The ''Dallas'' cliffhanger -- A look back at the season finale that captivated over 83 million American viewers

By Jess Cagle
Updated November 16, 1990 at 05:00 AM EST

The producers of Dallas had intended to cap the second season with the death of the Ewings’ archenemy, Digger Barnes. But the show was growing hot, and CBS asked for extra episodes to turn up the heat even more. ”We were under such pressure,” recalls executive producer Leonard Katzman, ”that we said, ‘The hell with it. Let’s shoot J.R. — and worry about suspects later.”’

The rest is Texas history. Katzman’s cliff-hanger entitled ”Who shot J.R.?” makes asking ”Who killed Laura Palmer?” seem like idle curiosity. The question kept 300 million fans in 57 countries on the edge of their easy chairs for eight months and secured a permanent place in the English language. Finally, on the fateful night of Nov. 21, 1980, 83 million Americans tuned in to discover that Kristin (Mary Crosby) was the one who’d gunned down her lover/brother-in-law, played by Larry Hagman. Only 78 million had turned out for the Reagan-Carter presidential election that same month.

The ability of Dallas‘ producers to keep us guessing (a writers’ strike helped by delaying the fall season) provided welcome diversion from the Iranian hostage crisis. And there was real-life intrigue: That summer a batch of scripts was stolen from the Dallas production offices but revealed nothing. The Nov. 21 script wasn’t written until the fall, and Katzman filmed all of the stars pulling a trigger to keep even them in the dark. So the suspense grew, and grew bizarre. In Britain, some unfortunate gamblers wagered $234,000 that the lover of J.R.’s wife, Sue Ellen (Linda Gray), had dunnit. ”J.R. for President” bumper stickers appeared on freeways. Abilene, Tex., pastor Jack Riddlehoover tried to increase his flock by posting a sign outside his church promising ”J.R. Preaches Here Every Sunday.” The owner of the real Southfork ranch sold deeds to foot-square chunks of the place for $25 each.

On the midnight before the show aired, the revelatory scene was developed in Los Angeles, sent to New York via messenger, and spliced into the episode an hour before airtime.

The Dallas execs had faced a daunting task in deciding on a murderer: Everybody had a motive — even J.R.’s mama, Miss Ellie (Barbara Bel Geddes). ”We arrived at Kristin through the process of elimination,” says Katzman, although Miss Ellie would have been the only culprit shocking enough to live up to the hype. ”But it would be hard for J.R. to stay in the house with the mother who shot him,” he says. ”It would’ve made those breakfasts awfully uncomfortable.”