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Patrick Duffy embraces flawed Bobby Ewing on 'Dallas'

Patrick Duffy of 'Dallas': 'We were stuck in the 1980s' TV mind-set, where the good guy had to be good'
Patrick Duffy is 'television royalty' with 'fantastic hair' — 'Dallas' executive producer Cynthia Cidre

Times and tastes have changed since "Dallas" first aired more than 30 years ago.

On TNT's reboot of "Dallas," now in its third season, Sue Ellen (Linda Gray) uses language that would never have passed the censors on the original 1978-91 CBS prime-time soap. Neither would some of the sex scenes, especially the midseason finale shocker that found John Ross (Josh Henderson), the devious son of Sue Ellen and the late J.R. Ewing, in bed with two other women.

And even good guy Bobby Ewing is no longer perfect, which suits actor Patrick Duffy just fine.

"I'm so lucky to be playing Bobby now, because he is a real human being," Duffy said from Oregon, where he and his wife of 41 years, Carlyn, have a ranch.

Thirty years ago, he said, "they had run out of what they wanted to do with that character."

In fact, Duffy left the series in 1985, and his character was killed off. However, Bobby reappeared in the 1986 season finale, in the infamous shower scene; his death was explained away as a bad dream suffered by his wife, Pam.

"We were stuck in the 1980s' TV mind-set, where the good guy had to be good," said Duffy. "It's not like television now, where we have so many flawed heroes. We have done three years of 10 and 15 episodes a season, and he has been able to fail and succeed and have relationship missteps that we never would have done in the 1980s. It is really nice to play that hero in my life at the age of 65." (The cast and crew have embraced Duffy, whom "Dallas" executive producer Cynthia Cidre finds "down to earth and very funny," adding in an e-mail interview that he is "television royalty." She called him a "very gifted actor" and added that he has "fantastic hair."

"I think the thing I have taken from him the most is his relaxed nature, ease and grace on-set," noted Jesse Metcalfe, who plays Bobby's adopted son, Christopher. "He has a great sense of humor. I am the butt of a lot of his jokes about taking myself or a scene too seriously. He is always the one to bring you back to planet Earth and bring some levity to the situation."

Duffy directed 30 episodes during the initial run of "Dallas"; he also directed 50 episodes of his 1991-98 ABC sitcom "Step by Step." He returns to the director's chair for the Sept. 1 episode of "Dallas" and hopes to do a few more next year if the show is picked up for a fourth season.

Duffy and Larry Hagman, who played series villain J.R. Ewing, were longtime friends. A few months before Hagman died in November 2012, the two appeared on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" to promote the new "Dallas," bringing the house down with their "Odd Couple" comedic banter.

"I remember Fallon saying, 'You guys are very close.' And I said, 'Oh, yes, we are so close we are about to pick out furniture.' I put my hand on Larry's knee and he gave me such a look."

Duffy acknowledged that he and Hagman had pitched a comedy to two of the major networks that was an "Odd Couple"-type relationship sitcom. But the networks, he noted, always told them, "'We can't see the two of you on camera and not see J.R. and Bobby.' We could never accept that as a reason. We had such a great concept."

The actor recently got to spread his comedic wings as Greg Poehler's father in two episodes of the NBC comedy "Welcome to Sweden." He plays a character about as far from Bobby Ewing as you can get.

"He's a rednecked Midwestern guy who doesn't understand Europe at all and thinks there's something wrong with the entire continent of Europe," said Duffy, laughing.

Though Duffy has been a fixture on television for nearly four decades, there were a lot of lean times when he and his wife first came to Los Angeles four decades ago.

"I drove a truck and was a carpenter by trade," said Duffy, who now has two grown sons and four grandchildren. "She was collecting unemployment. The [first] two years I was in Los Angeles, I probably did 400 auditions and go-sees and never got a job."

He did eventually get a five-month gig doing Shakespeare at the Old Globe in San Diego and appeared with Julie Harris in the drama "The Last of Mrs. Lincoln" on PBS.

But neither jump-started his career. Then he went in for a meeting with casting director Ruth Conforte for the role of web-footed superhero Mark Harris in NBC's "The Man From Atlantis," which was first seen in spring 1977 as a series of four pilots before becoming a series that fall. But he didn't get a call back after that brief encounter in her office.

Then fate intervened. Shortly after their meeting, Conforte was sitting in her kitchen doing some bookkeeping while watching an episode of the long-forgotten CBS detective series "Switch" in which Duffy had one line.

"She happened to look up at her kitchen TV when I walked in the scene, said my one line and walked out," said Duffy. And in that brief moment, Conforte realized that Duffy had something special.

"She said to herself that is not at all the way he came across in the meeting," noted Duffy. "I should call him back in. I am forever indebted to her."

susan.king@latimes.com

Twitter: @mymackie

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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