Back in 1977, before he wrote the first episode of "Dallas," David Jacobs composed a 12-page history of his characters. It covered the origins of the fiery Ewing-Barnes feud that has fueled the CBS prime-time soap opera for eight years now: how partners Jock Ewing and Digger Barnes had a falling out during the 1930s over their oil business and their love for the same woman, Ellie Southworth.
Jacobs intended nothing more for it than background. "I always write back-story," he explains. "I just enjoy it. It's more novelistic, and it helps me to know where everyone came from."
Television success breeds spinoffs, however, and now his back-story, set 45 years before the series began, is about to come to the tube in a movie of its own, "Dallas: The Early Years."
The three-hour production, which CBS plans to broadcast March 23, will be introduced by Larry Hagman, who plays J.R. on the popular serial, but none of the show's cast appears in the film. The characters of Jock, Digger and Miss Ellie are played as young adults, while J.R., Bobby, Gary, Pam and Cliff are seen only as children.
Jacobs, who wrote the movie and was one of its executive producers, hopes it will stand on its own. Unlike the relationship machinations at the heart of the series, he describes "Dallas: The Early Years" as primarily an adventure story about wildcatters furiously scouring Texas for oil in the 1930s.
"You don't have to be a 'Dallas' watcher to enjoy it," he declared in an interview this week. "It will be augmented if you do; there are some touches there, but nothing that will go over anyone's head."
The movie is not simply a dramatization of events already discussed on the soap opera, he insists. Instead, he said, he actually developed the plot first, emphasizing the rowdy exploits of Jock and Digger in their search for the coveted "black gold." Then he went back and contoured it to conform with what already had been established in viewers' minds.
He cited as an example a third partner he had come up with to be involved with Jock and Digger in their wildcatting ventures. At first the character was to have been a friend, but he was turned into Jason Ewing after Jacobs learned that children of Jock's previously unmentioned brother had been introduced on "Dallas" two seasons back.
Jacobs didn't know such details when he embarked on the $2.5-million movie because, while his name has appeared at the beginning of 215 episodes of "Dallas" as its creator, he has not been involved with the series since its first season in 1978. He went on to create another hit serial for CBS in 1979, "Knots Landing," and has stayed with it as co-executive producer.
When executives at Lorimar, the company that makes "Dallas" for CBS, began talking about a motion picture version of the series several years ago, Jacobs suggested the "prequel" concept. The theatrical film never came to pass, but the idea survived and Lorimar sold it to the network.
Even though he hadn't been part of the evolution of "Dallas," Jacobs said he wanted to do "The Early Years" because he felt a proprietary interest in the history of the characters.
His original intention was to frame the story around the young Ellie, dramatizing how her desire to save her family's beloved Southfork ranch influenced her choice between Jock and Digger.
That remains, he noted, but eventually the film's central focus became Digger's story--how he blew his golden opportunities for wealth and love. "He's self-destructive and a slob, but he's a terrific character," the writer-producer said with a smile.
"Dallas: The Early Years" stars David Grant as Digger, Dale Midkiff as Jock, Molly Hagan as Ellie and David Wilson as Jason.
Jacobs says he deliberately went for unknowns as the leads because "I didn't want anybody bringing his own persona " to the job of portraying well-established characters.
While most of the film is set in 1933, it begins and ends in 1951--a device, Jacobs said, that allows the Ewing and Barnes children to be seen: J.R. at 15 (characteristically trying to make out with an older girl), Cliff and Gary at 7 and Bobby and Pam at 3.
Jacobs, a Baltimore native who wrote magazine articles, short stories and children's books before moving to Los Angeles in 1975, originally came up with the idea for "Knots Landing" before "Dallas." But CBS said it was looking for something else--something bigger-than-life, more like a saga. He dreamed up "Dallas" and later spun "Knots Landing" out of it.
Had he stayed with "Dallas," Jacobs said, he isn't sure it would have grown into the long-running hit it became under the guidance of producer Leonard Katzman.
" 'Knots Landing' is much more representative of my inclinations," he said. "I prefer ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, with a little less emphasis on plot. I like very flawed characters--characters who overcome their own weaknesses. The characters on 'Knots Landing' are all flawed. 'Dallas' doesn't lend itself to that--but I probably would have tried to do it anyway."
Despite the recently expressed view of some network officials that the prime-time serials are on the decline, Jacobs remains enthusiastic about the form, calling it the best way to tell stories on television.
"You get to see what happens after the curtain goes down," he said. "The story continues to evolve. That can generate excitement. You take a great 'Kojack' or 'Gunsmoke': No matter how good it was that week, it's over. There's no urgency about seeing it again next week."
He contends, however, that if the networks believe the genre is declining, they will make it a self-fulfilling prophesy. "If they say they're fading and don't order any more, then they're fading," he says.