How 'Dallas' pieced together J.R. Ewing's final scene
On March 4, 2013, Dallas fans once again found themselves asking, “Who shot J.R.?” But this time, they knew he wouldn’t survive. How did exec producers Cynthia Cidre and Michael R. Robin orchestrate J.R. Ewing’s final scene without their beloved star, the late Larry Hagman? How did they decide to alter the show’s iconic theme song for the following episode to honor both the character and the actor? They revealed all to EW.com last winter. Revisit the conversation below.
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ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was the actual last scene that Larry Hagman shot?
Michael R. Robin: The last scene that Larry shot was in the [courthouse] bathroom with John Ross [Josh Henderson] in show 5, an episode that Millicent Shelton directed. It’s funny, there was a little sort of extension of the scene from what ended up in the cut, where J.R. walks over and looks in the mirror and he’s having a conversation with Bum [Kevin Page]. In one of the takes, Millicent said “Cut!” and Larry was looking in the mirror and he just said (dreamily), “Larry, I love you.” [They laugh] And the whole crew just broke up. And that was it.
Cynthia Cidre: That was it.
MR: That was the last moment on camera that was photographed of him. And it was a really stunning thing to go back and look at that moment. He was so full of life that day and fantastic. None of us had any sense of what was going to take place, you know, five days later.
So Larry was last on set for episode 5, but J.R. wasn’t shot until the end of episode 7. How did you pull off that final phone call with John Ross?
MR: When Larry passed [in November 2012], we weren’t ready for that on a story-level. We had all these things set up through show 5, and show 6 was written, and show 7 was written for J.R. to be doing something else. So Cynthia said to the editors, “Okay, what scenes have been cut from something that Larry did photograph? And also, find for me all the different lines that he has said,” because we were thinking along the lines of what kind of phone calls could we create. So we got to the phone call where he’s being shot, and she had the list of the different things Larry’s said and basically reverse-engineered the other side of the scene to be able to get J.R. to answer in the way that we needed him to. We looked at the cut, and three of the lines that we had cobbled together were from the same scene from episode 4 earlier this year. And our editor, Adam Bluming, cut those lines in against the phone call with John Ross. And then interestingly enough, there was a take [in episode 4, when J.R. hears from Frank that John Ross is in bed with Pamela], where Larry put the phone down and just looked straight ahead and had this horrified look on his face. When Adam put those things together [with a new background behind J.R. and the sound of footsteps], all the sudden we had a scene where it looks like Larry was participating in this character’s demise. So we had that [scene] but it kinda felt like we just had a little tag on the end of the hour where J.R. just showed up, and we needed a whole story. So we tried the same thing again and created a three-beat story [for episode 7] with other footage that we had. We went back and reshot the other side of scenes, reverse engineering the dialogue that made sense plot-wise for the actors that we did have so they could move it along, and we tied it in to the dialogue that we did have of Larry.
CC: A lot of reverse-engineering there.
How did you decide J.R. would be shot again, which is obviously a nice nod to the original series and the start of a new mystery? Did you consider other scenarios?
CC: Let me walk you through two weeks of thinking in 30 seconds. How does J.R. die? Not an easy question to answer. I tend to be mathematical: So there’s an A solution and a B solution. The A solution was of natural causes that are later revealed to be unnatural, and it seemed that until it were revealed to be unnatural that the audience would be bored and it was not appropriate to the character. So then you go to unnatural causes, which could be anything from a helicopter exploding, a plane crash, drowning, being eaten by a shark, an endless list. And then you circle around after thinking about it for a week to you can’t get away from J.R. was shot. So you do an homage to it. You do it again, and then you try to do it one better: Hopefully by the time we reveal the mystery [see: EW’s recap of the season finale], you’ll go, “Oh, cool.” I’m telling you, it was really complicated to get to that place and to make people not say, “How can you shoot him again?”
Was there resistance to the idea from the network?
CC: No. I assumed there would be resistance, but once it was explained, they were like, “That’s the perfect solution.”
Everyone I’ve talked to who’s seen these opening credits has teared up. Whose idea was it to change them for this episode?
CC: It was Mike’s idea. He heard that and was like, “No! No! No! No! That is so wrong!”
MR: What happened was, we were screening [the episode], and we went through the moment in the morgue when it’s yes, he’s dead, and then on came the big happy main title for Dallas, and it was like, “Okay, that has to change. We cannot do that this time.” So we called our composer, Rob Cairns, and I said, “This needs to be a remembrance.” And he was like, “Got it.” And then two hours later, he sent us that track.
CC: It was kind of unbelievable. I remember that track was in my email, and I played it, and I said, “How does he do this in two hours?” It was so good.
MR: And then we put it under the picture with cowboys racing around, and we said, “No, this isn’t it.”
CC: [Laughs] “No, that’s not right.”
MR: So we sent it back to the editor, Leah Breuer, who cut our main title for us. She sent back a piece about a day later, and it was perfect, too. So they both just emotionally understood what needed to happen and out came that really lovely title.