Some 32 years ago this week, a worldwide TV audience of 350 million learned who shot J.R., capping an eight-month cliffhanger that blasted “Dallas” and star Larry Hagman into pop culture history.
The more enduring mystery, though, is not who shot J.R. but why the shooter’s identity became an international obsession – and why, even in the viral entertainment age, nothing has come close to matching the mass-interest spectacle that made the covers of TV Guide, MAD and TIME.
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At least part of the answer rests in the formidable talent of Hagman, who died
Friday at age 81, destined to be best remembered for breathing fiery life into scheming oilman J.R. Ewing, the figure more viewers loved to hate than any character in nearly seven decades of network television.
Hagman imbued J.R. with an ambiguous evil as slippery as the oil that made him filthy rich, but never quite wealthy enough for his sanguinary tastes. For many, “Dallas,” which ushered in the modern primetime soap opera, proved serious, gripping drama. Others, long before our current era of irony, got a kick out of the show’s winking campiness – but found themselves no less addicted to plot-lines fueled by the age-old elements of sex and greed.
The “Who Shot J.R.?” craze, which seems almost quaint now, proved a product of both the man and the time. The two slugs J.R. took to the belly in March 1980 capped the third season of “Dallas,” by then one of TV’s most popular shows. Adding to the mystery was whether Hagman, embroiled in a contract dispute, would return to the hit CBS drama.
The on- and off-screen machinations helped to provide the country a fluffy diversion from a very real daily TV drama – one that also played out via the mass media and was driven, at least in part, by oil: the Iran hostage crisis (For those who weren’t around then, check out the excellent “Argo”). The nation also was less than a generation past the far more significant, world-altering shots that rang out in Dallas some 17 years earlier on Nov. 22, 1963.
The “Who Shot J.R.?” fad took on life of its own, manifesting in unpredictable forms. Bookies did big business. The Queen Mother put the royal squeeze on Hagman (“I don't suppose you could tell me who shot J.R?” she asked
). “Saturday Night Live” player Charlie Rocket, groomed as the next Chevy Chase, torpedoed his career by ad-libbing an F-bomb after a “Who Shot C.R.?” bit.
The “Who Done it?” revelation installment of “Dallas” drew 83 million
viewers in the U.S., now an unthinkable audience for an episode of any TV show (including the current revival of “Dallas,” which debuted on TNT this year with Hagman back in his iconic 10-gallon hat).
Some 15 years after J.R. got plugged, “The Simpsons” spoofed the “Dallas” gimmick with a cliffhanger built around who shot Mr. Burns. These days, more people likely remember the identity of Burns’ shooter (little Maggie Simpson) than J.R.’s assailant (his sister-in-law/mistress Kristin Shepard, the role that made Mary Crosby the answer to a trivia question).
But, in the end, who pulled the trigger was beside the point. TV magic is as rare as it is explainable. “Who Shot J.R.?” remains a television phenomenon, the likes of which we’ll never see again – just like the great Larry Hagman.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.