It happens in the best, and worst, of families: The conflicts and confrontations that polarize one generation can similarly divide the next. Just look at the Ewings of Dallas. More than 20 years after the conclusion of the phenomenally popular prime-time soap opera brought a quietus to the seemingly endless internecine war between brothers Bobby and J.R., the sons of those iconic TV characters are resuming the feuding for a series reboot.
The new Dallas, which kicks off a 10-episode run Wednesday night at 8 p.m. on the TNT cable network, finds Bobby Ewing (once again played by Patrick Duffy) alive and well – though perhaps not for long – and determined to keep Southfolk, the beloved family ranch, unblemished by oil rigs. In this, he is enthusiastically supported by his adopted son, Christopher (Jesse Metcalfe, returning to Big D after a stint in the filmed-in-Dallas Chase TV drama and as the gardner who has an affair with Eva Longoria in the first season of Desperate Housewives), who’s eager to involve the Ewing clan in a “clean” energy business.
In an instant-classic scene that calls to mind all those revivals of Frankenstein’s monster throughout Universal horror movies of the 1930s and ‘40s, J.R. opens his eyes, cocks his bushy brows, and drawls encouraging words to his boy.
But John Ross (another Desperate Housewives vet Josh Henderson), the ambitious offspring of J.R. and Sue Ellen Ewing, has other ideas. And he’s gone so far as to employ Christopher’s beautiful ex-fiancé, Elena (Jordana Brewster of the Fast and Furious franchise), in a scheme to drill for crude on a long-neglected corner of Southfolk.
During the opening moments of the reboot’s premiere episode, John Ross and Elena do indeed find there’s enough black gold to fill billions of barrels lying beneath the surface of their exploration site. But Bobby isn’t impressed. Indeed, the discovery makes him all the more determined to sell Southfolk to a conservatory, to guarantee the land always will remain in a pristine state.
Driven to desperate measures, John Ross seeks advice from J.R. — who’s again played, of course, by Larry Hagman — to wrest control of the Ewing family legacy. At first, their conversation is a trifle one-sided, since J.R. is virtually catatonic due to debilitating depression. But once he hears of Bobby’s plans — and his son’s schemes — J.R. makes a remarkably sudden recovery: In an instant-classic scene that calls to mind all those revivals of Frankenstein’s monster throughout Universal horror movies of the 1930s and ‘40s, J.R. opens his eyes, cocks his bushy brows, and drawls encouraging words to his boy.
It seems altogether appropriate that Henderson, the hunky young actor cast as J.R. Ewing’s heir, actually is a Dallas native. And it is nothing short of delightful that John Ross’ mom is portrayed by the lovely and talented Linda Gray, who assured herself a place of honor in TV history by memorably playing Sue Ellen Ewing during the 14 seasons that the original Dallas ruled the airwaves.
To promote the new Dallas series, Gray and Henderson have been visiting various cities and hosting previews of the premiere episode. We caught up with them a few days ago when they popped into H-Town to spread the news: Yes, the Ewings are at it again.
CultureMap: OK, I can’t pretend that I was a religiously faithful viewer of Dallas back in the day. But I did watch the show pretty frequently. And I must say, the one thing I’ve always wanted to ask is, “Why did a hottie like Sue Ellen stay married to a son of a bitch like J.R. as long as she did?”
Linda Gray: [Laughs] Great question. Well, because you didn’t watch all of the shows – which I’ll forgive you for, I suppose…
CM: [Meekly] Thank you.
LG: I will tell you that I asked myself that same question: “Why did she marry this guy?”
CM: Twice! She married him twice!
LG: That’s right. She’s not terribly bright. Well, like I say, I asked myself that question and then I asked the producers. And to make a long story short, they brought in [Martha Scott] to play my mother, so we could find out why Sue Ellen married J.R. Ewing. Because I figured that if I’m asking that question as an actor, the audience would, too.
"How in the world those two ever stayed together is beyond me. Other than the chemistry that Larry and I had together – I think that’s all that held them together."
And we found out that Sue Ellen’s mom trained her to marry the richest man in Texas. That was her upbringing: “Go out, darling, and marry the richest man in Texas.” Now J.R. Ewing wanted what they call arm candy – somebody pretty to be on his arm. So he went after Miss Texas. And Sue Ellen was an ex-Miss Texas. So it’s that simple: He went after the looks, she went after the money.
How in the world those two ever stayed together is beyond me. Other than the chemistry that Larry and I had together – I think that’s all that held them together. In a normal world, those two characters would never be together.
CM: Josh, how do you think John Ross views his father?
Josh Henderson: I think that he has issues with his father – and with his mother. But at the end of the day, I think he grew up as a wide-eyed kid watching his dad do business – and kind of falling in love with the idea of what he would do in the oil game, and hopefully demanding respect from his peers, and being powerful and rich.
Even though he doesn’t always get along with his father – or, obviously, have the best relationship with him – he respects who J.R. is, and was, and how he would do business, whether other people would say it was a good way to do business or not. Deep down, I think he really wants to impress his father. And he wants to live up to what J.R. always believed John Ross would become.
This is a big deal for him. And he almost wants to one-up his father – even if he doesn’t know whether that’s possible.
CM: Back in the original Dallas, it was a pretty audacious move – for Sue Ellen and for the show’s creators – when she produced a movie very obviously based on her life with J.R., and then threatened to release it, and make him a laughing stock, if he ever crossed her again. Has she ever screened the flick for John Ross?
CM: Would you say that John Ross is very much his father’s son?
JH: [To LG] Well, how old was I when you took me away from him?
LG: [To JH] Maybe nine, or something like that.
"But the most important thing for me is, my memaw was one of the most incredible women I ever knew. And her favorite show was Dallas. So right on Day One, my mom called me and said, “Just think how proud your memaw would be.”
JH: Well, he has a lot of built-up stuff inside. And I think the audience is going to quickly realize that, in the first episode, him going to J.R. and talking to him, that’s difficult for him. But is it all part of a master plan?
There are many things I love about John Ross. But Number One is, he’s passionate about what he believes in, which is the oil business, and the Ewing legacy. That’s what drives him. And he doesn’t want anyone to get in the way of that. And if someone does, even if it’s not an enemy, he’ll try and use that person as a chess piece.
John Ross is just a ton of fun to play. And I hope I can keep the audience guessing about his motives. But I also hope that, at some point, they can see that he has heart. And that he’s not just a terrible bastard.
CM: Did you and Linda get a chance to hang out and talk much before shooting began, so you could figure out the particulars of the mother-son relationship?
JH: Actually, no. I met Linda for the first time at Larry Hagman’s house. He threw a kind of “Congratulations, here we go” party where we could all meet each other. And it was a little intimidating, because they’re the legacy that is Dallas. And for us coming in – we were just hoping that they’d like us, and believed that we were good for the roles. So, I admit, I was a little nervous when I got there. But from Day One, it was like hugs and kisses. We felt like it was all real. And that gave me the confidence to at least trust that they were OK with us being here. We were immediately embraced by the original three – Linda, Larry and Patrick Duffy — what I call The Legendary Three.
CM: Linda, do you think Sue Ellen ever will give John Ross a looksee at that movie of hers?
LG: [Laughs] You know, people always assume that we know a lot more than we know. But the truth is, actors rarely know what’s going to happen. And I think that’s lovely – that’s part of the surprise that enables you to keep it spontaneous and fresh. Because if you know things too far in advance – like, let’s say that I knew that, in Season Three, the movie would be revealed – it kind of does something to your head. Actors have a way -- sometimes with just a look – of giving things away. So I think it’s better that none of that gets revealed to us too soon.
CM: Josh, what was the reaction of your family and friends when they heard you were cast in a Dallas reboot?
JH: It was a really big deal. I have a lot of family spread out all over Texas, in little towns and in Dallas. And the thing is, I don’t think people could figure out at first what we were doing. People would ask me, “Are you re-doing Dallas?” It’s only now, after seeing all the stuff that’s been in the media, that people are beginning to realize that this is a continuation, not [a remake]. And now that we’re getting closer to the premiere, I’m hearing from a lot of people that I didn’t know that I was related to. [Laughs] But, hey, that’s totally fine. My family is, I guess, very big.
And I’m also hearing from a lot of high school friends, middle school friends. What’s crazy about the world we’re living in now is, anyone can get ahold of you. You’re just one click of the button away on Facebook and Twitter.
But the most important thing for me is, my memaw was one of the most incredible women I ever knew. And her favorite show was Dallas. So right on Day One, my mom called me and said, “Just think how proud your memaw would be.” So it’s a really big deal for my family. And I truly feel blessed. I’m proud to represent Dallas as a home-town kid.
And it’s an absolute honor to be playing John Ross. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought, “OK, I’m gonna move back to Dallas ten years after I left, and be playing J. R. and Sue Ellen’s son.
CM: Have you encountered any negative reaction to the new Dallas yet?
JH: Occasionally, I’ll run into someone who’ll ask, “Why are you trying to re-do the best thing ever?” And my response is, “If it was the best thing ever, why not continue it?” Because that’s what we’re doing.
You’re going to get skeptics, I totally understand that. All I can do is welcome them to watch the first episode, and then tell me what they think. Because I believe in this so much.
CM: The ironic thing is, you could make a strong case that the original Dallas kinda-sorta rehabilitated the city’s image in the eyes of the world. If you’re of a certain age, you can remember a time in the 1960s and 70s when, if you simply said the word “Dallas” anywhere, the first thing people thought was “Kennedy assassination.”
LG: It changed from a negative to a positive globally. Which was a delight for us. Because they did have the onus of the assassination there. I remember clearly in 1978 going with the wardrobe lady to Neiman-Marcus, in the lingerie department, picking out a little black teddy for Sue Ellen to wear for J.R. And the sales clerk asked, “What are you doing here?” And I said, “We’re filming a new series called Dallas.” And she folded her arms, and she said, “Oh. Are you going to make us look worse than we already look with the assassination?”
And I was really taken aback. I finally said, “No ma’am. It’s just entertainment. Nothing negative.” But she was very, very uppity about it. And that was really a shock to me, that she thought we were going to do something that would make the city look terrible.
Instead, we turned everybody in Texas into, like, great big global heroes.