The Baron of ‘Dallas’ : Producer Reminisces on 10th Anniversary
“It was not created by me,” Leonard Katzman said. “But I really felt very strongly, from the day I started, that it was my show.”
Katzman is executive producer of “Dallas,” which celebrates its 10th anniversary at 9 tonight and is currently prime time’s longest-running entertainment series. Once the top-rated show on television, the show has dropped to No. 24 this season but still wins its Friday time slot against NBC’s “Miami Vice” and a succession of ABC comedies.
“There are college kids--18, 19 years old--who can’t remember a time before ‘Dallas,’ ” a satisfied Katzman said at his office at Lorimar Productions, surrounded by the faces of past and present cast members beaming down from photos on the walls.
He said that “Dallas” has been imitated so much--especially its season-ending cliffhangers--that America has forgotten that the show pioneered the current crop of glossy night-time soap operas.
In fact, the boom started by mistake, Katzman said. Initially, each episode was complete unto itself. Then Sue Ellen, wife of the infamous J. R. Ewing, got pregnant, and “it was the sort of thing you can’t just forget about.”
Katzman takes credit for spearheading the change to a serial format: “The audience seemed to be thrilled with the idea of a continuing story line at night.”
Now Katzman is spearheading a change back to episodic format. For the 1988-89 season, CBS and Lorimar are planning to return “Dallas” and “Falcon Crest” to self-contained stories rather than continuing ones, both to freshen the aging series and for economic reasons, including making the shows easier to sell into syndication.
“Dallas"--the saga of two feuding oil families, the Ewings and the Barneses--was created by David Jacobs, now one of the executive producers of CBS’ “Knots Landing,” which he also created. But Katzman, though soft-spoken and unfailingly polite, does not hesitate to stake his claim to its success.
“In all of television production, there is creation and there is execution,” Katzman said simply. “Creation is what gets a show on the air; execution is what keeps it on the air. I think I’ve executed the show.”
Katzman had been working in television for more than 20 years when he joined “Dallas,” having been employed in a variety of capacities on such series as “Playhouse 90,” “Route 66,” “The Wild, Wild West,” “Gunsmoke” and “Hawaii Five-O.”
In discussing his role in shaping “Dallas” and keeping it on the air for so long, it is impossible not to venture into the murky, behind-the-scenes feud in which Katzman wrested control of the series away from its original executive producer, Philip Capice.
Katzman lowered his voice a little when he talked about how he came to be executive producer, as though the ghost of Capice still haunted the halls of Lorimar. “It’s not a wonderfully pleasant story,” he said.
In brief: Katzman began as the show’s producer (he also has written and directed several episodes each season), and spent the first years of the show in constant conflict with Capice over story lines and character development. The fact that the cast came to him rather than Capice for direction was another sore point, Katzman said.
“Our show works on the premise that if anybody wants an answer to something, they come and see me,” he said. “We don’t work by committee. And that made things very, very difficult for Phil.”
Larry Hagman, who plays J. R.,confirmed that Katzman always had control of “Dallas,” if not always the title to go with it. Hagman breezily dismissed the years of conflict between Katzman and Capice: “He (Katzman) had some difficulty in that some people just got in his way, but he didn’t pay a lot of attention to them, to tell you the truth. He’s always run the show.”
After the fifth season, Katzman’s contract was up and he planned to leave but was convinced by Hagman and others on the show to stay two more seasons as a creative consultant.
Still dissatisfied, Katzman left after the seventh season, along with star Patrick Duffy, who portrayed Bobby Ewing. The next year would become the infamous “dream” season, when all the episodes became Pam Ewing’s dream in order to bring back Bobby, who had died.
About midway through that eighth season, Katzman said, Lorimar tried to persuade him to return, too, along with Duffy. As he tells it, one of Duffy’s conditions for returning to the show was that Katzman also return. And Katzman’s condition for returning was that he be given “total authority” over the show. He got it; the frustrated Capice left when his contract expired and Katzman became executive producer.
Capice could not be located for comment.
“Dallas” creator Jacobs admitted to mixed feelings about Katzman’s controlling hand. Although he praised Katzman’s ability to take charge, Jacobs admitted that if he hadn’t had “Knots Landing” and other projects to move on to, his own ego might have suffered in the process.
“Very early in the history of ‘Dallas,’ in the development, it was obvious that Leonard was taking charge,” Jacobs said. “I always sort of admired that about Leonard; I don’t know that I would have if I hadn’t had other things in the works.
“I have always felt a little distanced from ‘Dallas'--I wasn’t really involved in its evolution after the first year. But I used to think that if I had been more directly involved, it probably wouldn’t be the hit it is today.”
With total control has come responsibility for keeping “Dallas” alive. After 10 years and 276 episodes (as of tonight), Katzman said, that can be difficult.
“It’s a blessing, but it’s also similar (to the saying): ‘If I’d known I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of my body. We wouldn’t have used up all our great material. How often can Sue Ellen and J. R. split up, then come together?”
Katzman added that audiences now want what amounts to a contradiction: plenty of new plot twists, but nothing that violates their own conceptions of the characters. And adjusting to the inevitable loss of core characters--such as family patriarch Jock Ewing, written out when actor Jim Davis died in 1981--makes audiences grumpy indeed.
“The loss of Jim was terrible--it took away the one thing that made ‘Dallas’ different, the strong father figure,” Katzman said.
Katzman noted that the audience took the loss of an entire season to “the dream” rather well, however. The event, though met with derision by the critics, brought back some of the “Dallas” notoriety Katzman believes the show had lost during its previous several seasons.
Although “Dallas” will most likely never regain the national spotlight that resulted when that fateful bullet lodged in rascally J. R. in 1980’s season-ending cliffhanger, Katzman believes the imaginary world of glamour, family pride and oil money created by “Dallas” may continue to attract viewers indefinitely.
“ ‘Dallas’ has a kind of mythic quality,” Katzman said. “There are certain things the audience takes for granted about Texas--that the men are all macho and strong, that the women are all beautiful, there’s money aplenty and everybody lives on huge ranches.
“Our show is not very hip, not very with it. We don’t do voguish things, trendy things. We don’t have real-life characters. We’ve created our own fictitious city of Dallas within the city of Dallas.”