Danno Neil/Paramount Network; Everett Collection
Loraine Despres has written for such beloved TV series as Dynasty, CHiPs, The Love Boat, and Knots Landing. But her most famous credit is being the sole writer of the third most-watched episode in TV history, "Who Done It?" — otherwise known as the "Who shot J.R.?" episode of Dallas.
In addition to being an all-time ratings hit, the mystery of who shot J.R. — which began with Dallas' season 3 finale, "A House Divided," and was ultimately resolved four episodes later, on Nov. 21, 1980 — helped popularize the TV cliffhanger as we know it.
So EW called up Despres to talk about another season-ending mystery: Who shot John Dutton, the plotting patriarch played by Kevin Costner on Paramount Network's contemporary Western Yellowstone? Despres, who watched the Yellowstone pilot and season 3 finale for this interview, talked about her impressions of the show, the process of writing an audience-grabbing cliffhanger, the writers' room dynamics of the 1980s, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I think in some ways Yellowstone feels really similar to what Dallas was doing in the '80s. What were your first impressions of the show?
LORAINE DESPRES: I thought the production values in Yellowstone were spectacular. I mean, it's like a feature film. And of course, in Dallas, they didn't have that kind of money. Nobody could have made a television show like that back then. I don't think you were even born back then. So, would you want to hear what I think was different about them? Or should we talk about what's the same first?
Let's go with first one.
Okay. First, Larry Hagman [who played J.R.] was a comedian. And the show actually had a lot of humor in it. For example, the ladies of Dallas, they were all members of the Daughters of the Alamo. So the producers thought it would be hilarious because of DOA.
With Yellowstone, there's some comedy, but it's very separate from the family. The ranch hands get the comedy, but Costner is not really going to come close to doing a gag on camera.
Back during Dallas, we had the two ways of doing a nighttime soap opera: One way was the Dyansty way. I mean, the pilot episode was about cattle and land rights and the oil crisis. Water rights, timber politics [too]. Whereas with Dallas, we were a Romeo and Juliet story. It really was. It was a "What if a Capulet came home to live with the Montagues?"
What did you think of the Yellowstone finale?
Well, first with Dallas, the season before was supposed to end with Sue Ellen [Linda Gray] in a car crash. She was an alcoholic. That was J.R.'s wife. That was the finale. The show was so popular at the time that CBS said, "We'd like you to do two more episodes." And the producers thought, "Well, what will we do?" Again, these are very funny guys. They just said one day, "I know, let's shoot J.R.!" Dallas was on a Friday night, and people would have Dallas parties. They would stay home to watch it. The following Monday, the phones were ringing off the hook. They were just shocked and delighted, of course, with the publicity because they didn't expect it. When they decided to shoot Larry Hagman, it was a big deal. He looked like he may be dead. Of course, he wasn't dead because he's a big star.
So you're saying…
With Costner in Yellowstone, yes. I saw the episode a couple of nights ago. He's shot, and then he pulls out the cell phone.
So that moment that he gets the phone out, to you as a writer, that indicates they're leaving the door open for him to be alive?
Right. As a viewer, didn't you think that?
Yeah, definitely in the moment, but it's a bit wild to imagine a scenario where someone can pick him up in time to take care of those wounds.
I don't know why they made that decision to have Kevin Costner seem to be alive, unless they wanted to make it different than Dallas.
Maybe this their own twist on the classic twist.
I also wanted to ask you about the gender disparity of TV writers' rooms at the time. What do you remember from that era?
There were a lot of the shows that were proud they didn't have any women writers.
They were considered soft. You would bring on a woman if you wanted a soft show, but they couldn't write for anything dramatic. Like a cop show. I remember I was at the Writers Guild for a candidate's night. One woman said, "Well, I've had no trouble writing for cop shows or for masculine shows." I said, "Well, that's, that's fabulous." It turns out she was a partner with her husband.
How common was that, the husband being on the writing credit just for the wife to have a career?
When I came out here, I would meet women in the business. I did know a comedy writer who had written a lot, and her husband was a producer. He would be the producer-writer on her show. But, here's the thing, he didn't write if she wasn't there. He just wasn't there.