Who shot J.R.?
"Who shot J.R.?" is an advertising catchphrase that American network CBS created in 1980 to promote the television series Dallas. It referred to the mystery surrounding a murder attempt against villain J.R. Ewing in the show's third-season finale "A House Divided". The mystery and its catchphrase became a global phenomenon, with international odds-makers setting odds for the culprit. The mystery was not resolved until the fourth episode of the fourth season titled "Who Done It" which aired eight months later, with an estimated 83 million viewers tuning in. The catchphrase has a strong legacy in pop culture and the format helped popularize the cliffhanger ending for television series.
In the final scene of the 1979–80 season, J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) hears a noise outside his office, walks out to the corridor to look, and is shot twice by an unseen assailant. The episode, titled "A House Divided", was broadcast on March 21, 1980, and was written by Rena Down and directed by Leonard Katzman. Viewers had to wait all summer to learn whether J.R. would survive, and which of his many enemies was responsible.
J.R. Ewing was a villain on the series who regularly double-crossed business associates, plotted against his own family, called his wife Sue Ellen (Linda Gray) a "slut", and had her committed to a sanatorium so he could take custody of their infant son John Ross. Essentially all the other characters on the show were suspects.
Ultimately, the person who pulled the trigger was revealed to be Kristin Shepard (Mary Crosby) in the "Who Done It?" episode which aired on November 21, 1980. Kristin was J.R.'s scheming sister-in-law and mistress, who shot him in a fit of anger. J.R. did not press charges, as Kristin claimed she was pregnant with his child as a result of their affair.
Hagman had begun Dallas as a secondary character, but by 1980 was the star. Advised by friend Carroll O'Connor that the shooting had made him very valuable, Hagman demanded a raise. While negotiating with the actor, CBS prepared to replace him by having J.R. receive facial reconstructive surgery (despite having received the bullet in his stomach). Production for the 1980–81 season began in June 1980 without Hagman. He returned to work ten days later with a new contract that paid him $100,000 per episode and royalties from J.R. Ewing merchandise. Viewers had to wait an additional two months to find out the answer to the famous question, however, as a strike by the Writers Guild of America began in July that delayed the production of most new network shows by eight weeks. During the delay, CBS showed reruns of early Dallas episodes featuring J.R. Ewing, helping the show's many new fans better understand his character.
Marketing and reception
T-shirts printed with such references as "Who Shot J.R.?" and "I Shot J.R." became common over the summer, the latter eventually being seen in the first episode of Irish sitcom Father Ted. Several media outlets held "Who shot J.R.?" contests.
The media hype over the series was unprecedented and a global phenomenon.
During the 1980 United States presidential election, the Republicans distributed campaign buttons that claimed "A Democrat shot J.R.", while Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter joked that he would have no problem financing his campaign if he knew who shot J.R. When Hagman was offered £100,000 during vacation in the United Kingdom for the identity of the shooter, he admitted that neither he nor anyone in the cast knew the answer. Former president Gerald Ford unsuccessfully asked producer Leonard Katzman who the shooter was; he and Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother, were among the millions worldwide intrigued by the mystery. The crowd at the Royal Ascot yelled "J.R.! J.R.!" when Hagman arrived. Betting parlors worldwide took bets as to which one of the 10 or so principal characters had actually pulled the trigger.
Every actor and crew member — even Hagman himself — was filmed shooting J.R. to keep secret the identity of the actual shooter. International oddsmakers created a set of odds for the possible culprits:
- J.R.'s beleagured wife Sue Ellen (Linda Gray), who had spent most of her marriage competing with J.R.'s affairs and increasing alcoholism, was originally ranked as an outsider at 25-to-1; however, after her fingerprints were discovered on the gun, her odds were slashed to 3-to-1.
- Dusty Farlow (Jared Martin), Sue Ellen's lover who disappeared after a plane crash, was the original 6-to-4 favourite.
- Vaughn Leland, a prominent Dallas banker J.R. swindled in a business deal, at 4-to-1.
- Kristin Shepard (Mary Crosby), J.R.'s sister-in-law, mistress and alleged mother of his child, also at 4-to-1.
- J.R. himself was placed at 20-to-1 odds; given the character's reputation, oddsmakers did not put it past J.R. to have staged the shooting himself.
- J.R.'s devoted but long-suffering mother, Miss Ellie (Barbara Bel Geddes), was deemed most unlikely to have committed the act and ranked at 25-to-1 throughout.
Other suspects included J.R.'s brother Bobby (Patrick Duffy), father Jock (Jim Davis), and niece Lucy (Charlene Tilton); his longtime rival Cliff Barnes (Ken Kercheval); Marilee Stone (Fern Fitzgerald), a woman widowed when her husband committed suicide after J.R. swindled him in a bad investment; and Alan Beam (Randolph Powell), a political fixer and former fiance of Lucy's that J.R. had run out of town. Oddsmakers in Las Vegas jokingly placed Tom Landry, the then-coach of the Dallas Cowboys football team, at 500-to-1 odds; similarly, former Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach was placed at 1000-to-1 odds.
The only characters never considered suspects were Lucy's parents, middle Ewing brother Gary (Ted Shackelford) and his wife Valene (Joan Van Ark), who were featuring prominently in California-based spin-off series Knots Landing at the time of J.R.'s shooting.
Who Shot J.R.?
"Who Done It?" was, at the time, the highest-rated television episode in U.S. history. It had a Nielsen rating of 53.3 and a 76% share, and it was estimated that 83 million people watched the episode, more than the number of voters in that year's presidential election. The previous record for a TV episode had been the 1967 finale for The Fugitive. "Who Done It?" now sits second on the list, beaten in 1983 by the final episode of M*A*S*H. In 2011, Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly named "A House Divided" number one of the seven most "Unforgettable Cliff-Hangers" of prime time dramatic television.
The episode was an international event, with more than 350 million people tuning in to find out who shot J.R. A session of the Turkish parliament was suspended to allow legislators a chance to get home in time to view the conclusion of the cliffhanger.
The great success of this 1980 stunt helped popularize in the United States the practice of ending a television season with a cliffhanger. The Barron Knights used the melody and background music to "Cars" in "We Know Who Done It," their 1980 parody and spoof of 'Who shot J.R.?'. The episode also inspired a novelty record by radio personality Gary Burbank which reached #67 on the US Billboard Hot 100 in July 1980. In addition, the episode is credited with helping CNN, which began airing in June 1980, to get off the ground.
The "Who shot J.R.?" storyline was spoofed in the February 21, 1981, episode of Saturday Night Live, which was guest-hosted by Dallas star Charlene Tilton. The episode, sometimes referred to as "Who Shot C.R.?", provided several cast members with various motivations to hate co-star Charles Rocket, who is shot in the episode. At the end of the episode, Rocket made the notorious ad-libbed comment "I'd like to know who the fuck did it", for which he was subsequently fired.
"Who shot J.R.?" was later spoofed in a 1995 The Simpsons episode entitled "Who Shot Mr. Burns?" which similarly provided many characters with motivation to kill Mr. Burns, and similarly ended on a cliffhanger.
In Larry Hagman's final episode of the 2012 sequel, Dallas, which aired on March 4, 2013, J.R. was shot again, this time fatally. In the 2013 season 2 finale it was revealed that J.R. asked Steve "Bum" Jones to shoot him so his "masterpiece" could play out, framing Cliff Barnes for his murder. The main reason he had himself killed was because doctors told J.R. that he had only days to live; he was dying from cancer (as was actor Larry Hagman in real life). In his letter to Bobby he reveals all of this and that he wanted to die helping his family end the Ewing–Barnes feud once and for all. As J.R.'s son John Ross said "The only person that could take down J.R.—was J.R."
The character of Tom from the Irish television comedy series Father Ted is often pictured wearing an "I shot J.R." T-shirt.
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