Belle Yang has been discussing King Lear lately with other Red Roomers, that epic tragedy of a dad who has some issues with his daughters. I haven't read King Lear yet nor have I seen it performed, although I hope to one day. I am familiar with the story because I read A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley and Lear inspired the book. Yet I remember another story King Lear inspired many moons ago.
Let's go back to 1977, where Jimmy Carter was in office, disco was taking off, and for the first time in years, there is hope. No more Vietnam, no more Watergate. Let's enjoy, let's relax, God knows we earned it. In Hollywood, a writer named David Jacobs was trying to sell a nighttime soap opera. Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage that was broadcast in Sweden inspired the show, and he wanted to the same thing in America, only in a suburb. They told him forget it. There hadn't been a successful nighttime soap in years, not since Peyton Place. However, if he wanted to create something, he had to make it glamorous, make the people rich, make it epic.
Okay, Jacobs thought, epic. Epic. What's epic? Then it hit him: King Lear.
He went back and read the play, and started to make notes. He started to think. Now even though I've never met Jacobs, however I can imagine him hewing on a pencil eraser, looking at a map. He might've seen one of the epic states there is, Texas. I can hear him thinking combining an epic play with an epic state. King Lear and Texas, and another epic city, Dallas.
He started to set the scene. The matriarch like King Lear had three children. Instead of daughters, he had sons. Sons that like Lear's daughters competed for their father's love. Their names would be Bobby (young and innocent like Cornelia) Gary (flawed and weak) and then the most ruthless one of all, John Ross the second, known as J.R. Instead of Lear, this king would have the name of John Ross Ewing the first, Jock as a nickname. This king would have a queen, a queen who would go by the name of Miss Ellie. Instead of Great Britain, their kingdom was Southfork, a large sprawling ranch outside of Dallas, and Ewing Oil, a company grown from the American Dream.
He presented the idea to CBS and threw in extra ideas: A Romeo/Juliet love affair, an ambitious attorney wanting to bring the family down. He didn't mention the King Lear inspiration. If these guys didn't get Bergman, they weren't going to get Shakespere. Besides, the only Lear these guys knew was Norman Lear. Now this idea CBS liked. It had drama, sex, and bad guys. Dallas, the show inspired by King Lear, made its debut in April, 1978.
Instead of Lawrence Oliver as Lear, we had Jim Davis in the king role as Jock Ewing. Jim Davis had done mostly westerns back in the 40's, and instead of saying monologues of how his daughters betrayed him, Jock was most likely to say, "Get out of here before I kill ya" or "You aren't given power. You take it." Davis had a John Wayne feel about him; when he talked, he meant business, and don't get in his way.
Barbara Bel Geddes was his queen, his Miss Ellie, who once dressed down a reporter so much he couldn't run fast enough to get away with her. Bel Geddes was the first Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and it was obvious that the character Big Mama inspired Bel Geddes' portrayal of Miss Ellie in that play; wanting the best for her husband, trying not to see the flaws in her children.
The middle son Gary had run away years before, so there was only Bobby played by Patrick Duffy, and J.R., played by Larry Hagman. Patrick Duffy did his best with Bobby, but although Bobby was the good son, let's face it, there's not many layers there. No, the layers were with J.R., the eldest son, the good old boy played by Larry Hagman. Be it wheeling and dealing in the boardroom or seducing a woman, Hagman portrayed J.R. with a ruthless streak, to get what he wants, no matter what. Yet when I see the episodes now I also catch at times a vulnerability in Hagman's performance as well. When Jock was on trial for murder, J.R. had to testify against him as a hostile witness. When he left the courtroom, he closes his eyes and rubs them for a moment, then looks away. He looks ashamed, scared. No longer is he the president of a company, a man who is sleeping with his wife's sister, a man who could destroy lives before breakfast. This was a man who still was a boy, who still at forty-something called his father Daddy, and thought what have I done, I sold him out, I don't know what I'm going to do.
Hagman showed the vulnerability again two years later. Jim Davis had died months before of lung cancer, and the show decided that Jock should die in a helicopter crash. After Jock's sons try to find him but realize he is gone, they go tell Miss Ellie. J.R. steps outside for a moment. There was no music. The only sounds were crickets chirping in the night. He digs in his pocket and looks at Jock's medallion that they found in the bottom of a river. He looked right in the camera with tears in his eyes. He laughs for a moment, then he looks up in the sky, holding the medallion, thinking I don't know what I'm going to do without you. I don't. Maybe this sounds corny, maybe I'm reading too much in the acting style of Larry Hagman, but if aspiring actors needed scenes to watch to understand body language, I recommend those two scenes.
Of course, Dallas became a monster hit. A year after its debut CBS asked David Jacobs could somehow create a spin-off. Why yes, he told them, and he dusted off his Bergman inspired show, put Gary Ewing in it remarrying his childhood love Valene Ewing, and Knots Landing was born. Now that I know what inspired the shows, I get a kick that one night America was watching a show inspired by Ingmar Bergman, and the next night a show inspired by King Lear.
I don't know what Shakespere would've thought of Dallas. I believe he would've enjoyed the show. We always think of him as this high faultin' guy, but he might've just wanted to have a ale and wonder if Sue Ellen was going to sleep with Cliff or if Lucy was ever going to find true love. I like that idea.
Dallas left the air in 1991. A movie version was supposed to be made with John Travolta, but has been postponed indefinitely. I like to have a Shakespearean trope of actors with him. I would love to see Joan Plowright as Miss Ellie, or Ian McKellen as Jock. I like people to realize that you might snub your noses at soap opera, but look where it started. It started with King Lear, all those years ago. There are no new stories under the sun. It's just how you tell it that's different.
Causes Jennifer Gibbons Supports
Gilda's Club, Greenpeace, Rosie's Broadway Kids,Westwind Foster Family Agency, Amber Brown Fund, Linda Duncan Fund for Contra Costa Libraries