'Who Shot J.R.?' Celebrates 25th Anniversary

Mike Pesca celebrates the 25th anniversary of the resolution of one of television's more memorable cliffhangers: The "Who shot J.R.?" whodunit episode of the prime-time soap opera Dallas on Nov. 21, 1980.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

`Who shot J.R.?' That question was answered 25 years ago today on the nighttime television soap "Dallas." At the time, it was the highest-rated program in television history, surpassing every Super Bowl before or since. In fact, to this day, only the last episode of "M*A*S*H" was seen by more Americans. NPR's Mike Pesca has this look back.

MIKE PESCA reporting:

It was Kristin, by the way, Kristin, J.R.'s sister-in-law and ex-lover who he impregnated and then framed for prostitution. And that, by the way, is what experts call motive.

Kristin might have given herself away as the shooter by being one of the few Americans not wearing an "I Shot J.R." T-shirt in the summer of 1980. Though the US was in the middle of a hostage crisis and presidential campaign, it was also in a `Who shot J.R.?' tizzy. J.R. Ewing pushed both Carter and Reagan off the cover of Time, and London bookies were taking bets on the identity of the would-be assassin. The writer of the revelatory episode, Loraine Despres, is still writing Southern murder stories. Her latest novel is "The Bad Behavior of Belle Cantrell." In 1980, she was the one being offered cash bribes and shady deals.

Ms. LORAINE DESPRES (Former "Dallas" Writer): I was taking an exercise class in a private home and my teacher's husband was kind of a thug. So he said to me, `Come into the gym.' So I went to the gym and I thought, `If he hits me, I'll tell.' Instead, he offered me $20,000. And then there was an attorney that came up to me at a party and he had this proposition that I should mortgage my house. He would fly to London, he would place bets--he told me it was perfectly legal and I had to tell him that, yeah, but it was also perfectly unethical.

PESCA: "Who Shot J.R.?" was a milestone in the history of TV hype. "Dallas" really did shoot multiple endings of the episode to trick the crew. It really was the first over-the-summer cliffhanger, now common on shows like "Lost," and it really did become national news, more so than any TV event except maybe the birth of little Ricky on "I Love Lucy." But Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular TV at Syracuse University, says that the "Who Shot J.R.?" story line was also significant in television's artistic development.

Mr. ROBERT THOMPSON (Director, Center for the Study of Popular TV): And, you know, we kind of laugh at this now, but what "Dallas" did was really made it possible for network executives to say, `Oh, we can actually have continuing stories, people will remember and will, in fact, like it.' We're at the 25th anniversary now of "Who Shot J.R.?" In January, we'll be at the 25th anniversary of "Hill Street Blues," which took that serialized thing and started to have some artistic ambitions about it. There would've been no "Sopranos" without "Hill Street Blues," and I really believe there would've probably been no "Hill Street Blues" without "Dallas."

PESCA: The day after, Nielsen reported that over 40 million households had tuned in. Several papers put Kristin on the front page as if she were an actual criminal. The AP also ran a somewhat related story that November 22nd. The headline read `Assassination Anniversary Draws Little Notice in Dallas,' and quoted one of the 25 people who attended a memorial service as saying, "People are more interested in who shot J.R. than in who shot JFK." Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

(Soundbite of "Dallas" theme music)

BRAND: Love that theme.

DAY TO DAY returns in a moment. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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