The late Larry Hagman as J.R. Ewing in a scene from "Dallas." (Skip Bolen, TNT )
Even though beloved octogenarian actor Larry Hagman died late last year, his iconic character J.R. Ewing will be back in trademark form for the second season of TNT's reboot of "Dallas."
With bushy eyebrows twitching, J.R. will plot his way through seven episodes with a characteristic evil smile on his face and a greedy scheme up his sleeve. And when he departs the show — an unspecified untimely death is planned to reflect the real-life passing and to celebrate a life fully lived — he'll leave behind a mighty mess.
"This is a character who will have the last laugh, no matter what," said Cynthia Cidre, the show's executive producer. "What you'll see unfold will be J.R.'s masterpiece."
For a show that specializes in melodramatic cliffhangers, secret identities, elaborate lies and family backbiting, it's tough to imagine what that will entail. But Cidre and others connected to the series said they owed Hagman a Texas-sized finale.
"Our mission is to give Larry Hagman and J.R. a proper send-off," while being careful to avoid the overly sentimental or maudlin, which wouldn't fit either the irrepressible real man or the devilish fictional oil tycoon, Cidre said.
Gone are the days when TV shows ignored an actor's departure by simply replacing him or her with a new face, said series costar Patrick Duffy. That meant addressing Hagman's unexpected death straight on and writing it into the story, a task Duffy said he didn't envy.
"We'll be dealing with the situation in a really artistically sensitive, correct way," Duffy said from the set in Dallas. "In lesser hands — more commercial hands, if you will — my fear is that it might not have been done nearly so well."
Hagman had filmed the first seven episodes of the cable hit's second season when he died Nov. 23 at a Dallas hospital. Cidre and her team had little time to re-work the rest of the 15-episode season, which launches Monday, but were able to salvage "close to 80 or 90%" of the story arcs they'd already mapped out.
While grieving the loss, Cidre and her writers figured out how J.R. would die (tragically) and how he'd be remembered (respectfully, but with a wink). The character's memorial service, filmed at the exclusive Petroleum Club atop the Chase building in downtown Dallas, will run March 11.
Faces from the series' past, including Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Ted Shackelford (Gary Ewing), Deborah Shelton (Mandy Winger) and Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), will be on hand for the funeral.
Going forward, the cast, crew and network will deal with the larger issue of how to carry on without one of the best-known characters in all of television. Hagman's charismatic bad boy J.R. helped make the drama an out-of-the-gate hit; it scored an average 4.5 million viewers in its initial summer run, according to Nielsen.
It's not unprecedented for a show to continue in the absence of one of its significant players, according to TV historian Tim Brooks, though some have collapsed without their star.
Actor and comedian Redd Foxx's last show, "The Royal Family," ended not long after the star died in the early '90s, despite the addition of then-hot sitcom actress Jackée.
But there are more examples of series that stayed on the air and thrived after sudden deaths, such as "The Sopranos," which lost the mafia mom played by Nancy Marchand early in its successful six-season run.
ABC's comedy "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter" continued for two more years after the death of star John Ritter from a heart attack. The series' supporting cast was strong, Brooks said, with Katey Sagal, James Garner and Kaley Cuoco, and the show dealt sensitively with the patriarch's death and the family's struggle in the wake of it.
Even the original version of "Dallas" faced the death of a star, Jim Davis, who'd originated the role of Jock Ewing when the show launched in 1978. As Davis' health declined several years later, the writers created stories that had Jock Ewing traveling off-camera, out of the country on business. Davis died in 1981, and the following season, Jock Ewing died in a helicopter crash.
It was once common for actors on hit shows to be replaced without explanation so the character and series could keep going. It infamously happened on the classic comedy "Bewitched," with Dick Sargent stepping in for an ailing Dick York as harried husband Darrin Stephens.
That was never an option for the new version of "Dallas," or likely for any show today that wants to keep its audience engaged. Suspension of disbelief goes only so far, after all, in a well-informed fan-obsessed environment.
J.R.'s exit from "Dallas" could be a ratings boon for the already popular series and, Brooks said, could inject some new vigor into the show and draw in younger audiences.
"It's not 'The J.R. Show,' anyway, it's 'Dallas,'" Brooks said. "If the death is handled well, it can fuel the longevity of the show."
And so no one forgets Hagman, though it's unlikely they would, the late star's Airstream trailer remains intact on the set and his name is still first on the call sheet.
"He has to be there — it's the right thing to do," said Duffy, who was close friends with Hagman for more than three decades. "'Dallas' is the show that Larry built."