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'Dallas' rides high

After more than a few false starts, ”Dallas” is back, and it’s just as irresistible as the original. Now the cast and exec producer reveal how they revived the Ewing clan, and what to expect in season 2.

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There was no good reason to think it would work. People had long tried and failed to exhume the ’80s nighttime soap Dallas, which wrapped 14 seasons of chronicling the messy passions of the Ewing clan back in 1991. Even beloved stars Larry Hagman and Patrick Duffy, Southfork’s feuding brothers J.R. and Bobby, raspberried when they produced and starred in 1998’s downright embarrassing TV movie War of the Ewings. And yet somehow — despite the sneering caution of insiders who claimed TV remakes rarely work and the squawk of purists who didn’t want to see hallowed ground trampled on by cheap imitators — the Ewing family has roared back to life, good as ever.

The new Dallas (Wednesdays, 9 p.m. on TNT) gracefully intertwines the old guard of Hagman, Duffy, and Linda Gray with a fraught (and hot) younger generation played by Josh Henderson, Jesse Metcalfe, Jordana Brewster, and Julie Gonzalo. Buoyed by an aggressive marketing campaign that targeted loyalists as well as newcomers — like the print ads featuring the entire cast in towels in a winking homage to Bobby’s infamous shower scene — the premiere pulled in an impressive 7.8 million viewers. With the help of universally positive (if surprised) reviews, it’s since emerged as basic cable’s No. 1 new drama and has already been picked up for a second season. ”It’s almost dreamlike,” says Duffy of not just Dallas‘ triumphant return but also the pleasure of once again working alongside his two best friends, Hagman and Gray. ”And God, if I wake up and find out I’m playing some gnarly grandpa in a sitcom somewhere, I’m going to be so pissed off.”

The magic of the new incarnation rests largely in executive producer Cynthia Cidre’s shrewd decision not to remake Dallas but rather drop back in on the ranch 20 years later. The trick, though, when writing the pilot was picking which former cast members to have in play. ”There was never any question that I wanted to bring back J.R., and it was definitely with Larry,” says Cidre. (Picture for a second the blasphemous image of anyone other than Hagman daring to tip J.R. Ewing’s Stetson.) ”Patrick looked fantastic, so he had to come back and be the new patriarch. And Linda looked fantastic, so she had to come back too as a remade woman.” What may come as a bit of a heartbreaker to romantics still pining for a Bobby and Pam reunion: Cidre never even considered reaching out to Victoria Principal. ”What angle was there left to play?” she asks. ”The last time we saw her she was burned to a crisp. Bobby is now mature and he’s happy with a new woman, where I can play different stories.” (Welcome Brenda Strong, who brings a great rugged sexiness to the role of Bobby’s wife.)

Word that the original trio had committed to the project lent the show credibility. ”Initially I didn’t even want to audition,” says Metcalfe, who plays Bobby’s son Christopher. ”I wasn’t sure if remaking such an iconic ’80s show was a good idea. But Cynthia wrote this brilliant pilot that bridged the 20-year gap. And the energy between the old and new cast was so special.” So it was a terrible blow when Hagman, two days before he was due on set to start filming the first season, was diagnosed with cancer. One of his first phone calls was to Duffy, who was already down in Dallas. Remembers Duffy: ”I told him, ‘You bastard. I just got a good job and you’re going to bail on me. The nerve of you dying at the apex of my career. Unacceptable.”’

But Hagman worked throughout his entire chemo and radiation treatment. There’s a scene in the third episode where J.R. visits an unconscious, cancer-stricken Bobby in the hospital. He pleads for his brother to wake up because he can’t imagine a life without him. Duffy wore earplugs during filming. ”He was afraid if he’d heard Larry saying those things to him he would start bawling right there,” says Cidre. So if the worst day on Dallas brought with it word of Hagman’s illness, then the best came this spring when the star’s doctor called to pronounce Hagman cancer-free. Says TNT president Michael Wright, ”Larry looked me in the eye and said, ‘Whaddya think, 10 seasons?”’

Time will tell if this incarnation makes it to that number, but since its premiere, Dallas appears to be both satisfying original viewers and cultivating the next generation of fans it will need to survive. ”As soon as that first episode aired, I started getting positive feedback on Facebook and Twitter,” says Henderson, who plays J.R.’s short fuse of a son, John Ross. ”And from young and old fans, it’s a lot of ‘I love to hate you, like your father!”’

Cidre reveals that the remaining three episodes will bring a murder, two near-death experiences, and two marriage proposals. ”J.R. returns to Southfork and nearly becomes undone by it,” she adds. ”And Rebecca [played by Gonzalo] and her brother’s relationship takes a shocking turn.” Meanwhile, Cidre and her team of writers have already mapped out season 2, which will start filming in September. ”The first season was about the battle for Southfork,” she says. ”The new season will be the battle for Ewing Energies.” She also wants to reassure Sue Ellen fans who are worried that Gray’s now-sober character will dive once more into the drink. ”I don’t think we need to see her back in the sanatorium drinking Aqua Velva,” she says. No matter what, says Hagman, trust that the new Dallas will remain delicious: ”This makes the old one look like milk toast in the morning with no cinnamon sugar.”

Long Live J.R.

Every conversation about Dallas inevitably leads to charming tales about its bon vivant star Larry Hagman. Case in point: ”Can I tell you a quick Larry Hagman story?” says TNT honcho Michael Wright. ”We were at our upfronts doing the big group photo. I feel this hand reach out and tug my sleeve, and Larry pulls me over next to him so I’m no longer on the end. And he goes, ‘How long you been doing this, son? You’re making yourself the easiest guy to crop out! Stand next to me.”’ Here, Hagman tells a few stories of his own.

Back in the day you and Patrick Duffy used to pop open your first bottle of champagne every morning at 7:30. Any new on-set rituals?

Yeah, orange juice. Harrumph.

Well, congratulations on your recent clean bill of health.

Oh, yeah, I feel great. I exercise every day. I lost about 25 pounds. I went from 205 down to 180. I feel a lot better, I move a lot better. Linda [Gray] encouraged me to go vegan, so that’s been about eight months now.

Are you enjoying the return of J.R. to the critical mass?

I love comebacks. At my age, working at 80 is rather sweet. It’s me and — what’s the lady’s name? — Betty White. Yeah, I’m in good company there.

Is it any less fun playing J.R. 20 years later?

Oh, s—, no! It’s always fun. Look at the money I’m making. Look at the fame I have. I love every moment. And why not? I like what I’m doing. I love the people — even the new ones. And they treat me like a king, for God’s sake.

As they should, I’d say.

Well, that’s exactly what I say.

Did you trust that the new writers understood J.R.’s voice?

They do very, very well. There’s one line I really liked: when [Brenda Strong’s] Annie comes in and she’s got a rifle on me and I say, ”Bullets don’t seem to have much of an effect on me, darlin.”’ Ha!

Is there a part of you that wishes Victoria Principal had been invited to return as well as Linda and Patrick?

I thought Pam died. I thought she was burned up. No, wait, she did come back, that’s right. But somebody else played her character. [In the 1988 season 12 premiere, Pam, this time played by Margaret Michaels, returned with a new face to reveal that she’s terminally ill and planning to marry her plastic surgeon.] I honestly don’t know the Machiavellian back currents of the show, but I don’t think she — this is only supposition on my part — but she’s got a tremendous empire of cosmetics and exercise, so I don’t know if she even would want to.

Do you think J.R. wants Sue Ellen back?

Oh, of course. I mean, in his own way. Hell, if they got married, that’d be the third time. But I got married on I Dream of Jeannie, and that got the show off the air. I don’t think I’m going to marry anybody anymore.

Are you happy about how well the new show is doing?

Well, sure. Though I’m used to having 18, 20 million viewers. And now we’re having 4 and 7 million. They tell me that’s extraordinarily good, so I’ll just go along with that. But compared to what it used to be, we’d be off the air.

How did you celebrate the news that Dallas was picked up for a second season?

I think I had another glass of orange juice.

Holy Cow, Those Eyebrows!

Some consider them a character enhancement, others think of them as an actual character, and yes, they have more than one dedicated Twitter feed. But everyone, including Larry Hagman, knows J.R. Ewing’s eyebrows are gloriously out of control. ”They were always using mustache wax to keep them down and tame,” says Hagman of his first time around on Dallas. ”And I thought, well, I’m an older person now, and I can do whatever I damn well want to. So just let ’em grow out and become wild.” Luckily the show’s head of makeup, Lynn Barber, was already familiar with Hagman’s no-cut, just-groom policy, having worked with the actor on the short-lived 1997 TV series Orleans. Here’s how Barber wrangled Hagman’s brows during production on Dallas: She’d simply wet her fingers, swoop them into that signature longhorn shape, and wait for the camera operator to tell her one hair had gone rogue. ”They were watched by more than one department,” Barber says. ”Every once in a while I would say, ‘Larry, I have to cut a hair.’ And he’d go, ‘Okay.’ But it was a hair.” —Mandi Bierly