The first time we see J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) on “Dallas,” which premieres Wednesday, June 13, on TNT, he’s a frail old man living in an assisted living facility following an emotional breakdown. And for anyone who was a fan of the original series, which became an American pop culture phenomenon during its 1978-91 run on CBS, the natural reaction is: “Oh, no. I knew this was a mistake.”
Luckily, we’re being set up in that scene, because by the end of this two-hour premiere episode, Hagman’s J.R. is a revitalized lion in winter, ready and eager to renew his long-running family feud with brother Bobby (Patrick Duffy) over the future fortunes of the Ewing family ranch, Southfork.
Given the long list of failed attempts to revisit former TV hits — here’s looking at you, “Charlie’s Angels,” “Knight Rider,” “Bionic Woman,” “Fantasy Island” and countless others — it’s easy to see why so many people were skeptical when executive producer Cynthia Cidre undertook this project, which she conceived not as a reboot or a remake but a continuation of the Ewing saga.
“It just seemed natural to catch up with the Ewing family that we loved 20 years later and see where they were at this point in their lives and what had happened in the years since the show had gone off the air,” she says. “It was a very natural transition.”
Jesse Metcalfe, who stars as Bobby’s adopted son Christopher Ewing and rotates top billing each week with Josh Henderson as J.R.’s son, John Ross, says he gets why so many eyebrows were raised at the news that “Dallas” was coming back.
“I think all of us had the same question: ‘Was this a good idea?’ ” says Metcalfe, previously best known for playing Eva Longoria’s young gardener/lover on “Desperate Housewives.”
“We really didn’t change the structure of the show, and the same compelling themes are in the new series: family dynamics, greed, ambition, love, loyalty, all of those things. My doubts about being a part of this project were quickly soothed after reading Cynthia’s incredible script and seeing how well-defined and dynamic these characters were. I think we’re all confident that we’ve done the original series justice, and fans of that series are going to be pleased.”
The premiere finds the Ewing family gathering at Southfork for Christopher’s wedding to Rebecca Sutter (Julie Gonzalo) in the aftermath of a previous romantic disappointment with Elena Ramos (Jordana Brewster), who now is dating John Ross. What few people know is that John Ross and Elena have been covertly drilling on Southfork, against the express wishes of the late Ewing matriarch, Miss Ellie, and they’ve just hit a gusher. That news immediately rekindles the old struggle for Southfork between J.R. and Bobby, who is determined to protect his mother’s legacy.
Part of the success of this new “Dallas” lies in the skillful way that Cidre has devised strong storylines for young cast members Metcalfe, Henderson and Brewster while similarly keeping returning cast members Hagman, Duffy and Linda Gray, as J.R.’s ex-wife Sue Ellen, a vital part of the show, not mere tokens.
For his part, Hagman says he wasn’t a hard sell when it came to the new “Dallas,” which he even sees as an improvement in some respects over the old series.
“I was approached, and my friends Patrick Duffy and Linda Gray were included in the package,” explains the actor, now 80. “We talked and decided, ‘Hey, it would be fun just getting back together, us guys,’ and when they came up with the scripts, I was even more impressed by it. I think we’ve got a good shot at it again.
“The only trepidation I have is that it goes with the speed of a fast Japanese train. They compress about five [of the old] shows into one. The original was really a stodgy old show, compared to this new one. But I think the attention spans of the American human being, and hopefully the world human being, have gotten a lot shorter, so you keep it shorter [on the show], I think.”
Born in Panama, Brewster, who came to the United States as the original show was ending its run, says she never saw the original “Dallas,” but she definitely was aware of it because — well, really, how do you miss something that massive?
“I was very aware of the theme song and the whole ‘Who shot J.R.?’ thing, and I knew who Linda and Patrick were and Larry,” she says. “I mean, they’re kind of inescapable, and it’s worldwide. I did watch several of the original episodes, which was valuable, because the original storylines are a part of the show, even though when you watch the show now, you can still follow if you didn’t see the original show.”
As for Hagman, he’s thrilled with the episodes he’s filmed and thinks fans both old and new will enjoy them, too.
“I hope to be on this show for another 13 years,” he says with a chuckle. “This thing is going to drag me into my future. I’ll be 94 by then!”