LOS ANGELES – More than 20 years later, there's still some heat in the burning question of the summer of '81: "Who shot J.R.?"
The answer can be found in "Dallas — The Complete Third Season," (search) a five-DVD set out Tuesday that celebrates the watershed season of the most successful nighttime soap opera in American television history.
"Dallas," which portrayed the trials and tribulations of Texas oil family the Ewings, was a hit from the start. But by spring 1981, as its third season was coming to a close, it had become a phenomenon.
While promoting the DVD earlier this week, "Dallas" star Linda Gray (search) told AP Television News that the third-season finale was when "the crescendo happened. It's when everybody ... in fact, men ... started watching, because men didn't historically watch soap operas."
By the end of season three, pretty much every character on the series had reason to kill the soulless heir-apparent to the Ewing throne, J.R., played by Larry Hagman (search). And in the last scene of the season, J.R. is gunned down, his fate and his attempted murderer unknown.
That was Friday night. By the following Monday, newspapers around the world showed a still photograph of a dying J.R., with some variation of the headline, "Who Shot J.R.?"
But Hagman had another question on his mind: about his future employment. He played hardball with producers and insisted on a big raise before he'd return for season four.
The series went on to run for an amazing 14 1/2 seasons. Around the world, people identified with the trials and tribulations of the Ewing clan.
Commented Gray: "It was about family, albeit dysfunctional. But it was about family, and I think that's what draws people in — the interrelationships, you know, everyone living under one roof ... It was this dynamic, a really charismatic family that moved into everyone else's home."
As for all the on-screen fighting that Hagman and Gray did as husband and wife J.R. and Sue Ellen? Clearly, it was all acting. Hagman, 73, and Gray, 62, have remained close friends.
And they have a continuing working relationship. Gray keeps busy as a stage director, and tries to keep Hagman busy, too.
"She said, 'You want to go on stage again, in my show?' And I said, 'No.' She says, 'But don't you like the theater?' And I say, 'But I don't like matinees, and getting there. You know, when I do a show, I wake up in the morning and prepare for it, the whole day is shot. And I said, 'No, I'm not going to do it.'
"And she said, 'Be at rehearsal Monday morning at 10 o'clock,' and I did it."