March 21, 2020 marks 40 years since Dallas’ infamous “Who Shot J.R.?” cliffhanger aired. What better time to revisit our conversation with Patrick Duffy, who starred on that classic nighttime soap and the reboot last decade.
Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Veteran TV actor Patrick Duffy says he’s basically “only had three jobs” over the course of his career, but all three made major imprints in the annals of TV history: He was the Man From Atlantis in the ’70s, and the dad in a ’90s update of The Brady Bunch, Step By Step. But the role he will forever be tied to is to that of Bobby, the youngest son of the Ewing oil clan in Dallas. The CBS nighttime soap was a virtual powerhouse in the late ’70s through the ’80s; the episode featuring the answer to the famous cliffhanger question “Who shot J.R.?” remains one of the highest-rated television episodes in U.S. history. Duffy stayed with the show for 13 years (despite a one-year break from the series, which resulted in one of the most famous storyline re-starts ever filmed), with a TV cast so tight that he still refers to the actors that played his parents (Barbara Bel Geddes and Jim Davis) as “Mama” and “Daddy.”
Duffy, along with Larry “J.R.” Hagman, Linda “Sue Ellen” Gray, and other characters from the show’s classic era, joined the Dallas cast again when it reappeared in on TNT in 2012. The current season of Dallas 2.0 wraps up on September 22, with the Ewings enmeshed in their usual plotting, scheming, and backstabbing, and Bobby—now the patriarch—again trying to do the right thing in the center of it all. Patrick Duffy looks back on his decades-long career, remembering bad ’70s special effects, cliffhanger endings that rocked the nation, and his best friend, Larry Hagman, who passed away in 2012.
The A.V. Club: How did you land the lead in Man From Atlantis?
Patrick Duffy: I had done a one-line—I wasn’t even a guest star—a one-line, half-a-day job on a television detective show called Switch with Eddie Albert and Robert Wagner. Came in, said my line, and exited.
I had met this casting agent, a lovely lady named Ruth Conforte, for Atlantis. Did not impress her at all, and went home knowing that nothing was going to happen. She has even said that she was not that impressed with me. She was doing some business in her kitchen at night when that little one-liner that I had on Switch aired. She looked up and saw me and said, “Oh, that isn’t at all how he came across in the meeting. I should call him back in.” That’s when I started the ball rolling. I had more meetings with her. I finally had one with the producer. The producer went to the network, which was NBC. They were not impressed with me, so they decided to do a screen test. They worked up a whole big screen test. They made an artificial body for me because I needed to gain weight and muscle! Finally, NBC signed off on me. Then I had about two months plus to work out, gain weight, then get ready for the show. A very long process.
AVC: You seem like you’re underwater for a really long time on that show.
PD: [Laughs.] It was before special effects. There were no computer-generated special effects in 1977 when I did that show. The most we could do was have my safety divers with me just off-camera. They would swim out there blind as a bat because you also can’t see underwater without a mask on. We’d rehearse underwater. We’d do a lot of things in tanks at MGM, which was good because the water could be warmer. I would also go to Catalina on the weekends and do second unit underwater stuff and in the ocean without a wetsuit. I was doing the ice bucket challenge long before the ice bucket challenge was big! It was brutal. Quite literally, the best day ever was when that show was canceled and I started Dallas.
AVC: You were wearing those very difficult contact lenses, too.
PD: Underwater, I’d wear a lens that covers the entire eyeball, under your lids. On land, I would wear these hand-painted contact lenses, which were brutal as well. It’s something only a younger person can do. I thought it was terribly exciting. I never complained. I never had a bad day. It was the first time I’d done any of this and it was completely amazing to have a show that you were the star of that was science fiction—a great launching part.
AVC: It almost seemed like it was trying to be the underwater version of Star Trek.
PD: The producer was the former producer of Star Trek!
AVC: That makes sense, with episodes like the one with the double-headed seahorse monster and Richard Kiel. It seemed like Mark was always visiting different worlds with strange creatures on them.
PD: I did an episode with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It was wonderful. We got Neville Brand, who I, at that point, didn’t know as much about him as a television star and a World War II hero, his whole chronology—I had no knowledge of that when he did the show. But we did a lot of fun things. I love when we’re kind of silly. One time I was fighting basically a giant shower curtain.
AVC: The giant jellyfish, right?
PD: Yeah, the jellyfish. We literally shredded a bunch of plastic shower curtains—they were supposed to be tentacles. It was really the-trunk-of-your-car kind of special effects.
AVC: There was something about the ’70s and the ocean and water, because in that episode, Victor Buono says something like, “The shark’s been done, so we’ll have a giant jellyfish.” There was not just Jaws in that era, but also The Deep and Orca and the Bermuda Triangle.
PD: One [episode] involved melting the polar ice caps.
AVC: You were ahead of your time.
PD: Some of the subject matter was very relevant for that time period, certainly. You didn’t have the computer-generated ability to make them as real as they could do now.
AVC: Man From Atlantis was still running when you got cast on Dallas, right?
PD: We were still under contract to NBC. They couldn’t decide what to do with our show anyway. We did a pilot, and then instead of picking us up for a series, they said, “We’d like to do a series of TV movies.” So we did three more TV movies of Man From Atlantis. Then they decided to do the series. We went back and we did 13 episodes. They didn’t know if we’d continue the season or not, so I was hanging, not knowing what to do. When they canceled us, seven days later, I had my Dallas contract.
AVC: Nobody could have predicted how big Dallas was going to be. Did they pitch it to you as a family oil drama or a nighttime soap?
PD: I remember Dallas was offered to me. I didn’t have to audition for it. It was offered to me by Leonard Katzman, an executive producer of the show. While I was doing Man From Atlantis, he was doing a sci-fi show called Logan’s Run with Gregory Harrison and Heather Menzies, which was filming in the stage next to mine. Leonard was prepping Dallas while he was at MGM, and he thought of me for the role of Bobby Ewing and went over and talked to my crew members, found out what kind of a person I was. Then I got offered the show. But I was also offered five other, four other scripts—not by virtue of being the greatest actor in the world, but when you have a show on the air, and then it publicly gets canceled, there are a lot of PR advantages that can be used by somebody else if they’re doing a show. Like, “Fresh from Man From Atlantis, here he is!” There was a Western, there was Dallas, there was Lassie—they were going to resurrect the show Lassie again—I can’t remember the other two, but my wife and I read them all and pretty much did eeny-meeny-miney-moe and said let’s do this: Dallas.
The reason being that they were going to five hours—we did a five-episode mini-series. That was one of the prevailing reasons. It was more employment than doing otherwise. I had no idea what kind of show it was going to end up being at all.
AVC: Was Larry Hagman already signed on? Everybody knew who he was because of I Dream Of Jeannie.
PD: Apparently he was. None of us knew who the other characters were being cast, until, I think, probably the day before we were called in to read the script for the first time as a group at Warner Brothers. I think I remember my agent telling me, “Oh, it’s going to be Jim Davis, Barbara Bel Geddes, Larry Hagman”—and it didn’t really ring of any importance. I don’t mean that in a negative way. I just thought, “Oh, some of these names I recognize, some I don’t. Fine. We’ll go in and we’ll read the script.” The reading was the first time I met every single cast member. Except Linda [Gray]—I had met her a few weeks before. We didn’t know we were going to meet later as characters on Dallas. I just met her socially. None of us knew each other at all.
AVC: That’s amazing when you consider how much chemistry the cast had that helped the show go over in such a big way. It felt like you were watching an actual family.
PD: And we did, but that’s—and I’ve told this for the last 35 years—I walked into Warner Brothers, shook Larry’s hand when we were introduced, and he became my best friend and remained my best friend for 35 years. And Linda has been—we were the trio, we called ourselves the musketeers. We have been absolutely the best of friends for 35 years.
It was instant. And the same is true with Kenny [Kercheval, Cliff Barnes] and Steve Kanaly [Ray Krebbs] and Victoria [Principal, Pamela] and, of course, Mama and Daddy. We were a family unit that really loved each other.
AVC: When Dynasty followed you, it seemed so campy in comparison to Dallas.
PD: Aaron Spelling is probably one of the savviest businessmen in the business. He wanted that show to be a contender to Dallas, so he’s the one who instigated all that press about the rivalry between Dynasty and Dallas. There was no rivalry. But it was made that whenever Dallas was mentioned, Dynasty was mentioned and vice-versa. It was a great business thing, but it was not the same caliber, in my opinion—that show. But that’s an insider’s point of view. I’m sure they felt they were as viable as Dallas was.
AVC: Do you remember finding out about the “who shot J.R.?” cliff-hanger? That built up over several weeks, so was that something the cast knew about over the course of the season?
PD: The funny thing about it is, the cast of Dallas—with the exception of Linda, she absolutely knew who shot J.R. because she had to do a voice-over the previous season—but none of us, including Larry himself, knew who shot J.R. We were the last people in the country to know because Lorimar very astutely staged a big celebration party at a restaurant that now no longer exists, called Chasen’s, in Los Angeles. They booked the entire restaurant, they had security, they had everything, and they put some big-screen televisions in there. We all went for dinner and dancing, and then we were going to watch a taped version of the cliffhanger resolution of “who shot J.R.?” Everybody on the East Coast knew because New York got it three hours earlier. West knew; it had aired in Los Angeles. We probably started watching it—after dinner and drinking and dancing and everything—we probably started watching it around 10 o’clock. We were the last 12 people in the world to know who shot J.R.
AVC: It could have been any of you, the way they set it up.
PD: It could have been, but in reality, we all assumed that—by today’s standards, it could be anybody—but in those days, I knew, Linda knew, Mama and Daddy knew that they weren’t going to have us shoot J.R. and have to be convicted of it. It had to be, in essence, a second-tier cast member. We felt that our contract was going to continue.
AVC: Mary Crosby was a pretty good bet because she probably was not going to be on the show that long.
PD: She was on the short list, for sure. We made the cover of Time magazine. I’ve heard stories of people flying coast to coast and the pilot coming across and just saying three words: “Kristin did it,” and the whole plane erupts into cheering and laughing. It was the topic of conversation worldwide.
AVC: Another big iconic scene from Dallas is your reappearance in the shower. You died at the end of season eight, then reappeared at the end of season nine to Pamela after she wakes up and walks in to the bathroom, so that the entire previous season appears to have been a dream. IMDB states that your wife actually came up with the shower dream sequence.
PD: A short version of this story is: I got home, and in the old days, before cell phones, there was the answering machine. The light was blinking. I pushed the button—it was Hagman, and he said, “Hey Patrick, I want you to come out now, let’s get drunk, I want to talk to you.” I turned off the machine, I turned to my wife, and I said, “I don’t know, but I think they’re going to ask me to come back on the show.” She instantly said, “There’s no way you can return to Dallas unless all of last year was a dream.” And we laughed, ha ha, then I talked to Larry, and then they wanted me back. When I spoke to Leonard, the executive producer, that’s when he told me his idea, which was, coincidentally, the same as my wife’s. They didn’t follow her advice, but she’s just as smart as a producer.
AVC: Is it true that the scene was shot as an Irish Spring commercial, so that no one on Dallas knew you were coming back?
PD: Right, exactly. As a matter of fact, it was an entirely different crew. We didn’t use the Dallas crew at all, because somebody would have put it together. We spent an entire day with not one Dallas crew member, filming a legitimate Irish Spring commercial, just to get that one turn and, “Good morning.” That scene apparently was much earlier in the show, and when [Victoria Principal] was watching it, she said she thought they just cut it, that it was too long and they cut her scene. Then all the sudden, at the very end, there she was, getting out of bed, opens the door and—you notice, she’s never in the scene with me. That’s how they cut it together. She opened the door and you cut to just inside, and the freeze frame is, “Good morning.” I was back to work.
AVC: Were those network Olympic-style events competitive or were they just for show? Did people get really into it?
PD: [Laughs.] Yeah, we got into it, but it was friendly competitive. It’s not like the reality competitive shows today. Even Dancing With The Stars. When we were doing it, it was, “Rah rah, network!” You’d have little girls and big, hulky guys—just everybody. And everybody had fun, laughed, but when you actually got in the race or in the thing, you tried as hard as you could. The end result was: We all got paid a salary that was all the same. You didn’t get paid any more if you won. You were there to have fun. It was two days of absolute fun. Maybe I did three or four of them over the course of Dallas and Man From Atlantis. It was great fun, and you got to see people that you never get to see. I formed some very good friendships just based on those.
AVC: Any particular event or race from Battle Of The Network Stars that you remember?
PD: I remember two of them: one successful, one miserably unsuccessful. I had to run a relay race, and Howard Cosell—
AVC: He did the commentary.
PD: He was so brilliant. He had probably the most remarkable memory I can imagine. During commercial breaks, he would do a game with the audience where they would call out a college or a professional football team and a year, and he would give them the opening lineup of whatever team by memory. It was phenomenal. But in one relay race, as I looked at it later, he was doing the commentary and he was comparing me to all the great sprint runners of Olympic history as I was running, and we actually won that race.
The other one I remember is, I was winning an obstacle race and—literally 10 feet before the finish line—I tripped over my own foot and fell flat on my face. And walked. Flat on my face in front of millions of viewers. Chicken one day, feathers the next.
Love Boat, “Julie’s Wedding” (1981)—“Ralph Sutton”
Charlie’s Angels, “One Love … Two Angels” (1980)—“William Cord”
Texas (1994)—“Stephen Austin”
AVC: Did you get to go out on one of those big two-part episodes of Love Boat, where they actually went on a cruise and filmed on location?
PD: You called them the big gigs. You could do a Love Boat and never leave 20th Century Fox Studios. Or you’d get the big prize and go on a trip. We flew to Fiji, got on the boat and sailed from Fiji to Sydney. The work was absolutely easy. It required no efforts at all. You were basically there to have a good time. It was a whole cruise full of celebrity guest stars.
Then I did Charlie’s Angels for Aaron [Spelling, who also produced Love Boat]. I did a two-parter—a two-hour special where I fell in love with them and they fell in love with me, all three angels. Of course, the only way to solve that was for me to be killed. Nobody has to choose. That was great fun.
Then I turned around and—what else did I do? I did a couple of TV movies for him. One called Texas, a big epic thriller: the saga of James Michener’s Texas. [Spelling] really liked me and he was so wonderful to his actors. I was in a little motel in Del Rio, Texas, which—that was the only place you could stay and they were the tiniest, little God-awful rooms and you were there for two and a half weeks—and my phone rang one night, and it was Aaron. It wasn’t his secretary, it wasn’t anyone else, it was just Aaron: “Patrick, this is Aaron, just wanted to see how you’re doing and tell you I love the dailies.” We chatted for maybe 15, 20 minutes. He said, “You’re doing great work and thank you very much for being on the show, talk to you soon,” and hung up. And that’s what he did to everybody, not because of me—he was that way with his actors. He was wonderful.
AVC: You did a few more TV movies in the ’90s, like Danielle Steel’s Daddy with Kate Mulgrew and Lynda Carter and a young Ben Affleck.
PD: I have an 8-by-10 glossy of Ben. He asked for a picture of me, signed, so I signed a picture for him. I said, “Now you have to give me one of you,” so he took one of his pictures and he wrote longhand all across the face of it—I’ll paraphrase it, but it was this long paragraph of, “Dear Patrick, I want to give you this picture, it’s been so much fun working with you, I learned a lot, someday this picture will be worth a lot because I’m going to be a huge star and you’ll be proud to say that you were on TV with me,” and it just went on and on and on and on, and he signed it “Ben Affleck.” And I thought, now I have that picture—still, it’s a treasure of mine.
That was a lot of people’s favorite Danielle Steel movie—Daddy. That was also Lynda Carter’s first on-camera kiss.
AVC: Really? She never kissed anybody on Wonder Woman?
PD: Never kissed anybody on Wonder Woman. It was her first on-camera kiss. She was wonderful to work with. She’s such a beauty and it was a lot of fun. Plus it was very symbolic for me because I had my two sons, and although my wife and I were not divorced, obviously, we’d been together 22 years, it was an important—to me—movie of parenthood and respect and love of children.
AVC: Then you were the younger man to Rue McClanahan on Children Of The Bride, which was another TV movie with great cast chemistry.
PD: Yes, I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve really, literally, never had a bad day at work. Never had one bad experience at work. Rue was wonderful. It was truly a May-December relationship—that was the plot of the film. We didn’t try to hide the fact that there was a very large discrepancy in our age there. But it was enjoyable to do—it was fun to work with that cast, and I agree, it was a great cast.
AVC: Kristy McNichol, Jack Coleman—
PD: What was his name—I forgot his first name [Conor O’Farrell]—and the young actress who went on to do Cop Rock [Anne Bobby]. She was great, too. Again, it was a whole lot of fun. They went on and did, I think, two more movies. I didn’t end up playing the part. Ted Shackelford did.
AVC: They used another Ewing brother! He was Gary, your older brother on Dallas.
PD: Keep it in the family.
AVC: Then you switched to kind of a different genre, becoming a sitcom dad on Step By Step, which is probably one of the first times you showed that you could do comedy.
PD: It was very interesting. When I left the show Dallas the first time, after seven years—before I came back in the shower—Leonard Katzman has really been my mentor in the business, until he died. I told you he got me Dallas because he was next door to me during Man From Atlantis. We were really good friends. He was like a father to me. When I was leaving the show after seven years, he went to Tom Miller and Bob Boyett because he’d worked with them before and he said, “One of our major actors on Dallas is going to be leaving the show, and I think he would be great in a half-hour.” And Tom and Bob said, “Larry Hagman is leaving Dallas?” Because they couldn’t imagine that it was me that was doing a sitcom. And Leonard said, “No, it’s Patrick Duffy.”
The reason he did that was Larry and I never had a serious moment in 13 years except when the camera was rolling. Leonard saw that and thought that I really should be doing half-hours. So Tom and Bob actually developed with me—the year I was off Dallas—we developed a half-hour sitcom for myself. I then, of course, negotiated to go back to Dallas. So I went to Tom and Bob and had to tell them, unfortunately, I wasn’t going to be available. And they said, “Doesn’t matter—whenever you—whenever Dallas stops—come back. We want to do something with you.”
After 13 years, when Dallas was over and we knew it was getting canceled—it was similar to the Atlantis thing—you stop filming and you’re waiting for the ax to fall. There are usually a couple of months where you’re still under contract but you’ve got a pretty good feeling you’re not going to go back. During that time, I met with Tom and Bob and Bill Bickley. They developed the show, which ended up being Step By Step. When Dallas was canceled, two weeks later, I was reading Step By Step with Suzanne Somers. Back to work, doing a sitcom.
AVC: You directed episodes of that show as well, right? Like you did for the previous version of Dallas, and you recently directed an episode on the new version (“Hurt”).
PD: I did—I’m trying to figure out—I think I did almost 30 episodes of Dallas and I did almost 50—I did 49 episodes of Step By Step as a director.
I have a brain that works on two separate levels. It’s always been so. Even back to Man From Atlantis. The two sides of my brain are working at the same time whenever I’m on a set. On one side, I’m acting and I’m trying my very best to do that as well as I can. But simultaneously, I’m looking at camera angles, I’m aware of marks on the floor, I’m aware of other actors’ lines. I tend to be able to memorize a whole scene and not just my own part. I’m doubly occupied all the time. It’s a very comfortable thing for me—it almost makes me relaxed more than if I’m just concentrating on acting. So when I’m directing, it really is no different. I just have to do a bit more preparation before a scene. If I’m in the scene, there’s a part of me that—whether my name is on the director’s slate or not—I’m still thinking like a director. It’s my comfort zone. When it works, it’s a very good thing for an actor to do. If your fellow actors trust you and like you, then, I think, it’s a bit easier when that relationship is put in an actor-director mode, because they realize that you know their characters perhaps a bit better than a one-time director.
AVC: Are you and the members of that cast still close as well?
PD: We are. It was interesting because, as I told you, how close Larry and I have always been—when Dallas was canceled, I thought, well, there’s a page of my career that I’ll never have again. Larry and I knew that, pretty much, we would never work together again because everybody would just see Bobby and J.R. But I thought, okay, that was a great 13 years. I went in, the first time I met Suzanne Somers, in my mind, I truly said, “You’re my new Larry Hagman!” Suzanne and I became the best of friends for those seven years and here ever after. We are as close as Larry and I were. I don’t spend the time with her that I did with Hagman. But we still, to this day, are as close. When we talk, when we email, it’s “wife number two” and “husband number two”—how much we love each other. If we go back to work on Dallas for a new season, and she’s down there doing one of her lectures, we’ll get together and have dinner. She and I became that close. I’m as close to Christine Lakin as I would be to a daughter. Staci Keanan—I wrote a letter of recommendation for her college entrance. They’re like children. I get Father’s Day cards from them. There is that kind of closeness. If a reunion or something from Step By Step were to be offered, I can’t imagine any of us not taking up on it.
AVC: So just when you thought you would never get to work with Larry Hagman and Linda Gray again, it happened in 2012.
PD: And that was a gift. Linda and I and Larry, every minute of our life, we’re the most grateful actors. First of all, any actor should be grateful if they’re working. But to be able to get back together, the three of us, and do what was so much fun—and play the same characters again and be together under the same circumstances. We had—Linda and I—have had now three unbelievable years and we had one and a half of them with Hagman. It was the best gift a person could be given and it continues to be so. I’m dying to get back to work on the set of Dallas in season four. Or season 17, depending on how you look at it.
AVC: You and Larry Hagman were so close. Do you have a definitive Larry Hagman story?
PD: Larry and I had the kind of relationship where, every time we were together, it was fun. It was exciting. I was also there during the whole—Larry Hagman taught me how to drink, basically. He was that person. That’s the reason he had to have a liver transplant. Every morning, Larry and I would meet in his dressing room at 7 a.m. and he would open a bottle of champagne—every single morning. We’d have a glass of champagne together to toast our good fortune. Then I would stop—that would be it—but he would continue sipping his champagne for the rest of the day. Never saw him intoxicated—he never flubbed a line, he never missed a cue. He was absolutely brilliant. It was just that he operated under those circumstances perfectly.
There were a couple of times where we were filming on location in Southern California during a cattle drive or something, and he and I went out one night for dinner and ended up closing the place down at about 3 in the morning. He got back to his room and realized he had this giant monologue to say the next morning at about 7 a.m. When I went to pick him up, he was standing in front of a giant open window in his hotel room, stark naked, standing up because he knew that if he warmed up or sat down, he would fall asleep. He had spent the whole night pacing in front of the window naked in order to try to memorize this giant monologue he had. It was hilarious. It wasn’t a pretty sight!
AVC: The new version of Dallas
is extremely faithful to the show’s long history.
PD: Cynthia Cidre and Mike Robin—Cynthia, who really is the brains behind the show—if it weren’t for her writing, Linda and I would never have agreed to do it. Cynthia and Mike’s absolute respect for the history and the mythology of the show is all the way. They’re all knowledgeable people, so successful in the business. They turn around and treat the history of Dallas with such respect that it’s been humbling, actually. It makes you want to work harder for them. Two things: One is that they said, “We want you and Larry and Linda in the show, but you’re not going to be peripheral. You’re not stunt casting. We’re not going to wheel you out for the Christmas special. You will be integral to the entire plot of every episode.” And they are absolutely honest to that promise to this day.
And they’re absolutely purists when it comes to the history of the show. What has been said, what has been done, is sacred. It’s sacred. They don’t change little bits to say, “Oh, we want to do this, so let’s pretend that Ewing 43 was not the oil producing section of Southport.” No. They go back and historically verify everything. And it’s wonderful because we lived it for 13 years and now we get to relive it again.