TV History Blog
TV Catchphrase of the Day (6/9/11)

Who shot J.R.? Dallas (March 21, 1980).

Credit Dallas executive producer Philip Capice with devising the whole scenario and CBS promotions guru Steve Sohmer for focusing on the line “Who shot J.R.?” and ramming it down our throats during the summer of 1980.

On the March 21, 1980, episode of Dallas, an unseen gunman fired two shots into evil J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) and left him for dead. And the world couldn’t stop talking about it for eight solid months. No kidding. During the summer of 1980, there was no bigger question in America than “Who shot J.R.?” It was bigger than huge. Bigger than the end of Cheers, bigger than Carson’s final episode. The biggest thing there ever was on TV (until M*A*S*H ended). There were T-shirts (“I Shot J.R.”); there was J.R. Ewing beer; there was a “J.R. for President” campaign. And it wasn’t just in America. In Ireland, pop group T. R. Dallas had a number-one song called “Who Shot J.R.?”  Newsweek described J.R. mania as “delirium.”

But the frenzy surrounding the line came to a head when Vegas bookmaker Sonny Reizner opened a betting line that asked: “Who Shot J.R.?” Response was overwhelming as bets came in from around the globe. “It caused such a frenzy,” Reizner’s friend Larry Grossman told the L.A. Times in 2002. “He had no idea it was going to be like that. He put up these kinds of things all the time.” In the end, Nevada’s gaming board made him stop taking bets and refund the money, claiming that the producer undoubtedly knew who the shooter was all along. But they didn’t.

According to producer Leonard Katzman on the Web site, “we thought ‘what the hell,’ shoot him and we’ll figure out later who did it.” Then, on November 21, 1980, three hundred million viewers in 57 countries tuned in to the season’s fourth episode, “Who Done It?” as it was revealed that the triggerman was Ewing’s sister-in-law Kristin Shepard (Mary Crosby). Said Reizner at the time: “She was my 7-to-2 fourth choice in the odds.” In later years, the phrase was adopted by The Simpsons (“Who shot Mr. Burns?”) and, more famously, Twin Peaks (“Who killed Laura Palmer?”).

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