Question: Did John Schneider and Tom Wopat play Bo and Luke Duke the whole time The Dukes of Hazzard was on? I seem to remember other actors playing the roles, too. Thank you. — Beth K., Beach Haven, N.J.
Televisionary: Not quite, Beth, though your memory of substitute stars is halfway there.
Schneider (Smallville) and Wopat played the Charger-drivin' Duke boys from the time CBS launched the show in January 1979 until the spring of 1982, when they bailed out after battling with the suits over merchandising money they said they were owed. Now, before you go thinking they were just a couple of demanding, whiney stars, be aware there was serious money involved.
"[W]e picked up the newspaper and read that [Dukes producer] Warner Communications' annual financial report stated that the company had earned $190 million in 1981 from its Dukes merchandise," Schneider told TV Guide in 1982 after walking off the set. "Tom and I said, 'Hey, wait a minute. We're supposed to be getting five percent of that and we each have received only $16,000.' It just didn't add up." So the two stars filed a $25-million suit against Warner's, claiming they'd been cheated, and stopped showing up for work. The studio promptly counter-sued for $90 million and cast Byron Cherry and Christopher Mayer as cousins Coy and Vance Duke. Then each side set about pretending they weren't sweating.
Schneider, for his part, took it a step further and pretended the chief problem wasn't money — it was the awful scripts. "Tom and I didn't leave the show because of a lousy bunch of dolls and t-shirts and toy cars," he said. "That was only the final straw. We really left because of a three-year battle about lousy scripts, a fight that's still going on with other members of the cast. This may be TV's first revolt by actors against terrible writing."
Yeah, I can sense your skepticism from here, dear reader. But I believe the claim to a point. Believe it or not, as much as it's part of a star's genetic make-up to worry about money (not that I blame them, certainly), it's also quite common for them to want more character development and opportunities to, well, act, even on a show which was pretty much built around car chases and pratfalls. So when Schneider complained that the Dukes scribes "write a few lines of dialogue, they they write 'car chase,' and they get just as much money as the people who create 60 pages of complicated dialogue for Hill Street Blues," I think he meant it.
Regardless, the show's producers undervalued their stars at the peril of their successful property. Producer Paul Picard responded to the actors' requests for more Dukes depth by telling them "we weren't exactly doing Lysistrata and that their ideas were not compatible with the show's formula." Perhaps, but the actors themselves turned out to be integral to it, even though the production team thought it was all about the General Lee and Catherine Bach's shorts (not that those two aspects of the series weren't important, mind you).
After Schneider and Wopat left, the show's audience draw fell from 37 percent to 29. It's viewership in the crucial 18-49 demo slid by more than 40 percent. And Warner's toy division reportedly lost $20 million to $30 million because of the drop in Dukes plaything sales. So nobody was really surprised in January 1983 when producers reached a settlement with the original stars, who returned to work until the show left the air in August 1985, and all litigation was dropped (along with Cherry and Mayer).
I should point out, by the way, that I can't fault the producers for assuming their show's popularity came mostly from the '69 Dodge Charger the Dukes tooled around in. At the series' peak, fans wrote more than 60,000 letters monthly, more than half of those about the car. Some even asked for an "autographed" picture (a photo with a treadmark on it.)
And it can also be argued that the General Lee was the hardest-working cast member on the show, with producers ruining an average three Chargers per episode. "Once a car has jumped, it's finished," stunt coordinator Paul Baxley said in 1982. "The shock of the impact completely destroys the structural integrity of the car, even if there's no visible damage. We don't even drive a car on the show after it's been jumped. If the shot didn't come out right the first time, we do it again with another car."
All of which, I'm betting, prompts another question: How did the producers keep coming up fresh General Lees to use? They were always on the prowl for '69 Chargers in the L.A. area, though at one point they ran so low in their stock they were reduced to leaving notes on the windshields of Chargers in supermarket parkings lots, begging owners to sell. And, as was the case with the merchandizing fight, staying flush in Chargers was a matter of numbers: Chrysler sold 85,000 of them in 1969, so there were plenty to be had.