When the cast of “Dallas” gathered to shoot next week’s episode in which Larry Hagman’s iconic character, J.R. Ewing, is laid to rest, some tears were shed, according to series star Patrick Duffy. But there were plenty of laughs, too.
“It turned out to be a true party — anything but a wake,” said Duffy of the episode that brings back several fan favorites. “While we were mourning J.R., we were also celebrating Larry.”
Hagman had shot seven Season 2 episodes of “Dallas” before dying last November from complications of a previous bout with cancer. His death forced “Dallas” showrunner Cynthia Cidre and her writers to scramble to rework the second half of the season and plan an on-screen funeral for J.R.
Among the “Dallas” vets who returned to Southfork Ranch for Monday’s swan song were Ted Shackelford (Gary Ewing), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs) and Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing).
“Believe me, it was like a high school reunion. Every single person fit in perfectly, and it was so wonderful to have them back,” said Duffy, who plays J.R.’s brother, Bobby. “I missed people who weren’t there. I wish it could have been an even bigger thing, but obviously you can’t do that and maintain the integrity of the show.”
“Dallas” now finds itself in the position of other shows that have had to carry on after the death of a key actor. Perhaps the most famous example is the ABC sitcom “8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter,” which had to regroup in 2003 after John Ritter died of an aortic dissection.
More recently, the Starz drama “Spartacus” had to replace lead actor Andy Whitfield after the show’s first season when Whitfield left the role to undergo treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He died in 2011.
“Dallas” is in a better position to move on. Although Hagman’s J.R. was the centerpiece of the original drama, he had shifted to a secondary role in the reboot as the younger generation of Ewings — led by Josh Henderson and Jesse Metcalfe — assumed more of the spotlight. This season, Hagman only appeared in a few brief scenes each week.
Still, for a lot of fans, J.R. epitomized “Dallas” and his presence was felt even when he was off screen. Well aware of that, Cidre and her writers devised a plot line in which the late J.R. will have an impact on ensuing episodes. The character becomes a victim of what initially looks to be a random mugging. But as is so often the case with J.R., nothing is as it appears.
“It’s not just a matter of, ‘He’s dead. Let’s move on,’” Duffy said. “The writers created an intriguing mystery that will play out. J.R. will be omnipresent.”
And apparently, that’s exactly the way Hagman would have wanted it.
“If Larry knew there would be a postmortem story line revolving around a whodunit that had lots of people talking about him, he’d be the happiest actor on the planet,” Duffy said.
In addition to being Hagman’s longtime co-star, Duffy was the late actor’s best friend. He and fellow “Dallas” original Linda Gray, in fact, were at Hagman’s side only hours before he died. In the weeks and months that followed, Duffy says he didn’t experience an unbearable sense of mourning.
“We talked every day. We were so close that I found myself asking, ‘What have I missed?’” he said. “There was nothing that went unsaid. There was nothing left undone. We were so full of each other.
“For that reason, I don’t suffer. When I think of Larry I do so with a smile on my face. I think he would say the same thing if I had been the one who died.”