In a seemingly serene cul-de-sac in the fictional L.A. suburb of Knots Landing, middle-class couples got up to all kinds of mischief — enough to make this Dallas spinoff outlast Dallas and become one of the longest-running shows of all time. The secret to its success, says star Joan Van Ark, “goes back to [creator] David Jacobs’ phrase: ‘Dallas is about them. Knots Landing is about us.’”
Forty years after the nighttime soap began its run on December 27, 1979, Closer Weekly spoke with Michele Lee, Donna Mills, Ted Shackelford, Kevin Dobson, Don Murray and more to uncover the show’s funniest and most scandalous behind-the-scenes stories.
How it All Began
Linda Gray (Sue Ellen, Dallas): I’ve got the scoop! David Jacobs pitched Knots Landing to CBS, but he didn’t know that [CBS head] William Paley sent a memo saying, “We want something big, like Giant.” So David, who’d never been to Texas, went back and pitched Dallas, and after it was a hit they said, “Anything you want, David.”
Joan Van Ark (Valene): It was going to be a Scenes From a Marriage thing where some couples had troubles, and some were crazy in love. He said, “I want to give [Dallas’] Val and Gary Ewing their own show.” The people who were part of it included Alec Baldwin, Halle Berry….
Patrick Duffy (Bobby, Dallas): Larry Hagman and I did a few episodes for ratings, but we weren’t integral to the storyline.
Linda: I never went. I told them, “I don’t go to cul-de-sacs.” [Laughs]
Donna Mills (Abby): Knots was the This Is Us of its time. These were middle-class people with problems.
Joan: The times Knots was No. 1 in the ratings were when Val’s twins were stolen from her at birth, and when they were returned. I met Magic Johnson at a party and he went on and on about it in detail!
Michele Lee (Karen): That was my favorite arc — and when Karen had a drug addiction, at the same time Betty Ford announced her own problem. Mrs. Ford called me to meet her because I’d made a short film about Karen’s disease. She and President Ford were on their porch waving us goodbye and then we took our limo to McDonald’s! [Laughs]
Joan: My favorite cliff-hanger? When Jill [Teri Austin] forced a pound of sleeping pills down my throat because she wanted to get her claws into Gary. I raced to David’s office to say, “Is this your way of saying I’m out?”
Michele: I remember Karen was the first one to say “bitch” [on TV].
Secrets From the Set
Donna: Ted and I would be doing shower scenes and he’d always drop his towel. He thought it was really funny — he did it for years!
Ted Shackelford (Gary): I don’t think you could get away with that these days, but back then you did. That was a big shocker and great fun.
Joan: What flashed in my mind was [guest star] Ava Gardner’s first day [in 1985]. There she is without a stitch of makeup in a man’s dress shirt. We are frozen in awe, and she says, “Let’s get to work!” [Laughs]
Feuds or Friends?
Don Murray (Sid): I was told by the producers that after I left [in 1981], things were not so happy between all the cast members for a while. But they got over that.
Kevin Dobson (Mack): I never experienced any feuds, other than those days on the set where it’s like, “I don’t want to go near that one today.” But we’re all human.
Joan: I better be careful, but I know Michele or Donna mentioned some [tension]. There were a lot of storylines that involved more Donna [than] Michele, so there might’ve been some [conflicts] there.
Ted: We had our ups and downs, but ultimately, we stayed up. I mean, it was great.
Michele: Near the end of the show, they cut back money. We were doing extremely well, but everybody gets a raise every year, so they asked actors to only be on X number of shows so they didn’t have to pay them for every one. I told them I wanted to be on every show. And I’d do it for nothing.
Joan: It was never really so over-the-top that it wasn’t believable until the later years, when they ran out of storylines.
Michele: David always said the only reason we were still on is that CBS forgot we’re on television, because it was thought of as a lesser “soap opera.” But we held our own, and we often beat the competition.
Donna: Joan, Michele and I are good friends and see each other often, and we see Ted fairly often. Bill [Devane], not so much, ’cause he’s kind of a recluse out in Indio, California.
Joan: We’re genuinely connected. Ted’s my best friend — I love, love, love him. I think that’s why it lasted 14 years. There wasn’t a bad apple in the group. We became a genuine family — that’s not just lip service. It was the truth, and it still is.
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