This Day in Entertainment History featuring JR Ewing and the TV series Dallas

JR Ewing

The date was March 21, 1980 when JR Ewing is shot on the TV show “Dallas” prompting the most famous TV finale in entertainment history.

“Who shot J.R.?” is an advertising catchphrase that American network CBS created in 1980 to promote the television series Dallas. It referred to the mystery surrounding a murder attempt against the character J.R. Ewing in “A House Divided”, the show’s third-season finale. The mystery was not resolved until the fourth episode of the fourth season, “Who Done It”, which aired eight months later.

“Who Done It?” was, at the time, the highest-rated television episode in U.S. history. It had a Nielsen rating of 53.3 and a 76% share, and it was estimated that 83 million people watched the episode, more than the number of voters in that year’s presidential election. The previous record for a TV episode had been the 1967 finale for The Fugitive. “Who Done It?” now sits second on the list, beaten in 1983 by the final episode of M*A*S*H. In 2011, Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly named “A House Divided” number one of the seven most “Unforgettable Cliff-Hangers” of prime time dramatic television. The episode was also very popular outside the United States; a session of the Turkish parliament was suspended to allow legislators a chance to get home in time to view the conclusion of the cliffhanger.

The great success of this 1980 stunt helped popularize in the United States the practice of ending a television season with a cliffhanger. The episode also inspired a novelty record by radio personality Gary Burbank which hit the Billboard Top 100 in 1980. In addition, the episode is credited with helping CNN, which began airing in June 1980, to get off the ground.

In Larry Hagman’s final episode of the 2012 sequel, Dallas, which aired on March 4, 2013, J.R. was shot again, this time fatally. In the 2013 Season 2 finale it was revealed that J.R. asked Steve “Bum” Jones to shoot him so his ‘masterpiece’ could play out, framing Cliff Barnes for his murder. The main reason he had himself killed was because doctors told J.R. that he had only days to live; he was dying from cancer. In his letter to Bobby he reveals all of this and that he wanted to die helping his family end the Ewing/Barnes feud once and for all. As J.R.’s son John Ross said “The only person that could take down J.R.—was J.R.”

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