Not before — and scarcely since — has television created a pop culture phenomenon on the level of CBS’ classic prime-time soap Dallas, which ruled Friday nights around the globe and, in many ways, epitomized and perfectly encapsulated the American ethos of the 1980s for much of its unprecedented thirteen-season run. (Indeed, at its delirious peak in the early part of the decade, some ninety million viewers sat glued to their television sets captivated by the scandalous exploits of the Ewing family and their friends and foes, and salivating over the ever-churning plot’s next wickedly delicious twist.)

Only two cast members stayed aboard the Dallas express for the entirety of its run: Larry Hagman, whose dastardly, devilishly charming oilman J.R. Ewing would become an instant classic television character; and Ken Kercheval, who, as J.R.’s ever-embattled bitter rival Cliff Barnes, often gave the audience someone with whom they could relate amidst the larger-than-life backstabbing and brilliant chicanery. And as brought to life by two astoundingly fine actors, the fabulously frothy feud between J.R. and Cliff helped lure the audience back to Southfork week after torturous week.

After a two-decade hiatus, TNT has commissioned a ten-episode reboot — or, as Dallas principals prefer to call it, a “continuation” — of the classic series, which premiered last week to stellar ratings and uncommonly glowing critical notices. And though the updated Dallas now focuses primarily on the impossibly gorgeous (natch!) Ewing offspring, Kercheval — who returns as Cliff in episode three, airing this week — advised me when we spoke by telephone recently not to count out the so-called “old guard” quite yet.

BRANDON’S BUZZ: For the five people out there who never saw the original Dallas, or who have slept in the past twenty years, give us a quick primer on the hows and whys of Cliff Barnes.

KEN KERCHEVAL: He’s a nice guy. He’s a real nice guy, Cliff. People would say I was a bad guy, but I’ve always contended that if it weren’t for J.R. and all of his devious ways, Cliff wouldn’t have to — Cliff only defends himself as best he can. I just [never saw] Cliff as a bad guy. But then again, I don’t know; with this new show, I’m not so sure I’ll [still] be able to say that.

You know, I heard – I think it was Linda Gray — say that when she was back on set, it was only as if she had worked with everyone just six months ago or so — did you find that to be the case as well?

Oh yeah. Yep, it was almost like we had had a holiday, a Christmas vacation, and then came back to work. Seriously!

And how did you get involved with this new version? Did they reach out to you, did you approach them. . . ?

Well, everybody kept asking me, “Are you gonna be in that new Dallas?” And I said, “I don’t know!” Because I hadn’t heard anything. And everybody [would say], “Oh, come on, they can’t do it without you!” And I would say, “You know what — yes they can!” [Laughs] But then, it was kinda late in the game, and I got a call from Cynthia Cidre, the producer/writer, and we met for lunch, and she said, “It was always a given that you would be in it!” And I said, “Well, hell, that’s nice to know!” It seemed like everybody knew except me!

And was it an immediate yes for you, or did you need to think on it for a bit?

I said, “Wait, I have to check out my schedule, because I promised my neighbor that I would watch him take the garbage out….” [Laughs] No, I said, “Sure!” Of course I said sure!

You know, my sense of you is that you very much had a love/hate relationship with Cliff — not necessarily in terms of being an actor playing that character, because what a great character to play, but in terms of being an actor and having to wear the same shoes, so to speak, for thirteen years straight — is there even a shred of accuracy to that idea?

Well, the thing of it is, there was always a continuing storyline, a new storyline. There was always something new, so it never got boring. I [also] tried to vary the character of Cliff as much as I could. I would just do any damn thing that came to my mind, because I didn’t want to get stereotyped as Cliff. There’s a tendency to get typecast with a particular character if you’ve played it for a long time, and that’s what gave me an impetus to have fun with it.

I don’t mean this to sound crass or chauvinistic, but I’m curious — talk to me about doing this without Leonard Katzman at the helm. I think it’s fair to say that the Dallas of old was something of a boys’ club — and I don’t say that with any judgment either way — but doing Dallas now in a decade that’s not the ‘80s with a woman — by all accounts, a very sharp and talented woman — at the helm — I’d love to hear how this experience is quantifiably different, if at all, from the doing the original show.

You know, when we met, [Cidre] told me that the group of writers that she hired sat down and watched every single episode of [the original show]. And I said, “My God, you’re a glutton for punishment!” But I was impressed with that, because that is really being committed. And she certainly did her homework well. I watched the [premiere last week], and I thought it was extremely well done, and really laced together right. Cynthia really, truly knows what she’s doing here.

So can you tease for us what brings Cliff back into the story? Presumably, he’s still at the helm of Ewing Oil?

Yeah: watch this Wednesday night.

Oh come on, you can’t even give me a little teaser?!

Cliff comes back rich. Very, very, very wealthy. Travels around in his own private jet. Yeah, you don’t mess with Cliff now.

Although I suspect ol’ J.R.’s still gonna at least try to get Cliff’s goat, if only for old times’ sake . . . .

You gotta watch Wednesday night!

Well, I’ll tell you something — I’ve been alive for thirty-six years and I’ve been watching and following television most of that time — I can scarcely remember a more stunning and smothering media blitz than the one that TNT has been staging for this series —- if this thing isn’t a smash hit, it certainly won’t be for lack of trying on the part of the marketing team, that’s for damn sure!

You know, we had 6.9 million viewers the other night. Of course, every time there’s a new restaurant in town, everybody flocks to it, and then six months later they’re out of business. That’s a given with any business, and television is a business, too. But there are a lot of people out there who remember the show, and I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who will be educated. It’s such a crapshoot, but I think it is going to be a success.

This has nothing to do with anything, but I saw you years ago on a television series having to do with so-called paranormal occurrences, and you told an absolutely riveting story about being with your former co-star Jim Davis [who portrayed Cliff’s father’s bitter rival Jock Ewing] on his deathbed, maybe a day or two before he passed — first of all, was that story true, or was it embellished a bit for television?

Not embellished at all.

You know, I absolutely hate getting people to repeat their stories that they’ve already told in other forums, but this is such a great story, and I suspect that a lot of Dallas fans have never heard it — would you mind sharing that story again for my readers?

In his last days, Jim had gone home, right down the street from where I live right now, and had a hospital bed set up in his bedroom. And Blanche, his wife, she was a chorus singer in New York. Anyway, they had Muzak playing in his room, and all of a sudden, Kurt Weill’s “September Song” came on, from Knickerbocker Holiday. Very famous old standard. And Blanche was on one side of the bed and I was on the other, and when the song came on, she said, “Oh wow, that was Jim’s favorite song. He used to embarrass me all the time, when we were out and when that [song] would come on, he would make me get up and sing it with the orchestra.” And I said, “Sing it to him.” And she said, “No, no. No no no.” And I stood up and started to walk out of the room, and I said, “Blanche, go ahead. Sing it to him.” And I left the bedroom, and I could hear her in there singing to him.

The following day — I was living in the Palisades at the time — and it’s not a song that you hear very often, you know? But the radio was on. And I don’t know why the heck the radio was on; I never have the radio on! But I was walking down the stairs to the bedroom, and I’ll be damned if “September Song” didn’t come on the radio. And I just stopped, halfway down the stairs.

When I heard later that Jim had died, I checked [to see] when Jim had died, and it was within about half an hour of when I heard that song.


That’s a bone-chiller, isn’t it? It just. . . happened. Something amazing.

So what’s on the horizon for Ken Kercheval, what’s coming down the pike?

Well, I’ve got to go up and get some oyster mushrooms today because I’ve got this dish that I had over in England, and [I’m making] that for dinner. That’s my immediate plan for today. And tomorrow? I don’t know, we’ll —

— cross that bridge when we get there?

Yep. [Laughs]

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