How good was Dallas?

Clive James rated it the most influential show on television 30 May 2006

Clive James is one of my favourite Australians.

He presented a talk at the Octagon Theatre in the early 1980s, attended by a mid to high-brow audience which giggled audibly when he answered the following question: “What is the most important program to have been on television?” with the answer: “Dallas.”

WAS IT SIMPLY THE BEST?: THE CAST OF DALLAS (1978-1991)

The crowd – and me – thought he was joking but James explained that he had once been stranded on the tarmac of a Middle Eastern airport and was watching kids playing in the sand adjacent to the runway.

They were roughly dressed as kids playing in sand often are and one had on a t-shirt featuring the word Dallas and a likeness of J.R. Ewing.

How, James went on to ask his audience, would these kids relate to this TV show? How would their parents relate to characters who, each time they walked into a room, filled a crystal tumbler with ice and fix themselves a drink from the liquor tray?

His argument was that the all-pervasive nature of Dallas (1978-1991) to a world audience made it the most influential of TV shows.

Fast forward to today and the likelihood that Dallas is going to be made into a feature film and that John Travolta is favourite to play J.R. Ewing, played by Larry Hagman in the TV series.

Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner and Tommy Lee Jones have also been mentioned. Too stereotyped, too nice and too old would be my rating of this trio.

If there’s a role for Jock Ewing, then Tommy Lee would get my nod – he looks the kind of irascible old wildcat who would have pioneered the Texas oil industry.

Luminaries of all kinds have been mentioned as other likely co-stars: Catherine Zeta-Jones as Sue-Ellen (Linda Gray on TV); Owen Wilson as Bobby Ewing (Patrick Duffy); Reese Witherspoon as Pam Ewing (Victoria Principal) and Jane Fonda as Miss Ellie (Barbara Bel Geddes). This casting would probably cost the producers too much.

So I thought I would have a stab at my ideal cast, using actors who could be afforded.

My only concession to expense would be George Clooney, a massively under rated (but well paid) actor whose performance in the Coen Brothers’ Intolerable Cruelty was a deft display of ironic humour.

THE RIGHT J.R. EWING: GEORGE CLOONEY

George ain’t cheap but he’d be good as J.R.

The best going around in US films – Kevin Spacey – may want to dumb down his repertoire and I would hold him in reserve.

Bobby Ewing was a well-meaning wimp in the original and Ben Affleck (surely, he’d be inexpensive by now) fits the bill. If we want cheap, throw in Matthew Perry from Friends and see if we can coax a dramatic role out of him.

If they could afford him, Brad Pitt would be the logical choice as he and George seem to hit it off well and the chemistry would work but if Spacey got the gig, I couldn’t go past my other favourite Hollywood actor, Johnny Depp.

It would be just like the quirky Depp to take on such a different role and he probably wouldn’t mind being second banana in this planned remake.

Guy Pearce from LA Confidential is another outstanding actor who could play Bobby.

J.R’s prime enemy, Cliff Barnes, could be William H. Macy.

Women are different – even I’ve noticed – so you could move into a lower echelon of stars to take the roles as the high profile roles in Dallas are male, despite the women playing important second tier roles to the screenplay.

Realistically Sue-Ellen, Pam, Miss Ellie and Lucy can be second-rung feature players. Incidentally Charlene Tilton who played Lucy in the original had no neck according to James, giving him many wicked lines to trot out in his The Observer TV columns.

Finding female actors without a Gregory Peck might be difficult so let’s just go for young and fetching – and don’t suggest Paris Hilton.

Cameron Diaz fits the bill but would also come in over budget. If she plays only a small role as Lucy, let’s plump for Cameron and get her for half the normal fee.

It would be argued that J.R’s wife Sue-Ellen would be of a similar vintage so I would hire Linda Fiorentino, voted No. 66 in a poll of the world’s 100 sexiest actresses. Linda’s filmography includes Men in Black and Dogma.

If you wanted a younger woman Scream’s Neve Campbell would get my nod.

Pam was poutingly sexy and a challenge for J.R.and Bobby in the original so Toni Collette comes to mind. She is a character actor of the highest order and could adapt to all Pam’s moods with ease.

Now to Miss Ellie. The actor is J.R. and Bobby’s mum so she would have to look old but be glamorous enough to warrant a Texas oilman to have plucked her from the herd in the 1950s.

Candice Bergen is 15 years older than Clooney and is a fine actress; likewise Jill Clayburgh and she has the advantage of being 27 years older than her actor son; Sally Field is an outstanding US film performer and would give the role the edge it would need to be matriarch to such a money-hungry group of rotters.

Let’s summarise and see how close this is after the final decisions are made:

J.R. Ewing – George Clooney 1. Kevin Spacey 2.

Bobby Ewing: Johnny Depp 1. Ben Affleck 2. Guy Pearce 3. Matthew Perry 4. (To fit the salary cap, we can’t afford Brad Pitt)

Sue-Ellen: Linda Fiorentino 1. Neve Campbell 2.

Pam: Toni Collette

Lucy: Cameron Diaz

Miss Ellie: Sally Field 1. Candice Bergen 2. Jill Clayburgh 3.

Jock Ewing: Tommy Lee Jones

Cliff Barnes: William H. Macy

FOOTNOTE: Dallas was never made into a movie. A second series ran from 2012-14 but it featured the next generation of Ewings.

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