In many ways, Larry Hagman‘s final appearance on TNT’s Dallas… wasn’t.
Though the beloved actor had three scenes in last week’s episode — culminating with the moment in which J.R. was shot by an unseen assailant — each of those sequences was fashioned from preexisting footage and dialogue, as producers scrambled to reconfigure Season 2 in the wake of Hagman’s passing. Reflecting on the process, executive producer Cynthia Cidre tells TVLine, “‘Crafty’ is a good description” for what they pulled off.
But well before that bit of FX magic came into play, the Dallas brass needed to figure out how J.R. would exit the canvas — and what that canvas would look like afterwards — upon hearing the tragic news of Hagman’s passing in late November.
HOW THEY SHOT J.R.
Reflecting on that time, Cidre says the question was: “How do you say goodbye to such an iconic character and such an iconic actor in a way that pays tribute to him and also makes the fans happy? It was a huge challenge, but we knew we had to accept it and rise to the occasion.”
To that end, Cidre says that she, fellow EP Michael M. Robin and their writing team “kind of threw away the rest of the season as we had plotted it, just for the moment, to free our minds about what else we could do.” After a couple of weeks and considering “what must have been 30 different” scenarios, “I think we came up with a really good one,” she says. “The next challenge was: OK, now let’s reintegrate all of the really good moments that we had already planned. And I think we ended up keeping 80 percent of it.”
The storyline conceived to accommodate Hagman’s death, as now revealed, involved killing off TV’s greatest love-to-hate character by way of a murder mystery. And while the original idea was to simply have J.R. shot off-camera during a one-way call with Josh Henderson’s John Ross, “Post-production put together all the lines of dialogue Larry had recorded, and we the writers figured we could reverse-engineer the John Ross side of it,” Cidre says. “Our editor was able to come up with something extremely clever.”
Robin explains that the episode-ending phone call was built off of an Episode 4 scene between J.R. and Pamela Barnes’ No. 1, Frank, who had just delivered the upsetting news that John Ross was sleeping with the enemy (ergo J.R.’s distressed reaction). The FX guys then stripped out the original background (J.R.’s room at Southfork) and dropped in the walls of the motel room in Mexico where the oily tycoon is ultimately found murdered. Add in the sound of approaching foot-steps, cut to John Ross’ reaction when shots ring out and… “We were like, ‘Son of a gun!’” Robin shares.
But lest that one scene feel tacked on to an otherwise J.R.-less episode, the editors and post-production wizards cobbled together two others — J.R. in a limo, and then a phone call with Bum — to create a three-beat final arc for the character. (The second scene involved tweaking a spliced-in snippet of Season 1 Hagman dialogue from, “What are you doing about that rat [Harris Ryland]?” to “What are you doing about that race?”)
THE MOURNING AFTER
One aspect of Hagman’s sendoff that was extremely real, however, was the emotion heavy in the air around as longtime castmates, present and past (including Steven Kanaly’s Ray Krebbs, Charlene Tilton’s Lucy and Ted Shackleford’s Gary), reacted to the character’s and/or Hagman’s passing.
Though TV dramas regularly film scenes out of order, Robin says, “I asked our first assistant director to shoot as much in order as we could” for this episode. “You can kind of make that request, especially when big emotional throughlines are involved.” As Cidre explains, “Actors need to travel to the emotion” of something as resonant as a funeral scene.
And make no mistake, much of what viewers witness at J.R.’s gravesite tonight is not so much Southfork residents walloped by a loss, but the stars of Dallas tributing one of their own.
“One of the things that makes this a remarkable hour is that the emotion is honest, from everybody involved,” Robin notes. “That line was blurred for everybody who knew Larry.”
Crew members included. Robin shares that for the lensing of a scene centered on Linda Gray’s Sue Ellen, “I didn’t have anybody in that room other than a camera operator, a focus puller, a dolly grip and a sound guy, to keep it small for her. And the focus puller was just clearing tears out of his eyes. Everybody, everyone, was quite choked up.”
Will you be attending J.R. Ewing’s funeral tonight at 9/8c?