At first glance, they were stereotypes, the women of “Knots Landing,” but as viewers kept coming back each week for their soap-opera adventures realized, they were really complete human beings. And it was that more than the plotlines that sometimes became wildly improbable that kept “Knots Landing” a popular prime-time destination for 14 years.
“They wrote well-rounded characters. Nobody was stereotyped. No one was just one-sided,” explained Donna Mills, who played the glamorous Abby Fairgate, the archetypal predatory female.
Mills was in New York for the final installment of TODAY’s weeklong series “Together Again: TV’s Greatest Casts Reunited.” With her were Joan Van Ark, who played Val Ewing; Michele Lee, who played Karen Fairgate MacKenzie; and Kevin Dobson, whose character would marry Karen Fairgate. Joining them from Los Angeles was Ted Shackelford, who played Val’s husband, Gary.
“Knots Landing” centered on the lives of the families who lived on a cul-de-sac in California. It was presented as a spin-off of “Dallas” when it debuted in 1979, but it had actually been conceived before “Dallas” and was based on Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 film “Scenes From a Marriage.”
But CBS felt that “Dallas” would be more popular because it involved money and glamour and Texas tycoons.
“Knots Landing” would outlast “Dallas” and every other prime-time drama ever created with the exception of the all-time champ, “Gunsmoke,” and “Bonanza,” which also ran for 14 years.
“It was a nice neighborhood show. You knew the people next door. You could relate to them,” said Dobson, in explaining the show’s appeal.
“You could sleep with the people next door, too,” quipped Shackelford in explaining the fascination the public had with the show.
“It was the show of a certain time,” added Lee. “It was not political, but it said so much in so many ways. We had an African-American family living next door. It was never mentioned, it was just done. We did things like that on ‘Knots Landing.’ We did unexpected things. We were about where America was supposed to go or where we wanted it to go.”
They credited David Jacobs, the creator of “Knots Landing,” with making the characters so special and so real.
“He found our voices in very special ways,” said Lee, who played the show’s “good girl.” The defining moment for Karen MacKenzie, she said, was what is still known as the “Pollyanna speech,” created by Jacobs.
“As America was kind of changing, he wrote a speech about how she wanted to be a Pollyanna. She said, ‘I hate it that I can’t put my child on the front porch. I hate it that I have to have an alarm put on the house and I have to lock my car and I can’t send my money through the mail. I don’t want to see the world through rose-colored glasses; I want the world to be rose-colored.’ ”
Mills was famous for being the B-word woman who always got her way — and her man. It was a role that other women could admire, if not identify with.
“Women particularly liked the character because Abby always won,” said Lee. “She was never downtrodden. She never let anyone get the better of her. Women really liked that, they wanted to be like that.”
But Lee’s favorite moment was when Abby had to deal with her teenage daughter’s drug addiction. “That brought the audience closer to me, and made the audience see that this character could do a lot of different things,” she said.
Then there was Van Ark’s character: “Poor Val” Ewing was the unfortunate one to whom bad things were always happening. Her husband Gary, played by Shackelford, was a drunk and the outcast of the “Dallas” Ewings.
Her most memorable scene, she said, was when her twins were taken away from her and she reacted by trying to turn herself into Abby. She dresses up with heavy makeup, and then transforms herself back into the good person she is at heart by washing off what she called her “hooker look” and redoing her face.
“I walked in, I scrubbed my face off and put a whole pink-and-white, goody-two-shoes makeup on and did this monologue,” she said as her voice got thick and her eyes teared up at the memory. “I get verklempt just talking about it,” she said, using the Yiddish word for “choked up.”
“When it was over, the crew and director and everybody — it was a moment of collaboration, it was the essence of ‘Knots Landing.’ It was always a group effort, our crew and cast were always united. It is to this day the proudest acting moment on film that I have.”
“What a troupe of people,” said Dobson of the show’s cast. “It was like going back to Shakespearean days. It was a troupe of actors that came together and alchemy took place.”
Added Van Ark: “It was a chemistry between the lines, so that no matter what scene or whatever acting partner you had, we had a history with each other.”