The Last Days of J.R. Ewing
The executive producer of Dallas talks about Larry Hagman's final working weeks.
When Fort Worth native Larry Hagman died the day after Thanksgiving, following treatment for cancer, he was in the midst of shooting the second season of the revived version of Dallas. His untimely passing forced the show’s writers to quickly rejigger the arc of the rest of the season, which will now include a “Who killed J.R.”-style mystery. An item about how Hagman’s death affected the show runs in the Lookout column in the March issue of Texas Monthly. Below is a lightly edited and abridged transcript of the interview with Dallas executive producer Cynthia Cidre that was the basis of that item.
Jeff Salamon: When you first approached Larry Hagman about reprising the role of J.R., what did you think he’d say?
Cynthia Cidre: I thought he’d want to do it, frankly. I thought that he had always enjoyed playing that part. Dallas is the show that J.R. made. I had talked to Patrick [Duffy, who played Bobby Ewing] first, and then Linda [Gray, who played Sue Ellen], and they both wanted to do it, and I didn’t realize at the time that the three of them had been friends for over thirty years. So once I learned that I just thought, “What, he’s going to let his two friends do it and not him?”
JS: So the story I’ve heard is that in the original Dallas, the J.R. role was originally written as a supporting character but Hagman was so charismatic that he basically turned J.R. into the focus of the show. Did you see that sort of power at work when he was on the new version?
CC: Some people have a je ne sais quoi, you know, whatever it is, that charisma that makes a star, and Larry definitely had it. It was just a twinkle in the eye—even if you play a villain, you kind of love the villain. It’s indefinable, and he had it. He was very, very aware of what he was doing, of what to do, of how the camera would go to him. And when he was 81 he had as much of it as he did when he was thirty.
JS: So you didn’t know that he was ill—and I don’t think he knew that he was ill—when you hired him for the gig, is that correct?
JS: And when did you learn that he was sick?
CC: About three weeks before we started shooting Season One. It was quite a while ago, it was a year and a half ago, and he called me right away—he’s a very direct and honest person—and told me that he’d been diagnosed with cancer and was going to have to have surgery. And I said okay. And he called back a couple days later and said he changed his mind about the surgery and that he was going to go to Dallas and do chemo while he was working. And he worked with treatment all of last season, and he was cancer-free by the end of the year. He had gained some weight, but he did have some side effects from the treatment and that’s ultimately what put him in the hospital the week of Thanksgiving.
JS: So did he pass away from side effects rather than from the cancer itself?
CC: Yes. I think some of the cancer had returned, but you best ask a medical person about that. He had definitely gone into the hospital because he had some platelet issues from the chemo.
JS: How did his illness affect the first season’s production?
CC: Well, we had to give him time off, of course, to recover; I think it was a six-week treatment. But he worked during chemo and radiation, and then there was, like, a month recovery, and so we tried to shoot some scenes early, and we also shot some scenes after he recovered and inserted them into the episodes. It was a bigger Sudoku puzzle than usual. But he was just such a professional that . . . he wanted to work. He wanted to do the right thing by everybody else, by the rest of the cast, and the crew. He loved it, he loved working. He loved being J.R.
JS: In the new show J.R. is still pretty much J.R.—he’s evil and conniving and calculating. But there are moments I noticed, especially in this past Monday’s episode, especially in his scenes with Sue Ellen, when you see something else crossing his face, like this sense of regret with how he’s lived his life. Watching those scenes knowing that Hagman was gravely ill, you can’t help but have a sense of someone recognizing their own mortality and taking stock of the choices they made. Were those sort of touches Hagman’s idea or were they yours or the writers’?
CC: I figured an 81-year-old man is looking back on his life with some examination—you know what they say about the unexamined life. That scene I think you’re talking about, it’s the one where he knocks at Sue Ellen’s door, and she says “if you behave yourself, come in.” It’s my favorite scene. We obviously shot that before we knew [Larry] was ill. We were definitely arcing his character toward being more mindful of his family.
JS: Were you rethinking and rewriting the plot even before it was clear that he was going to pass away?
CC: Obviously we had talked about a plan B. But if you have a plan B, you don’t commit to plan A, and plan A was Larry Hagman as J.R. We had the whole season arced out, all fifteen episodes, and all the episodes had him in it. When we found out he was in the hospital the week of Thanksgiving, we wrote him out of the next episode, which was shooting immediately—though he’s in it still, through some “magic.” Then he passed away, and we had to postpone an episode while we rethought the end of the season. And we’re going whole hog. There’s only two ways for a character to go: natural causes or unnatural causes. And natural causes just would not do justice to the show, or to Larry Hagman. Or to J.R. And then we had to figure out how did he die and how do we top what’s happened before on the show and how do we make sure that the audience doesn’t see it coming? And I’m hoping that we have been successful. You’ll let me know after you finish watching the season.
JS: There’s going to be some sort of memorial episode. Is that the seventh episode?
CC: It’s the eighth (airing March 11). We call it that, but it’s really not a memorial episode. It’s just that it’s the episode where the characters deal with the fact that J.R. has died. But there are other things that happen in the episode. There’s still plenty of story in it.
JS: And you’re bringing back a fair number of actors from the original series for this memorial episode, is that right?
CC: Yeah! We just thought it would be nice and appropriate and fun for the fans to see some of the faces from the old show.
JS: Did you ever discuss with Hagman what you’d do if he didn’t make it through the show?
CC: No. No. You know what, it would have been not only inappropriate to do that, but he just had such a life force that it would never occur to you. It’s not like you were talking to someone who was moribund. He was just a life force, he was all there, until the last moment. It would never occur to you to have that conversation with him.
JS: Will the mystery be solved in the two-hour season finale?
CC: Oh yes, it’ll be solved by the fifteenth episode, for sure.
JS: Not a season-ending cliffhanger type thing?
CC: No, no, we’ll solve it. I mean we’ll have other cliffhangers, to bring you back for the next season, but we will definitely solve what happened to J.R.