'People get stabbed in the back so fast, I just can't keep up'
Two decades on, Dallas is back, stuffed to the gills with the intrigues and betrayals of the oil-rich Ewings. John Hiscock catches up with the cast
'Welcome to Southfork." A grey-haired but still handsome Bobby Ewing is standing at the ranch gates greeting guests arriving for a lavish party. In a nearby hotel, his older brother, a now penniless and depressed but still scheming JR, is plotting to rekindle the feud that in the past threatened to destroy the family.
And so, 20 years after the television series Dallas went off the air, we are once again back among the intrigues, back-stabbings and betrayals of the oil-rich and deeply dysfunctional Ewing family that made it one of the most-watched television shows around the world for 13 years.
Dallas has returned to TV screens in America and in the autumn it airs on this side of the Atlantic. Many of the original cast, including principals Larry Hagman (JR Ewing), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing) and Linda Gray (Sue Ellen) have returned, along with four young actors who portray a new generation of the iconic family.
"We must have done something right the first time, because here we are again," says Hagman, talking on a sound stage in downtown Dallas during a break in filming. "But if you think JR was bad, you've got to see these young guys in action. I tell you, it's an eye-opener."
The original series, which ran for 365 episodes from 1978 to 1991, was seen in 96 countries and dubbed into 55 languages. The March 1981 episode, in which JR was shot by a hidden assailant (it was his sister-in-law Kristin Shepard, played by Mary Crosby), remains one of the most watched TV episodes ever.
"Since the show went off the air, the idea of bringing it back has been floated numerous times, but some of the scripts were atrocious and most of the projects didn't include us as actors," said Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), now 62, a grandfather and living in Oregon.
"Everything changed when Larry, Linda and I got this script and we realised that, for the first time in 20 years, it was a perfect marriage of two things -- being together with your friends and doing a good project."
The years have been kind to the original trio, who are firm friends and who all look fit and trim. Hagman, now 81, has had health problems which included a 1995 liver transplant and a recent bout with cancer which, he says, has been cured by radiation and chemotherapy.
"The past 20 years have been a lot of fun for me," he said. "I've done films and TV shows and just hung out. I've been a lucky man."
Outside the sound stage, he has parked his 1984 Airstream motor home, in which he travels around America promoting solar energy. "I want to take a couple of weeks and go to the Ozarks next," he said. Then he paused, his blue eyes twinkling. "Where the hell are they?"
Linda Gray, 71, is convinced the time is right for another Dallas series. "It's a blessing for the three of us to come back and seamlessly flow into this new family that we adore," she says. "The three of us never thought we would ever work together again, but I think people are ready for Dallas with a new 2012 twist."
She has devoted a lot of thought to how her Sue Ellen character has changed during the past 20 years since her travails at the hands of her husband JR, her bout with alcoholism and her move from a series of enjoyably tawdry affairs to a gradual sense of self-assurance.
"I did a lot of internal work to figure out how she would have changed and evolved and I think I know exactly where she would be at this time in her life. She's done some soul-searching, she's a philanthropist and, like a lot of mothers, she has a lot of regrets," she says.
Unlike the original, which was filmed mainly in a Los Angeles studio, the new series is filmed entirely in Dallas, on sound stages and at Southfork ranch.
On the day I visited the set, Hagman and Duffy were filming a scene in which JR visits his cancer-stricken brother Bobby in hospital and tells him to keep fighting. "I love you, Bobby, because without you I won't know who I am," he says.
Although JR, Bobby and Sue Ellen are still the anchors of the series, much of the plotline focuses on the new generation of Ewings, JR and Sue Ellen's son John Ross (Josh Henderson), who is determined to undermine his grandmother's legacy by drilling for oil on Ewing land, and Bobby's son Christopher (Jesse Metcalfe), who hopes to take the family business in the new direction of alternative energy sources.
Jordana Brewster plays John Ross's girlfriend Elena and Julie Gonzalo is Rebecca, Christopher's fiancee, who is trying to find her place in the vast Ewing family tree. Brenda Strong, who was heard as the narrator in Desperate Housewives, is Bobby's wife, Ann, who is driven by a fierce resolve to maintain peace within the family, while an increasingly volatile feud between John Ross and Christopher sets the stage for JR's disruptive return to the fray.
Christopher's mother, Pamela Barnes Ewing, who was portrayed by Victoria Principal, is missing because the actress left the original show before it ended, but, according to Patrick Duffy, she is still very much in Bobby's mind, although he has been married for eight years to Ann.
And among the familiar faces back in smaller roles are Ken Kercheval, 76, as Cliff Barnes, Steve Kanaly, 66, as Ray Krebbs and Charlene Tilton, 53, as the spoilt and saucy Lucy, otherwise known as "the Poison Dwarf".
Long-standing rivalries, family battles and nefarious schemes are all resurrected as John Ross plots to take what he considers to be his rightful place at the head of the Ewing family.
"John Ross is obsessed with oil and the legend of JR, and is passionate about having power and being at the head of the table at Southfork," says Josh Henderson.
But although some of the themes sound similar, the new series will be very different from the original, according to Jesse Metcalfe, who, as Christopher Ewing, is in a constant battle with his cousin John Ross.
"This is the new Dallas," he says. "There's no question of us remaking the old programme. It's going to find a new audience, because the storylines are very up-to-date and poignant, too."
Hagman agrees. "You've got to really pay attention to this show because things happen so quickly and people get stabbed in the back so fast by their loved ones that I can't follow it, to tell you the truth," he says with a satisfied grin.
"I keep reading the scripts and saying, 'My God, how far are they going to go with this thing?' Well, they're going a long, long way."
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