Two months after Larry Hagman's November 23 death, the Dallas cast past and present has assembled at the city's swanky Petroleum Club to shoot an epic, drama-filled memorial for his legendary J.R. Ewing. Among the mourners who have returned to pay their respects — or disrespects — are Cliff Barnes (Ken Kercheval), Gary and Lucy Ewing (Ted Shackelford and Charlene Tilton), Ray Krebbs (Steve Kanaly), Mandy Winger (Deborah Shelton) and Cally Harper Ewing (Cathy Podewell). On set, the late actor's spirit is still very much alive. Each morning when he passes Hagman's trailer, Patrick Duffy, who plays Bobby Ewing, knocks on his friend's door. "Not like I'm expecting him to say, 'Come in,'" Duffy says. "But just to say to Larry, 'I'm still here, pal.'" And if you believe some of Hagman's costars, he's been knocking right back.
Josh Henderson, who plays J.R.'s son John Ross, thinks the man he called Pops was behind a glitch he experienced filming a call between their characters days after Hagman's death (a strange sound came through the phone and lingered). "Even when he's not in a scene, Larry's making sure he's the center of attention," Henderson says. Linda Gray (Sue Ellen) says she's been visited by Hagman via her car radio, which has twice played Frank Sinatra's "Always," the song Hagman was singing with his daughter just before he passed. "It's like Larry's talking to me," Gray says. "I know he's going to keep coming to all of us doing weird things."
More recently, Duffy and Gray felt Hagman's spirit at their TV Guide Magazine cover shoot. "Linda and I kept joking that Larry was watching us — and he was pissed!" says Duffy. "We said, 'He thinks he should be here in this photo.' And then we looked at each other and said, 'He is here.'"
At a time when the cast and crew should have been celebrating the revived soap's success on TNT — Season 1 averaged 4.5 million viewers and was the top new cable drama of the year among adults 18-49 — instead they were reeling from the shock of Hagman's death. Then the show's writing staff, headed by exec producer Cynthia Cidre, went into overdrive reworking the second half of the season. The result: a multi-episode "Who Killed J.R.?" mystery that Cidre hopes will rival 1980's wildly popular "Who Shot J.R.?" storyline.
"We all felt having J.R. die of natural causes would have been completely inappropriate, not only to the character, but also to Larry Hagman," says Cidre, who received an OK for the plotline from Duffy as well as Hagman's son, Preston.
After weaving in the new story, Cidre and her staff were able to salvage what she estimates to be 80 to 90 percent of her original outline for the season. Hagman's final episodes (he appears in at least five) even offer a few scenes that provide unintended closure to J.R.'s tumultuous relationships with Sue Ellen and Bobby. In this week's two-hour premiere, J.R. comes to ex-wife Sue Ellen's home to express feelings for her he'd never before verbalized. A few episodes later, Bobby turns to his big brother when his wife, Ann (Brenda Strong), lands in a heap of trouble. "For the first time I can remember, Bobby has to go to the guy who knows how to get down and dirty," Duffy says. "He walks into J.R.'s bedroom and says, 'I need your help.' It's one of my all-time favorite moments."
Producers have also wisely cultivated a fresh supply of villains. Mitch Pileggi, who plays Ann's manipulative ex-husband Harris Ryland, has been upped to a series regular. Early in the season, Ryland opens his home to his diabolical mother Judith (Judith Light) and his privileged daughter Emma (Emma Bell). Pileggi describes Harris' Oedipal relationship with his mom as "about as weird and creepy as you can get," with one scene finding Judith tending to her hospital-bed-bound son with a bit too much affection.
"Their relationship is very complicated and psychologically fascinating," confirms Light, whose initial run on the show will end after the first eight episodes due to a Broadway commitment (producers hope to have her back later in the season). "This woman is extremely controlling of her son's life, deeply pained and stops at nothing to get her own way." Before long, the Ryland family's machinations will land one unlucky Ewing on trial for attempted murder.
Dallas premieres Monday, January 28 at 9/8c on TNT.
For more on the new season of Dallas, pick up this week's issue of TV Guide Magazine, on newsstands Thursday, January 24!