(CBS) Thirty years ago this weekend, the mystery of “Who Shot JR?” was solved. CBS News anchor Katie Couric looks back on the cliffhanger that kept everyone guessing.
They were the shots heard around the world. Two .38 caliber slugs to the gut took “Dallas” from a primetime guilty pleasure to a pop-culture phenomenon.
“The whole ‘Who Shot J.R.?’ concept was kind of a happy accident,” Couric asked Larry Hagman, who portrayed J.R. Ewing.
“Oh, absolutely,” Hagman replied. “We had done, I think 22 shows, and CBS was making so much money they wanted to extend it for four. And our producers said, “Let’s just shoot the SOB and figure it out later.”
While the nation waited out gas lines, a hostage crisis and a presidential campaign, “Dallas” fans waited and debated over which of the plausible suspects had pulled the trigger. The suspects included any number of bamboozled oil barons, to J.R.’s neglected, long-suffering wife Sue-Ellen.
To keep even the cast and crew guessing, each of them was filmed taking a couple of shots at J.R.
Meanwhile, the “Who Shot J.R.?” frenzy was front-page news – gracing the covers of magazines from TV Guide to TIME.
“At this point, what was bigger, your ego or your paycheck/” Couric asked.
“It was about half and half,” Hagman replied.
But both were about to get bigger. Seeing an opportunity to renegotiate his contract, Hagman left Los Angeles for London – threatening not to return.
Hagman made sure he was photographed a lot in London. “We were presented to the Queen Mother. And she says, ‘I don’t suppose you could tell me who shot J.R?’ I said, ‘no ma’am not even you.'”
The Queen Mother would find out along with the rest of the world on November 21, 1980, when it was revealed that J.R.’s mistress Kristin (played by Mary Crosby) was his would-be assassin.
“Being the one who shot J.R. made me a trivia question,” Crosby said. “And I’m really big in really small countries.”
Speaking of trivia, that episode had the highest ratings ever for a television show – with a whopping 76 share, and an estimated audience of 350 million people worldwide.
When he heard the numbers, Hagman had one thought, “money.”
Hagman would eventually go on to earn a reported $250,000 per episode, and play J.R. Ewing for 11 more years.
He said he “never” got tired of playing the character. “It was always a challenge, always fun. And being at work that long – how many actors get a chance to do that?”