It was 36 years ago today that the world was left with what still stands as one of TV”s greatest cliffhangers: In the March 21, 1980 episode of primetime soap Dallas, J.R. Ewing is shot twice by an unseen assailant. Viewers were left frustratedly wondering who shot the conniving oil tycoon and whether he would survive.
The whodunnit mystery had everyone guessing for a while: J.R. had a host of enemies, so there were lots of suspects.
CBS created a marketing campaign around the phrase “Who shot J.R.?” T-shirts and bumper stickers printed with the phrase and “I Shot J.R.” became a common sight over the summer. During the 1980 presidential election, Republican campaigners made buttons that read “A Democrat shot J.R.,” while Jimmy Carter told people at a fundraiser in Texas, “I came to Dallas to find out confidentially who shot J.R. If any of you could let me know that, I could finance the whole campaign this fall.” Even Queen Elizabeth II allegedly expressed curiosity about the shooter when Larry Hagman visited the U.K. that summer. “I wouldn“t say, not even for you, Your Majesty,” Hagman told her.
It wasn”t a mere four months of summer that Dallas fans had to wait for the answer to the big mystery. When the premiere was delayed due to a Screen Actors Guild strike, the wait between season 3 and 4 became over seven months long, and then the truth of who pulled the trigger wasn”t revealed until episode 4, “Who Done It?” which aired on November 21, 1980.
Other notable March 21 happenings in pop culture history:
• 1957: Tennessee Williams play Orpheus Descending premiered in New York.
• 1964: The Beach Boys” “Fun, Fun, Fun” peaked on the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 5.
• 1981: Tom Baker ended his tenure as the Fourth Doctor. He later appeared in the 50th anniversary Doctor Who special as “a humble curator” who watches over the painting of the fall of a Gallifreyan city.