“Who shot J.R.?” For eight long months in 1980, this question tantalized millions of Americans. Before the era of video on demand, fans of the prime-time television series Dallas could only speculate as to which of J.R. Ewing Jr.’s enemies had pulled the trigger. And when the identity of the culprit was finally revealed Nov. 21, more than half of American households — at least 83 million people, according to CBS — tuned in.
Many at Princeton could not resist the mystery surrounding J.R.’s brush with death, notwithstanding — or perhaps because of — his malevolence. As The New York Times opined, this “Iago of Texas oilmen” was “a man so venal, so low, so mean, so diabolical that he has become an absolute delight to an estimated quarter of a billion viewers around the globe.” That Friday night, campus “TV rooms” were packed with viewers, each with a favorite suspect and, in some cases, money riding on the denouement.
In the words of The Daily Princetonian’s T. Richard Waechter Jr. ’84, “Dusty Farlow, Sue Ellen’s [J.R.’s wife’s] long-lost lover, and Kristin Shepard, J.R.’s sister-in-law and mistress, ran strong, as did Ewing archenemy Cliff Barnes. Others were sure it was Sue Ellen ... or maybe J.R.’s mother, Miss Ellie ... or maybe even brother Bobby.”
One of the biggest crowds, some 60 strong, assembled on the second floor of Charter Club, where Waechter found them “making more noise than the swing band downstairs.” They erupted with cries of satisfaction or incredulity when — spoiler alert — the perpetrator proved to be a vengeful Kristin.
The Prince itself abandoned any pretense of journalistic sangfroid, when, in the midst of electing a new chairman, Barton D. Gellman ’82, “the proceedings were interrupted by a group of wild and mildly inebriated editors shrieking, ‘It’s Kristin, it’s Kristin!’”
There would be many more cliff-hangers in Dallas’s 14-season run, but none could quite compare with the shots heard ’round the world.
John S. Weeren is founding director of Princeton Writes and a former assistant University archivist.