Pop Culture

Everyone hated him, but do you remember 'Who Shot J.R.?'

CBs Photo Archive / Getty Images file / Today
Larry Hagman as J.R. Ewing in 1982.

It was the talk of summer 1980. We were soft-rockin' out to Christopher Cross' "Sailing," lining up to see "Airplane!" and "The Blues Brothers" (tickets cost a whopping $2.50) and watching Howard Cosell hosting "Battle of the Network Stars."

But the big question in entertainment was three simple words. Well, really, two words and two letters: Who shot J.R.?

J.R. Ewing, played dastardly by Texas-born actor Larry Hagman on the primetime soap "Dallas," was the oil baron we all loved to hate. And so did his own family. His competitors. Employees. Wife. "Half the people in Dallas," cracked his enemy Cliff Barnes.

And on a March episode, in a brilliant bit of spooky screenwriting, J.R. , drinking coffee in a darkened office, heard a noise.

 "Who's there?" he called. Two bullets were his only answer. He collapsed, the credits rolled, and from March to November, families and office pools put bets on who the shooter was. T-shirts boasted "I shot J.R.," a novelty song was written about the plot, and reportedly even England's Queen Mum was fascinated.

And, as Ultimate Dallas reports, fans had to wait an additional two months -- until November -- to learn the killer's identity. An Ctor's strike pushed the new TV season back, giving fans eight full months to gnaw on theories.

J.R.'s poor wife Sue Ellen, unsurprisingly drunk at the time, got the blame first, and was jailed, with father-in-law Jock (the sorely missed Jim Davis) turning on her with a vengeance.

But in the end, it was Kristin Shepard, Sue Ellen's sister and J.R.'s mistress, who did the deed, stealing J.R.'s gun from Sue Ellen by tempting the onetime beauty queen with liquor and later sneaking the weapon back into Sue Ellen's closet.

When she finally confessed to J.R. and Sue Ellen, the "Dallas" writers had another twist up their sleeves. You can't jail me, Kristin taunted, "Not unless you want YOUR CHILD born in prison."

Cue the DUH-DUH-DUH swelling music. Yes, pregnancy, the convenient wrench thrown into all soap-opera stories.

CBS / Today
The cast of the original "Dallas."

It didn't end well for Kristin, however. After hightailing it out of Dallas, she miscarries J.R.'s child, and delivers another with her husband before dramatically falling off a balcony and drowning in the Southfork pool. Her son, Christopher, would be adopted by J.R.'s brother Bobby and his wife Pam, and is now played by Jesse Metcalfe on the "Dallas" revival show, beginning June 13.

But "Who Shot J.R.?" had an influence that went beyond that November episode. The show was the highest-rated TV episode until the "M*A*S*H" finale beat it in 1983. "Dallas" was hugely popular worldwide, and it's estimated that 83 million people tuned in for the revelation.

It changed TV forever. Suddenly, Hollywood realized they could use cliffhangers to keep viewers buzzing about their shows even in the off-season. New 24-7 news network CNN got a boost from the attention given to the show, as it kept reporting on rumors and twists. And TIME critic Richard Corliss credits "Dallas" with paving the way for more addictive shows to come, including "Hill Street Blues" and "thirtysomething."

Larry Hagman would later call it the "shot heard round the world," and indeed, in the world of television, it was just that.

  • Slideshow Photos

    Where are the 'Dallas' stars?

    From 1978 to 1991 they enthralled America with the scandals of the Ewing clan. Here's a look at how the “Dallas” cast has fared.

  • Where are the 'Dallas' stars?

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    Charlene Tilton -

    From 1978 to 1991, America followed the scandalous doings of the wealthy Ewing clan on “Dallas." Charlene Tilton played Lucy Ewing, the saucy, sexy granddaughter of Jock Ewing (Jim Davis) and Miss Ellie (Barbara Bel Geddes), from 1978 to 1985 and again from 1988 to 1990. After the show ended, Tilton starred in several TV movies and became so identified with the Abdominizer, a popular home workout gadget she endorsed, that she appeared in a spoof of it on “Married… with Children.” She reprises her role as Lucy Ewing in TNT's new series, "Dallas," which premieres June 13.

    Everett Collection, Getty Images / Everett Collection, Getty Images
  • Where are the 'Dallas' stars?

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    Larry Hagman -

    When Larry Hagman passed away on Nov. 23, 2012, it was the end of a television era. He made his character, oil baron J.R. Ewing, so famous in the 1980s that everyone knew who he was.. Before “Dallas,” Hagman was best-known as the son of Broadway actress Mary Martin and the star of sitcom “I Dream of Jeannie.” All that changed when J.R. Ewing, became such a sensation that the show’s second-season cliffhanger, “Who Shot J.R.?,” set ratings records. Once a heavy drinker and smoker, Hagman had a life-saving liver transplant in 1995 and became an anti-smoking advocate. He returned to the new "Dallas" at age 80, and passed away from throat cancer at 81.

    Everett Collection, Getty Images / Everett Collection, Getty Images
  • Where are the 'Dallas' stars?

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    Linda Gray -

    On “Dallas,” Linda Gray earned an Emmy nomination as Sue Ellen Ewing, a former Miss Texas who had the misfortune to marry the faithless, conniving J.R. She also directed several episodes. After the show ended in 1991, she had roles on "Melrose Place," “Models, Inc.” and "The Bold and the Beautiful." In 2001, she played Mrs. Robinson in a London stage production of “The Graduate,” which was fitting because it was Gray’s legs that appeared in posters for the 1967 film. She returns as Sue Ellen Ewing in the new "Dallas."

    Everett Collection, Getty Images / Everett Collection, Getty Images
  • Where are the 'Dallas' stars?

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    Patrick Duffy -

    TV’s “Man from Atlantis” in 1976, Patrick Duffy played J.R.’s younger and nicer brother, Bobby, on “Dallas.” Though their characters butted heads constantly, Duffy and Larry Hagman were close friends off-screen. After “Dallas,” Duffy went on to co-star with Suzanne Somers in the family sitcom “Step by Step” for most of the 1990s and appeared on “The Bold and the Beautiful” from 2006 to 2011. In the new "Dallas," he reprises his role as Bobby, the current proprietor of Southfork determined to keep his promise to his mother to not let anyone drill for oil on the property.

    Everett Collection, Getty Images / Everett Collection, Getty Images
  • Where are the 'Dallas' stars?

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    Mary Crosby -

    Mary Crosby will forever be known as the answer to the question that transfixed the nation in the summer of 1980: “Who Shot J.R.?” Turned out it was Sue Ellen’s scheming sister, Kristin Shepard, played by Crosby, who did the deed and tried to frame Sue Ellen for it, as revealed in November 1981 in one of the highest-rated telecasts ever. Crosby is the daughter of singer-actor Bing Crosby and his second wife, actress Kathryn Grant. She went on to many TV guest roles after “Dallas,” but she won't appear in the new series -- her character on the show came to a bad end, drowning in the Southfork swimming pool.

    Everett Collection, Getty Images / Everett Collection, Getty Images
  • Where are the 'Dallas' stars?

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    Steve Kanaly -

    Steve Kanaly was originally cast on “Dallas” as Bobby Ewing, but that role wound up going to Patrick Duffy. Instead, Kanaly played Ray Krebbs, illegitimate half brother of Bobby and J.R., and foreman of the family's Southfork Ranch. During the Vietnam War, Kanaly was a radio operator with the First Air Cavalry. He is also a well-regarded watercolor artist. Kanaly reprises his role as Ray in the new "Dallas" series.

    Everett Collection, Getty Images / Everett Collection, Getty Images
  • Where are the 'Dallas' stars?

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    Victoria Principal -

    An Air Force brat who grew up in several states and countries, Victoria Principal earned a Golden Globe nomination for her "Dallas" role, Pamela Barnes, who married Patrick Duffy's character, Bobby Ewing, despite the bad blood between their families. Her most famous moment on “Dallas” came in 1986 when she found the supposedly dead Bobby taking a shower. The entire previous season, it was revealed, had been a dream of Pam's. Principal has continued to be a busy actress since “Dallas” ended, but she is also known for her Principal Secret line of skin-care products. She will not be in the new series.

    Everett Collection, Getty Images / Everett Collection, Getty Images
  • Where are the 'Dallas' stars?

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    Ken Kercheval -

    Other than Larry Hagman, Indiana-born Ken Kercheval was the only cast member to stay on “Dallas” through its entire 1978-1991 run, appearing in almost every episode. His character, Cliff Barnes, was the bitter enemy of Hagman's J.R.; Cliff hated the Ewings because he blamed them for cheating his father out of his rightful share of Ewing Oil. Kercheval has something else in common with Hagman: Both have beaten the odds against cancer (Hagman had a liver transplant; Kercheval survived lung cancer). After "Dallas" ended, he had numerous television roles.

    Everett Collection, Getty Images / Everett Collection, Getty Images
  • Where are the 'Dallas' stars?

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    Jim Davis -

    Best known for Western films before “Dallas,” rugged Jim Davis played John Ross “Jock” Ewing, the crusty family patriarch who fathered J.R., Bobby and their illegitimate half-brother. Ray Krebbs. Davis was so popular with viewers that when he died in April 1981, “Dallas” writers decided not to recast his role. Instead it was eventually revealed that Jock had died in a helicopter crash. Davis had such a close, fatherly relationship to co-star Victoria Principal that he was buried with her picture in his pocket.

  • Where are the 'Dallas' stars?

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    Barbara Bel Geddes -

    Before taking the role of Jock Ewing's beloved wife, Miss Ellie, on “Dallas,” Barbara Bel Geddes had a distinguished stage and film career that included a best supporting actress Oscar nomination and a lead role in the Alfred Hitchcock classic “Vertigo.” She won both an Emmy and a Golden Globe as Miss Ellie. After retiring from acting in 1990, she wrote children's books and created a line of greeting cards. In August 2005, she died after a long illness.

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    'Dallas' through the years -

    Top, the original cast of "Dallas." Bottom, returing to the new "Dallas" series are, from left, Steve Kanaly as Ray Krebbs, Charlene Tilton as Lucy Ewing, Larry Hagman as J.R. Ewing, Patrick Duffy as Bobby Ewing, and Linda Gray as Sue Ellen Ewing. Hagman passed away in 2012.

    Getty Images / Getty Images

Other summer 1980 events:

  • "The Shining" makes Big Wheels and snowy hotels terrifying
  • Lipps Inc took us all to "Funkytown"
  • The Olympics were held in Moscow, but the U.S. stayed home
  • Men aged 18-to-25 had to register for the draft
  • Terry Fox was on his inspiring run across Canada

Do you remember watching "Who Shot J.R.?" Did you suspect Kristin from the beginning, or did you blame Clayton, Cliff, Sue Ellen or one of the many other suspects? Tell us on Facebook.

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