In a nail-biting climax to the thrilling ninth season finale of Dallas on May 16, 1986, the tension reached its peak as Pamela Ewing suddenly awoke to the sound of running water. With a mix of anticipation and trepidation, she cautiously made her way towards the bathroom, her heart pounding with each step. And there, standing before her, was none other than her ex-husband, Bobby Ewing – the very same Bobby Ewing who had tragically met his demise, crushed by a speeding vehicle. The room was filled with an eerie silence as their eyes locked, and a faint smile played upon Bobby’s lips. The air was thick with suspense, leaving viewers gripping the edges of their seats, yearning for answers and desperate to uncover the secrets that had brought Bobby back from the dead.
The shower scene in question, often referred to as the “most famous since Psycho,” was a moment that left viewers utterly shocked. Its impact was so profound that even the cast, crew, and CBS executives were unaware that it had been filmed. In a swift turn of events, the scene was edited in less than an hour before its scheduled airtime. Notably, Victoria Principal, who portrayed Pam, had not even shared the set with Patrick Duffy, the actor involved in the scene. As the tension mounted, she reacted to another actor in the shower.
In a daring and bold move, the show delivered its most audacious twist yet by introducing a gripping mystery centered around the attempted murder of Larry Hagman’s iconic J.R. Ewing, which had occurred six years earlier. Over the course of the next four months, viewers were left captivated and on the edge of their seats, as they pondered the true identity of this Bobby – was he a long-lost twin, an impostor, or had the entire previous season been nothing more than a haunting nightmare? The suspense and drama unfolded, keeping audiences hooked and eagerly awaiting each new episode, desperate to uncover the truth and unravel the enigma that had been masterfully woven into the fabric of the show.
Speculating on the latter, TV Guide wrote that it was the least likely. “Besides rendering the entire past season’s episodes meaningless,” they wrote, “what a cheat that approach would be for audiences.”
During its successful run, the television series “Dallas” enjoyed unrivaled ratings dominance, a feat made possible by the television landscape of the 1980s when three major networks reigned supreme. Audiences were captivated by the show’s grandeur and opulence, reminiscent of the extravagant daytime soap operas. In a climactic moment that left viewers on the edge of their seats, Bobby Ewing, portrayed by Patrick Duffy, fell victim to a devastating hit-and-run accident in the eighth season finale that aired in May 1985. This pivotal event drew an astonishing global audience of over 300 million viewers across 80 countries, who witnessed the genuine tears shed by the cast at Bobby’s deathbed. Patrick Duffy’s character was widely beloved, especially by the show’s lead actor, Larry Hagman. The dramatic and suspenseful nature of this storyline kept viewers enthralled, eagerly anticipating what would unfold next in this captivating tale of power, wealth, and betrayal.
Duffy, however, reached a point where he believed that he had taken Bobby’s character as far as possible. Recognizing potential opportunities in the film industry, he made the bold decision to depart from the series, closing the door on any potential for his character, one of the heirs to the Ewing oil fortune, to make a return. The departure was not taken lightly, as it was depicted in a truly dramatic and suspenseful manner. In a shocking turn of events, Bobby met his demise by choking on rubber, leaving the audience in a state of disbelief. The aftermath of his death was nothing short of catastrophic for the Ewing family. As the fan site UltimateDallas.com vividly portrays, the Ewings were left in ruins, their world crumbling around them in the wake of this tragic loss:
An emotionally-numb J.R.’s only response is to angrily lash out at Sue Ellen, who had just returned from having lunch with Dusty while the Ewings were at the hospital. “Where were you Sue Ellen? While momma and everybody were cryin’ their eyes out, where the hell were you? Go back to your bottle! Go back to your cowboy! I don’t care where you go, just get out of my sight!”
Duffy’s departure coincided with a dramatic regime change unfolding behind the scenes of the show. The long-serving executive producer, Leonard Katzman, made way for Philip Capice, which caused a significant switch in dynamics. This transition left Hagman, who had a better rapport with Katzman, feeling adrift without Duffy on set. With the absence of Bobby, the beloved character, during the post-Bobby season, the series experienced a plummet in the ratings, dropping from its number one position to a concerning number seven. A network poll indicated a measurable decline in audience interest for Dallas and other shows. This decline in interest left the show’s producer and executive story editor, David Paulsen, describing the situation as the draining of the narrative steam. The absence of the warring brothers, J.R. and Bobby, who were a take on Cain and Abel, created a void and added to the overall dramatic and suspenseful tone of the show.
One day, Duffy came home to a message on his answering machine. It was from Hagman, who wanted to meet for dinner. He asked whether Duffy would be interested in returning. Duffy’s wife, Carlyn, joked that the only way that could happen was if the entire ninth season had been a dream.
Katzman—who had been reenlisted by a barnstorming Hagman—didn’t think it was so funny. Independent of Carlyn’s joke, he envisioned a scenario in which Bobby’s fatal hit-and-run would be nothing more than the result of Pam’s restless sleep. Duffy, who had appeared in a few TV movies but had otherwise not experienced the career surge he had been expecting, was agreeable to returning—if not for the creative possibilities, then for the bump in pay he’d be getting, from $40,000 to $75,000 per episode.
In April 1986, CBS announced that Duffy would be appearing on the show, but whether it would be as Bobby Ewing was still a secret. Katzman and Duffy went to a New York sound stage—the show filmed in Los Angeles—and set up a shoot they declared was a commercial for Irish Spring soap. Duffy lathered up, turned, and said, “Good morning.” Out of context, it didn’t mean much. The footage was later spliced into a reaction shot of Principal, who believed her character had just stumbled upon the dead body of her new husband, played by actor John Beck.
As the episode aired, however, the reports of Duffy’s return seemed premature. The show had already set off two bombs during its climax, seemingly expending what dramatic energy it had. It was only in the remaining 30 seconds that Principal discovered Bobby, leading to rampant speculation about who, exactly, she had found.
In interviews, Duffy and Katzman were coy about how Bobby Ewing could be revived. They eventually softened up to narrow it down to three options, all of which were shot at a cost of $25,000, one of which included Bobby surviving the car impact and recuperating in private. To throw tabloids off their trail, Katzman even had some still photos taken of Duffy in head bandages. Closer to the fall premiere, CBS took out an ad in TV Guide declaring one of the three explanations was correct, but that viewers would have to tune in to find out which one.
Airing opposite NBC’s increasingly popular Miami Vice, Dallas revealed all on September 26, 1986. Principal—who now sported slightly longer hair owing to the break in shooting—explained to Bobby that she had dreamed his death.
“Pam, what’s the matter?” Duffy asked. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
For many viewers, that may have been a better alternative. Katzman’s dream explanation essentially wiped out a year’s worth of continuity, resurrecting one actor’s character killed the year before (Jenilee Harrison, bombing victim), erasing Pam’s marriage to Beck, and eroding the audience’s faith in the show. Though Dallas lasted another four seasons, it never again captured the top slot, ceding the top nighttime soap honors to Dynasty.
Hitting the reset button seemed the logical solution at the time. For his part, Duffy remained unapologetic, calling it a “get out of jail free card” and bemoaning the fact that Bob Newhart’s sitcom, Newhart, got away with depicting its entire run as the dream of Newhart’s former character on The Bob Newhart Show. When TNT revived Dallas in 2012, it ran an ad with the cast—including a returning Duffy—in the shower, promising fans “No, you’re not dreaming.”