DALLAS, TX – On March 21, 1980, millions of people throughout the world watched multimillionaire Texas oilman J.R. (John Ross) Ewing gunned down in his office, and the phrase “who shot J.R.?” became as much a part of American culture as “who killed Kennedy?” had a generation earlier.
Millions more, on November 21, 1980, learned who the shooter was: none other than J.R.’s sister-in-law, Kristin Shepard. J.R. survived, however, and lived another 33 years, only to be gunned down once again – this time fatally – by a man named Steve Jones, simply known in most circles as “Bum.”
In an exclusive interview with The National Herald, Bum tells all about J.R. and the Ewing Family, namely, J.R.’s ex-wife, Sue Ellen, and his younger brother, Bobby.
J.R., of course, is a fictional character of the television show Dallas, which for much of its 13-year run on CBS (1978-1991) was at or near the top of the ratings.
A LEGEND RETURNS
Brilliantly played by Larry Hagman, J.R. was the oldest of Jock and (Miss) Ellie Ewing’s children – all boys – and, just like his “daddy” (which Hagman, a Fort Worth native, enunciated in flawless Texas twang), was determined to be an oilman and run the family company, Ewing Oil. The rarely-seen middle child, Gary, much like his mother, loved the land and wanted nothing to do with business. Neither Daddy Jock nor jealous brother J.R. ever saw eye-to-eye with Gary, and he left Texas for California. But youngest brother Bobby (also played spectacularly by Patrick Duffy), was no pushover. He was the apple of Jock’s eye, which made J.R. absolutely green with envy. Determined to please his father by becoming the greatest oilman in Texas, J.R. stopped at nothing to get ahead, and slept with legions of women along the way – for business, pleasure, or both – thereby driving his wife, Sue Ellen, a former Miss Texas beauty, to the bottle and to years of scorn, anger, and despair.
The show had everything going for it, hence its decade-plus run as the first and, for the most part, most compelling nighttime soap drama in television history. The episode that revealed Kristin as J.R.’s shooter (she, his wife’s sister, had been one of his numerous jilted mistresses) was the most-watched episode in television history, a record it held for 12 years until it was eclipsed by the final episode of M*A*S*H.
But Dallas was not done breaking records. Amazingly, it made history yet again in 2012, by becoming the first premier television series to return to prime time after a 21-year hiatus, and in grand fashion. Hagman brought together Duffy and Linda Gray (who plays Sue Ellen) – the three had already been the best of friends, virtually inseparable, for decades – to join the new series. The “new” Dallas, this time broadcast on TNT, far from being “an oldies tour,” perfectly blended young and veteran talent for the perfect cocktail. Now more refined and mature, like fine wine, J.R., Sue Ellen, and Bobby were the family’s elders – the new Jocks and Miss Ellies of Southfork (the Family’s famous ranch). Josh Henderson, who plays J.R.’s son, John Ross, couldn’t possibly be any more a “chip off the old block.” Henderson portrays John Ross as closely as we could imagine any son of J.R. to be. Jesse Metcalfe, in turn, plays Bobby’s son Christopher, and is every bit as gallant, noble, and courageous as his father. There are countless other notable characters that enrich the new show, not least of which Pamela Barnes Ewing, played by Julie Gonzalo, the daughter of J.R.’s lifelong nemesis Cliff Barnes, who in very Romeo and Juliette-like fashion, has married J.R.’s son John Ross.
And then, there’s Bum.
Hardly considered an important character from the onset, Bum has evolved into a very important part of the storyline. “Ol’ J.R.” finally met his demise, on March 4, 2013, as Dallas fans faced the inevitable: having said goodbye to Hagman the previous November (he died in real life), they now had to bid adieu to his larger-than-life television persona.
But Bum was no cold-blooded killer. He was J.R.’s best friend, and it was only when J.R. learned that he was dying of cancer (that is what killed Hagman), he decided not to waste his death, but to use it as an opportunity to finally outmaneuver his arch-rival, Cliff. At J.R.’s request, Bum stole Cliff’s gun and killed J.R., pinning the murder on Cliff.
Quite modestly, Kevin Page, the actor who plays Bum, told TNH that his character’s emergence was all due to unfortunate circumstances. Namely, the tragic death of Larry Hagman over Thanksgiving Weekend 2012, shortly after season one of the new Dallas ended and filming for season two was already underway. “When Larry died,” Page said, “we had to write into the storyline who killed J.R.,” and that’s when the importance of Bum’s character grew. It is hard to imagine, though, that Bum even would have had such an important role in the post-J.R. era had Page not played the character so well. “I appreciate that,” Page says, and attributes any success he had developing the character perhaps beyond its original importance to Hagman himself “who was my mentor,” and was the consummate “scene-stealer.” In fact, Hagman’s character of J.R. was also supposed to be a supporting role – the main focus of the show was that Bobby had married Cliff Barnes’ sister, Pamela, the show’s initial Romeo and Juliette plotline – but Hagman did enough with the character to turn J.R. Ewing into a television institution.
President Jimmy Carter, in fact, while campaigning for reelection in 1980, famously quipped that he’d have enough money for the campaign “if I knew who shot J.R.” Queen Elizabeth II, a huge fan of the show, upon seeing Hagman shouted “J.R.! J.R.!”
How does it feel, then, to be “the man who killed J.R. Ewing?”
“Satisfaction,” Page says with a bellowing laugh, describing how great this newfound fame is after a 30-year plus acting career (which included small roles on television shows such as Seinfeld, Baywatch, and LA Law, and movies like Robocop, and even minor roles – like a waiter and a detective – on the original Dallas). “A producer told me I would be a jeopardy question,” Page said, i.e. “he is the man who killed J.R. Ewing.” Sure enough, Page said, he learned that question indeed made it to jeopardy. Killing J.R., then, is great for “conversation at cocktail parties.”
When Hagman died in the middle of Season 2, it was a terrible shock to everyone around him – not only because they lost a dear friend – but because he was the driving force of the new Dallas, which had made a bold, fresh leap into the 21st century.
“The last scene I shot with Larry was his last scene, ever,” Page says. “We shot until 11PM, and then I went home for Thanksgiving. I remember telling my parents how great Larry looked, so it was such a shock when my agent texted me with the news about Larry. We were all shocked and upset. We loved him personally. We took that emotional energy and channeled it into rest of the season. Those were very emotional days for the actors. It was often hard to distinguish between the characters and the actors. Such an actor/character amalgam happened with Page and Bum, too, as the actor is an artist in real life, and thanks to the show’s writers, so is Bum. Though Bum, but not Page, painted the portrait of J.R. that hangs at Ewing Oil, a painting of a gusher above the bar in John Ross’ office is Page’s. “You’ll see my paintings on the show,” Page says, who specializes in a type of art called pointillism, which according to his website, kevinpage.com, “uses a combination of hand-painting techniques and robotics to create monumentally scaled oil on canvas paintings, explains page. By inculcating robotics directly into the creative process, O am able to make creations in paint that were previously impossible to bring into reality.”
It must have been especially hard on Duffy and Gray, considering they had been so close to Hagman for 35 years. Did they lose their enthusiasm for the show after his death? “You watch the show,” Page said. “Does it look to you like they lost their enthusiasm?” he added – a rhetorical question that demands an answer anyway, that answer being “certainly not!” Page says he remains truly amazed at how much they put into their roles: “they blow me away.”
Though the show is no longer the top-rated one on television as it had been in the eighties, and though ratings have dropped somewhat, as would be expected, with the death of Larry Hagman/J.R. Ewing, Page is hopeful about the show’s future, observing that nowadays, it’s not just about how many people watch the show live. A good deal of attention is paid to social media, including his own Facebook page as well as the show’s official one and various offshoots, and in that sense, “Dallas is hitting on all cylinders – I’m looking forward to Season 4” (so are we, Kevin).
Full disclosure: this interviewer could not in good conscience have a conversation with a Dallas cast member without pouring himself a glass of J.R.’s favorite drink, bourbon and branch. “I hope it’s J.R. Ewing Bourbon,” Page said, referring to a limited edition created as a tribute to the legendary character.