2000     Jason Manning     All Rights Reserved
The shot heard around the world -- J.R. Ewing is gunned down by an
unidentified assailant in the 1979-80 Dallas season finale.

Who shot J.R. Ewing?  That was the burning question on nearly everyone's mind in 1980. Dallas (CBS) was America's hottest primetime series, a slick soap opera depicting the private lives and public connivances of the somewhat dysfunctional, oil-rich Ewing family.  Patriarch Jock Ewing's sons, J.R. (Larry Hagman) and Bobby (Patrick Duffy) were as different as night and day.  J.R. was the character millions of addicted viewers loved to hate -- a charming and unscrupulous Texas oilman who seldom let little things like morality or the law get in his way of acquiring whatever he wanted, be it a new oil field or another mistress.  In contrast, Bobby was a straight-laced Boy Scout.
An unidentified gunman plugged the scheming J.R. in the final episode of the show's second season, and Dallas fans were forced to wait a seemingly interminable eight months -- through a long summer of reruns and then a seven-week actors' strike -- to find out who had fired the shot heard literally around the world.  (In 1980 Dallas could boast of 300 million fans in nearly 60 countries.  It's believed that more than half the population of Great Britain tuned in to the episode in which J.R. was gunned down.)  Finally, the new season began in November.  The first three episodes further tormented the faithful with false leads, and then the truth was revealed in the fourth episode on November 21.  This show earned the biggest audience share in television history -- a record 53.3 rating.  The final tally: 41 million of the nearly 78 million households in the U.S. tuned in.  (This record would stand until 125 million viewers gave the final episode of M*A*S*H a 60.2 rating on 28 February 1983.)  A commercial minute during the November 21 Dallas episode cost $500,000.  Some people laid bets on the culprit's true identity with Vegas bookmakers.
In 1985 Patrick Duffy decided to leave the show, and his character was apparently killed by a hit-and-run driver who turned out to be . . . well, you remember, don't you?  The following year Duffy was lured back to the series by a hefty salary increase, appearing unexpectedly in the shower with his wife Pam (Victoria Principal.)  Of course, the resurrection occurred in the eighth season's finale, and the devoted had to endure another summer of reruns before finding out how Bobby had managed to cheat death.  It turned out that the entire eighth season had been just a dream -- Bobby hadn't been hit by a car after all.  Dallas addicts were willing to accept even this flimsy plot contrivance, and the series continued for another five seasons.
On 12 January 1981, ABC debuted its own primetime soap, Dynasty, which would run until 1989.  (Dallas aired from 1978 to 1991.)  Dynasty limped along until producer Aaron Spelling introduced a female version of J.R. in the person of Alexis, a conniving vixen played to campy perfection by Joan Collins, who sought by hook or crook to destroy Blake and Krystle Carrington (John Forsythe and Linda Evans.)  The show soared to the top of the Nielsen ratings and boasted guest appearances by the likes of Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger.  An incredible array of Dynasty products hit the market in time for 1984's Christmas season: jewelry, china, lingerie, shoes, a board game -- and don't forget "Forever Krystle" perfume.  Luxurious Carrington House carpet was available for as low as $17.99 a square foot.  In 1985 Alexis and Krystel procelain dolls clad in genuine mink stoles and real diamond necklaces sold for $10,000 apiece.
The producers of Dynasty employed a full-time fashion designer, a first for a television series.  Each episode cost about $1 million to make, including a costume budget of $25,000.  The "look" was of supreme importance to the show's producers -- and to many of its viewers, who vicariously participated in the lifestyles of the rich and famous.  Following one episode, five thousand woman contacted ABC and 20th Century Fox wanting to know where they could buy a suit worn by Joan Collins.  For a while, Dynasty was the number-one rated show among women of all ages.  Male viewers preferred watching Dallas's J.R. Ewing in action.
A number of commentators on American culture claimed that Dallas and Dynasty epitomized the "Decade of Greed" with an unblushing celebration of materialism.  According to Michael Pollan in his 1982 article, "The Season of the Reagan Rich," these popular series were symbolic of Reaganism because they implied that "the American dream of self-made success is alive and might be made well by releasing the frontier instincts of the wealthy from the twin shackles of taxes and regulation."  Another, perhaps more subtle, assessment is that the shows were satires on rampant capitalism. Dallas and Dynasty were successful because they were built on the themes of sex, money and family; the presented the age-old battle of Good versus Evil (Bobby vs. J.R. and Krystle vs. Alexis) in contemporary morality plays with enough plot twists to keep even the most jaded viewer glued to the television set.     
You still can't remember who shot J.R.?  At the 1980 Republican convention, "A DEMOCRAT SHOT J.R." badges were hot items, and Art Buckwald made the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that David Brinkley should be the prime suspect because Dallas had sunk Brinkley's competing show.  The culprit turned out to Kristen Shepard (Mary Crosby), and when J.R. threatened to have her arrested she announced that she was carrying his illegitimate child.  The plot thickened . . .


Even the show's producers didn't know who shot J.R.  The decision wasn't made until the eleventh hour prior to the airing of the 21 November 1980 episode in which the shooter was identified.  Every cast member had previously been filmed doing the dirty deed.

When Victoria Principal was flying back to Los Angeles during the summer hiatus following the "shooting" episode, the pilot threatened not to land the plane unless she told him who had shot J.R.

Larry Hagman, who played J.R., decided to renegotiate his contract that summer of 1980.  The producers threatened to replace him but Hagman stood firm, and was soon making $100,000 an episode.

Dynasty's Alexis (Joan Collins) always managed to bring out the
worst in people, in this case Blake Carrington (John Forsyth).


Time, 11 August 1980, 1 December 1980, 5 November 1984

Seeing Through the Eighties: Television and Reaganism
Jane Feuer (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995)