350 million people in over 50 countries around the world waited in anticipation for November 21, 1980 to arrive; finally the answer to the catch phrase—who shot J.R.?[1]  It was the mother of all season enders for a television primetime soap opera; the original of cliffhangers that started the trend for writers from that point onward to entice viewers to come back for another season.

Larry Hagman from Soap Opera Dallas; Photo courtesy of ABC Television, Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Photo courtesy of ABC Television, Source: Wikimedia CommonsThe First Primetime Soap Opera Stars Larry Hagman

The primetime drama Dallas was considered the pioneer of today’s primetime soap operas and the series that popularized the strategy of ending a season with a cliffhanger.[1]  For eight long months households pondered the question and theorized who shot J.R. Ewing, the character from the series played by Larry Hagman.  The media coverage was widespread; no television series had ever inspired such attention.

The dramatic series Dallas was the first of its kind with serial plots that revolved around two Texas oilmen and their families.  The Ewings were a successful and wealthy family with patriarch Jock Ewing. The two Ewing brothers, J.R. and Bobby were played by Larry Hagman and Patrick Duffy respectively.  The “down-on-their luck” family was the Barnes family with Digger Barnes the patriarch and former partner of Jock Ewing. Barnes daughter Pam, played by Victoria Principal, married Bobby Ewing and linked the feuding clans. 

J.R. Ewing brilliantly played by Hagman was a greedy and conniving scoundrel and a huge womanizer.  Therefore, J.R. had many enemies and the list of possible murderers was long. Creating further buzz was the contract dispute of Larry Hagman which was finally settled, but the next obstacle to overcome was the strike initiated by the Screen Actors Guild.[1]  This meant fans had to wait longer than usual for the answer to the big question.

Catch Phrase Gains Media Coverage

During the wait, the catch phrase “who shot J.R.?” was a media blitz. Tee shirts were emblazoned with the phrase and betting parlors around the globe took bets as to who was the culprit. The question was even used in the 1980 presidential campaign when the Republicans made official badges to read “A Democrat shot J.R.”   People left work early on the day the episode was to air, ensuring that they would be home in time to watch the show. In Turkey, a session of parliament was suspended in order to allow the legislators to get home in time to view the episode.[1]

The original season ender did not involve shooting J.R. The season was initially supposed to end with the trial of Jock Ewing, accused of killing Hutch McKinney and the deathbed confession of the murder by Digger Barnes and the reveal that Pam’s real father was Hutch McKinney. However, Dallas had become widely popular and CBS was leading the ratings war.  They ordered two more episodes to close out the season.

At that point, the writers did not know how they were going to end the season. Finally writers, Camille Marchetta, Leonard Katzman, Art Lewis, and executive producer Phillip Capice came up with the idea of shooting J. R. with Capice given credit for the initial idea.  Further discussions rounded out the details of who and why.  Reportedly, Larry Hagman did not like the idea, believing it lacked imagination and had been done too many times already.[1]  Though several other ideas were considered, the producers liked the idea of shooting J.R.

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This season the answer to the catch phrase "who shot JR?" is finally answered.

Finally on November 21, fans received the answer they had waited for so long. The episode revealing the shooter had an American audience of 83 million! Of all the televisions tuned in on that night a whopping 76 percent were dialed in to Dallas and was the highest rated television episode in U.S.  history at the time.[1] Currently it still sits in third place behind the 1983 final episode of M*A*S*H and Super Bowl XLIV. Reportedly half the households in Britain tuned in to get the answer.[1]

The End is the Beginning of Primetime Soap Operas

So who did shoot J.R.?  The shooter was revealed in the fourth episode of the new season to be a former mistress who happened to be his wife’s sister, Kristin Shepard, a character played by Mary Crosby.  The success of this primetime soap opera paved the way for future shows such as Dynasty and The Desperate HousewivesStars such as Larry Hagman, Patrick Duffy, Linda Grey, Victoria Principal, and Mary Crosby who were instrumental in the shift, continued to be amazed at the furor caused by the cliffhanger plot twist.[1]  The final premiere episode of Dallas aired on May 3, 1991 after thirteen seasons.


The copyright of the article November 21, 1980 Catch Phrase Who Shot JR? is Finally Answered  is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.

Who Shot JR?

The Birth of the Cliffhanger