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"Dallas: Who Shot J.R. Ewing?"

Updated: Aug 20, 2021

On November 21, 1980, 350 million people around the world tuned in to television's popular primetime drama “Dallas” to find out who shot J.R. Ewing, the character fans loved to hate. J.R. had been shot on the season-ending episode the previous March 21, which now stands as one of television's most famous cliffhangers. "Who shot J.R.?" became a popular advertising catchphrase after the show's third-season finale "A House Divided". The mystery and its catchphrase became a global phenomenon, with international odds-makers setting odds for the culprit. The mystery was not resolved until the fourth episode of the fourth season titled "Who Done It" which aired eight months later. The catchphrase has a strong legacy in pop culture and the format helped popularize the cliffhanger ending for television series.

T-shirts printed with such references as "Who Shot J.R.?" and "I Shot J.R." became common over the summer, the latter eventually being seen in the first episode of Irish sitcom Father Ted. Several media outlets held "Who shot J.R.?" contests. The media hype over the series was unprecedented and a global phenomenon. Here is a 1980 People Magazine Commercial promoting the "Who Shot J.R.' episode:

In the final scene of the 1979–80 season, J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) hears a noise outside his office, walks out to the corridor to look, and is shot twice by an unseen assailant. The episode, titled "A House Divided", was broadcast on March 21, 1980, and was written by Rena Down and directed by Leonard Katzman. Viewers had to wait all summer to learn whether J.R. would survive, and which of his many enemies was responsible.

Hagman had begun Dallas as a secondary character, but by 1980 was the star. Advised by friend Carroll O'Connor that the shooting had made him very valuable, Hagman demanded a raise. While negotiating with the actor, CBS prepared to replace him by having J.R. receive facial reconstructive surgery (despite having received the bullet in his stomach). Production for the 1980–81 season began in June 1980 without Hagman. He returned to work ten days later with a new contract that paid him $100,000 per episode and royalties from J.R. Ewing merchandise. Viewers had to wait an additional two months to find out the answer to the famous question, however, as a strike by the Writers Guild of America began in July that delayed the production of most new network shows by eight weeks. During the delay, CBS showed reruns of early Dallas episodes featuring J.R. Ewing, helping the show's many new fans better understand his character. Years later, Larry Hagman and the "Who Shot J.R." phenomenon is still remembered.

During the 1980 United States presidential election, the Republicans distributed campaign buttons that claimed "A Democrat shot J.R.", while Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter joked that he would have no problem financing his campaign if he knew who shot J.R. when Hagman was offered £100,000 during vacation in the United Kingdom for the identity of the shooter, he admitted that neither he nor anyone in the cast knew the answer.

Former president Gerald Ford unsuccessfully asked producer Leonard Katzman who the shooter was; he and Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother, were among the millions worldwide intrigued by the mystery. The crowd at the Royal Ascot yelled "J.R.! J.R.!" when Hagman arrived. Betting parlors worldwide took bets as to which one of the 10 or so principal characters had actually pulled the trigger.

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