Larry Hagman didn't sweat the details much when it came to bringing Dallas back to television.
Signing him up for a new go-round as J.R. Ewing, TV's favorite capitalist villain, was this simple:
"They came to me with the idea, and I was a little trepidatious," Hagman says. "Then they said, 'You'll be doing it with Patrick Duffy and Linda Gray.' And I said, 'OK, done deal.'"
Then, when asked if he wanted to look at the script before making it official, "I said: 'Nope. If they're in, fine with me.'"
Many loyal viewers will have the same no-questions-asked enthusiasm when the new Dallas premieres at 8 p.m. Wednesday on TNT. After all, the presence of these three key cast members from the 1978-91 original says it all.
Hagman, Duffy (aka Bobby Ewing, J.R.'s good-guy brother) and Gray (Sue Ellen, J.R.'s ex-wife) care deeply about this show and their legacy with it. The last thing they want, the three insist, is to reunite for a pale imitation of what once was regarded as appointment television. They're confident that viewers old and new will be completely satisfied.
"I have not been disappointed with a single script -- or a scene or a page or a paragraph or a day of shooting," Duffy says. "I know that Larry and Linda and I were the biggest critics of any potential remake, of this phoenix ever rising from the ashes again, and I think we all agree that this is a good show living up to the standard of a good show."
The new Dallas is the same, but different.
The feels-like-old-times pilot episode also features pop-ins by a couple of familiar faces: Charlene Tilton (Lucy) and Steve Kanaly (Ray). But the focus then quickly and smartly shifts to a new generation of Ewings and the bad blood between cousins John Ross (J.R.'s son) and Christopher (Bobby's boy).
In the original, J.R. and Bobby often had their differences. But John Ross (played by Josh Henderson) and Christopher (Jesse Metcalfe) raise the stakes with an entirely new level of mutual contempt.
Christopher, whose noble business plans involve alternative energy, is the adopted "foundling" who still feels the need to prove he's worthy of the Ewing name. John Ross, who's scheming to drill for oil -- without permission -- on Southfork land, is bitter because he hasn't been given everything on a silver platter. There's a 2 billion-barrel reserve of quality crude underneath Southfork and an escalating war between family factions about whether to drill for it.
What's more, it seems there's additional ill will between the cousins because of a woman. Elena (Jordana Brewster) is Christopher's ex and John Ross' current.
Hagman says the goal was to make a show feels like it never left the TV airwaves, like it has been on all this time, season after season of twists and turns, "and you just haven't been watching for the past 20 years."
It didn't seem possible, but the makers of the new Dallas have pulled that trick off.
Viewers who fondly remember wanting to know who shot J.R. will savor seeing that slippery old snake back in action. He's older, that's true, but he still has that wicked gleam in his eye. Meanwhile, younger viewers, those weaned on the likes of One Tree Hill and Gossip Girl, can glom onto impossibly good-looking younger characters and enjoy their high-stakes battle for money, power, prestige and love.
Had Dallas never left the airwaves 20 years ago, had it kept endlessly running the way daytime serials often do, this is the kind of subtle changing-of-the-guard that inevitably would have happened.
That said, it's still mind-boggling to the "old guard" of Dallas that they get to resurrect the roles that gave them pop-culture immortality.
"It's surreal," Gray says. "That's the best word I can find to describe it. Most women in this industry are disposed of after a certain age. So for me to be offered this role again, this great, iconic, wonderful, complicated, dysfunctional, magical character of Sue Ellen Ewing, it's such a gift."
Adds Duffy: "The heartbreak of my professional career was when I realized that Larry and Linda and I would never work together again. We've been close friends for 35 years. But we couldn't appear on camera together in any other roles without the audience saying, 'Oh, look, a Ewing family reunion.' So the fact that the three of us get to report to work and be on camera together again is very satisfying."
Big C in Big D
How's this for a story twist? Mere months after Larry Hagman was being treated for cancer last fall, Patrick Duffy's character, Bobby, winds up as the one stricken with cancer and seeking treatment in the return episode of Dallas.
"That was very interesting to me," Hagman says, "seeing that I got sick at about the same time, only in real life. The writers must be getting inside information from my doctor somehow!"
But there's no need to worry, Hagman says. "I'm doing well right now," he says. "And just wait. Bobby gets better. These Ewing boys are hard to kill."
"That's the truth," Duffy says. "After the 'Who Shot J.R.?' story line, probably the second most iconic moment of Dallas was Bobby dying and then coming back. We're a resilient breed."
Made in Texas
The first episode of the new Dallas closes with a clandestine meeting in an iconic North Texas location. Josh Henderson, as John Ross Ewing III, conspires with a colleague on the star at midfield in Cowboys Stadium.
Granted, it's not the best place to conduct a meeting. But it's fantastic imagery. Which is why Jesse Metcalfe, who plays Christopher Ewing, admits he was a tad jealous.
"I won't deny that I had thoughts about running up the sideline, blasting into him from behind and stealing the scene for myself," Metcalfe says.
It was a scene made possible by the new show's commitment to filming in North Texas.
The original Dallas was shot mostly on California soundstages, but all 10 episodes of this version were filmed here -- and there are plenty of unique North Texas landmarks to be found throughout.
In the second episode, for example, Sue Ellen Ewing hosts a benefit at American Airlines Center. In Episode 3, Christopher Ewing is summoned to a meeting with scheming Cliff Barnes (Ken Kercheval) in one of the new downtown Dallas Omni Hotel's swankiest suites. Other one-of-a-kind North Texas locales used in the show are Neiman Marcus in downtown Dallas, the Winspear Opera House and, of course, Southfork Ranch, near Plano.
"Dallas the city is such an important character in this show," Linda Gray says. "And you can't capture the city's sense of spaciousness and expansion on a soundstage in Culver City, Calif."