David Jacobs on How He Created ‘Dallas’ and ‘Knots Landing,’ and Changed Primetime TV

David Jacobs on How He Created ‘Dallas’ and ‘Knots Landing,’ and Changed Primetime TV

Imagine Dallas’ J.R. Ewing—that cackling, whisky tumbler-holding pinnacle of television villainy—not being played by Larry Hagman. It almost happened.

Before Hagman’s successful audition, the actor Robert Foxworth was offered the part of J.R., Dallas creator David Jacobs recently recalled during an interview with The Daily Beast.

It wasn’t J.R. that had percolated in Jacobs’ mind first when he created the CBS saga, which ran from 1978 to 1991. It was the character of Pam, later played by Victoria Principal—and the show’s original Romeo and Juliet storyline between her and Bobby (Patrick Duffy). “Pam wanted the house with the white picket fence. She didn’t want any of the rich Ewing fortune stuff. Their fathers were enemies. Her brother was investigating J.R.”

Foxworth, Jacobs recalled, asked the producers, “Well, why is this guy such a son of a bitch?”

Jacobs said he replied, “Well, he’s got all the power he needs. He knows this woman is not good for the family. There are people looking over his shoulder, he doesn’t want any of that.”

“Well,” Foxworth said, “why is he such a son of a bitch about it? How are you going to change him? Why is he like that? How can we change him to be more human?”

“And everybody was looking at me,” Jacobs recalled. “I said, ‘We’re not going to change him. He likes that power. He likes being J.R. Ewing. That’s it.’ I won the battle of keeping J.R. mean.”

Foxworth—who later starred as Falcon Crest patriarch Chase Gioberti—passed on the role, and then the show’s casting director, Barbara Miller, suggested Hagman. Jacobs recalled he was sitting with his back to the door when Hagman came to the audition. He saw his colleagues’ eyes flick past him. “I looked to see what they had seen,” Jacobs recalled, “and standing there, goddammit, if it wasn’t J.R. Ewing. Larry wore boots, had a Stetson in his hand, and called us all ‘Darlin.’ He dressed for that little meeting. I knew he was right for the part. We all knew. But I didn’t know he would become the show.”

In creating Dallas and Knots Landing (1979-1993), Jacobs, now 81, rewrote the rules of primetime serial drama (he does not wholly reject, but really doesn’t love the term “soap opera”). Before Dallas, there had been the TV series of Peyton Place, which had ended in 1969. But Dallas was the show whose influence can still be seen in shows like Succession, and Knots Landing’s innocuous cul-de-sac as a cover for all manner of far-fetched melodrama and bed-hopping shenanigans has been echoed in shows like Desperate Housewives and Big Little Lies.

Jacobs laughs that anyone under 30 “doesn’t know what you’re talking about” when invoking Dallas and Knots Landing, “unless they watched the shows with grandma.” All roads lead back to Dallas as a template for making the night-time drama a weekly soapy indulgence. It was Jacobs who invented this original crown prince of water-cooler TV, and you can see his influence on your favorite shows today.

Just the presence of Dallas showed that soap operas could not only work in primetime but flourish—with storylines like “Who shot JR?” (watched by 90 million Americans) and the notorious season that turned out to be a dream. After Jacobs came show runners like Stephen Bochco, who in Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law developed the primetime serial dramatic form even further, and Darren Star who sought to make soapiness younger in his ’90s playgrounds, Beverly Hills, 90210, and Melrose Place.

The show should have worked, but the way they did it made them completely dependent on old Dallas characters and kept them around too long.

David Jacobs

When this reporter asked Jacobs how he felt about Dallas’ 2012 reboot, he sighed and said, “You don’t want to go here, do you? I hated it, and it should have been so easy because all you do is flip the boys. You make J.R.’s kid the good kid, and Bobby’s kid the bad kid. You flip them, and all of a sudden you’ve got a whole new thing to play with. It makes sense J.R.’s kid would be a good kid because he wants to show the world that not all Ewings are sons of bitches like his father. And the other boy, Christopher, is adopted so he wants to show everyone that he can be just as much of a prick as any Ewing. That would have given the whole thing a new part of the canvas to play.

“Bobby’s new wife should have been a rich Black woman from Chicago. The show should have worked, but the way they did it made them completely dependent on old Dallas characters and kept them around too long. The old characters weren’t interesting, and their presence meant the show never really got the kids to run with the show. I didn’t like the material. I thought it was just a lost opportunity. People wanted to like it, but there was nothing to hold them. It just didn’t work.”

And then there is Jacobs’ favorite creation, Knots Landing—the best-written of all the first generation primetime soaps and most ignored—which Jacobs rightly thinks became “the real favorite of the audience,” and is still loved passionately by its fans and creator today.

“From 1964 to 2004 not one year went by when I didn’t have something published, or produced.”

Jacobs wasn’t a fan of soap operas when he was young, growing up in Baltimore, Maryland. He loved movies but thought he would grow up to be a visual artist. The New York-set crime show Naked City (1958-1963) was his favorite television series because it felt “so real, it had that Sidney Lumet style of realism. It was like a repertory company. Actors like Jack Warden and Martin Balsam appeared in different episodes as different characters.”

Until he reached his teenage years, Jacobs thought of himself “as if I was living in a world of my own. I had almost a mile to walk to get to the bus that would take me to school. I used to always talk out loud. I don’t know what I was talking about. I guess I was rehearsing for something. Everything.”

The young Jacobs liked elementary school, but not high school. “It took me a long time to be insulted by things I should have been insulted by earlier,” he said laughing as he recalled his English teacher asking if he had really written a piece of work. “I said, ‘yeah,’ and she sort of nodded her head. I had the feeling she didn’t quite believe me, and I didn’t realize then it was a compliment. It was too good for a fifth grader to have written. She gave me an E, which meant ‘Excellent’ then.”

Jacobs’ father was “mostly an insurance salesman,” who also owned a bar, and gambled in Vegas until Jacobs’ mother “made him get out of it and go straight. I love my father desperately. He really influenced me. I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, but I knew I didn’t want to be like him. I wanted to be like him in his character, but go to work every day which he hated. That made me ultimately take my art seriously.”

Jacobs “made the mistake” of going to an all-boys high school. “If there had been girls in the class, I would never have been so lazy and stupid.” He graduated high school in 1957, 429 out of 479 in his year. At a party for those leaving to go to college, a girl—“way out my league”—sat next to him on some swings. He told her if he went to the University of Maryland he would flunk out. She, like his mother, told him if he did that he would get drafted.

He changed his mind, and attended the Maryland Institute College of Art. “I was always one of those kids who drew a little, so I got in and all of a sudden my life changed, I learned in four years that I was never going to make it as an artist, but that’s the world I wanted to be part of.”

As soon as Jacobs graduated, he got the first train he could to New York City where he first worked as an illustrator and researcher for Grolier’s Encyclopedia. He wrote on the Bauhaus, and was put in charge of art and architecture articles. He realized he had a knack for writing for children, and explaining complex ideas easily. He co-wrote a book about the workings of a New York police precinct.

In 1963, he married his first wife, Lynn Pleshette. They had a daughter, Albyn, in 1965. After their divorce in the mid-1970s, Lynn next married the actor John Pleshette, who played the character of Richard Avery in the early seasons of Knots Landing. Lynn remains Jacobs’ agent today. (Jacobs went on to marry second wife Diana, with whom he has two children, Aaron and Molly.)

In order to be near Albyn, Jacobs moved to Los Angeles, where he began his life in television. “I had this kind of arrogance I could write my way out of anything. From 1964 to 2004 not one year went by when I didn’t have something published, or produced. And sure, I think back on it now and wondered how the hell I did it. I hope I’m very modest about what I do.”

On his arrival in L.A., Jacobs joined a writers’ group, and—armed with some short stories—began to arrange meetings. His first credit was for an episode (“The Great Wall of Chinatown”) of the crime series The Blue Knight. He recalled writing it over Labor Day weekend in 1976, and it being good enough to be made just days later. The series was canceled.

He became friends with Lorimar development executive Michael Filerman, who later became his producing partner on Knots Landing and who said that he would get writing jobs on TV shows—and so he did on the mystery crime drama Kingston: Confidential and the topically inclined ABC show Family. The latter show had a “wonderful reputation for being smart, but they were tough on writers. No one lasted more than a month, but I lasted. And I was hot. I made it on Family. It was a show about a middle-class family. It was where I belonged.”

Filerman said to Jacobs that he should come up with ideas to pitch for the new TV season. Knots Landing was his first. He saw it as his take on the television version of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, focused on four couples living in Southern California. Filerman showed him a movie called No Down Payment (1957), about yet more suburban misadventures. “It was really trashy,” recalled Jacobs. “That set the stage for Mike and my relationship. I wanted to do art. He wanted to do trash. And together we did television.”

CBS told Jacobs “they sort of liked” his Knots Landing idea, a domestic drama. “But I really think they were thinking, ‘Oy vey, that’s the last thing we need.’ They said what they really wanted was something glitzy, more of a saga, and that became Dallas. But I always felt more personally connected to Knots Landing. Still, when CBS said ‘saga,’ I thought westerns. I loved westerns. Later I said it had to be set in Texas. Sagas always happen in Texas.”

In the first draft of the Dallas script, Bobby, said Jacobs, was much more like Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, “like ‘I want to go to Vegas. I don’t want to work this weekend.’ But Patrick Duffy didn’t want to play him that way, and Bobby became much stronger as we developed him.”

J.R. was set up as Pam’s enemy. “She needed somebody to be the villain,” recalled Jacobs. “She needed an obstacle, and J.R. was it, because Bobby’s parents, Miss Ellie (Barbara Bel Geddes; and for one season Donna Reed) and Jock (Jim Davis) liked Pam.”

Another classical narrative template—Cain and Abel—was formed, as J.R. and Bobby began their seemingly endless struggle for control for Ewing Oil. As the actors settled into their roles, and as the show’s national and international viewership increased, Hagman-as-J.R. emerged as the fulcrum of the show: the reason viewers around the world tuned in to see what dastardly machinations he would unleash on poor Sue Ellen, Bobby, and Pam that week.

I didn’t realize until later how incredible it was, and how lucky I had been to have been in the right place at the right time.

David Jacobs

Jacobs recalled the draft Dallas script “evolving fast,” completing it over Thanksgiving weekend, 1977. The first episode aired on April 2, 1978.

The modern primetime soap was born, even if the early seasons of shows like Dallas and Knots Landing began as self-contained episodes.

A colleague said to Jacobs that Dallas should become a continuing drama.

“You cannot not play what happened last week,” the colleague told Jacobs. “Every week you want to resolve the situation, but not solve the problem. If somebody’s wife dies, the guy can’t be the same as he was the following week. Continuing drama is a natural genre for television, but back then they were always afraid of people watching shows out of order.”

Jacobs successfully lobbied for Dallas to become a continuing drama, and Dallas transformed into an episodic soap opera in its second and third seasons.

“I wasn’t familiar enough with TV to know how unusual it was,” Jacobs recalled. “I didn’t realize until later how incredible it was, and how lucky I had been to have been in the right place at the right time.”

It feels “good” to Jacobs to have created a character like J.R. who has passed into TV legend, Jacobs said with characteristic humility. “In public I always say creating a TV character is a collaboration between the actor and writer.” Jacobs recalled that he once wrote “He laughs” at the end of one of J.R.’s speeches at the end of an episode where he swears to never underestimate Pam ever again.

Later, he thought he had written “He smiles,” and that Hagman had turned it into a laugh, proving his point about the collaboration of writer and actor. Years later, Jacobs chuckled, he came across the original script. Jacobs had written “He laughs,” so Hagman was merely doing what was written on the page—and he had been giving him incorrect credit for years.

The women of Knots Landing led the show, but the women of Dallas—at least in the early years, with Sue Ellen drunk and gaslit to insanity, and Pam beyond-sappy—were not as instrumental. Jacobs says as the 1980s progressed, the female characters accrued more power.

Jacobs didn’t have much to do with the writing of Dallas after the first 16 episodes, although the production—led by show runner Leonard Katzman—was always very “respectful” of Jacobs. He sat in on the season storyline “bible” meetings too.

I said to Leonard, ‘He’s dead.’ So he said, ‘Well, what if it were all a dream?’

David Jacobs

CBS’ orders for episodes rose and rose from 24 to 31 episodes; the revelation of “who shot JR” in 1980 garnered a then record-breaking 90 million viewers. Jacobs said the idea for the infamous storyline came from writer Camille Marchetta saying, “Let’s just shoot the bastard.”

Jacobs had “mixed feelings” when Bobby infamously appeared from the shower, revealing the preceding season (and his death!) to have been a dream. He recalled bumping into Katzman on their office staircase one day.

“Leonard (Katzman) told me they had lost Patrick (Duffy). The next season hadn’t been that good anyway, so Patrick was coming back and Leonard said to me, ‘He doesn’t do me any good if he’s not Bobby.’

“I said to Leonard, ‘He’s dead.’ So he said, ‘Well, what if it were all a dream?’

“I said something clever, like, ‘I think the audience will resent you for the tears they had shed when Bobby died.’

“Leonard said, ‘But it doesn’t do me any good if Patrick comes back as anybody else unless he’s Bobby Ewing.’ And he was right. I thought it was not a good idea. But I don’t think it had anything to do with the decline of the show. I think the show was in decline anyway. I didn’t care for that storyline, but I didn’t care for a lot of things I have profited by. I only used to get pissed when anyone in the Dallas cast would put down Knots Landing in interviews. Then I became ferocious to the extent I could be ferocious.”

Jacobs recalled making $12,000 the year before he created Dallas, and then being able to buy a house the year after that, and building his own home the year after that. Katzman’s stewardship of the show was “terrific,” he said, although the profile writers in magazines wrote longer pieces about Jacobs, the creator. Katzman was quoted in interviews emphasizing his own authority over the show; it seemed to Jacobs that he was “defending his right to be the boss.”

ABC’s Dynasty, originally titled Oil, premiered three years after Dallas. It was glossier, more glamorous, and it also had an iconic villain: Joan Collins’ Alexis. It also featured a constantly feuding mega-rich family, whose premier business interest was oil. Jacobs said that he still jokes with Dynasty creators, his longtime friends Richard and Esther Shapiro, that he’s awaiting royalty payments from them (“They always say it’s coming”).

Both Dallas and Dynasty vied in the ratings, and became steadily more bonkers and outlandish as they did so. Dallas got a “little better with the wardrobe budget,” Jacobs concedes, “though we could never compete with what they were spending on Dynasty. I never became hooked on Dynasty.” (Jacobs had worked with the Dynasty creator Aaron Spelling on Family.)

Dallas’ decline was a natural byproduct of any long-running TV show’s aging, Jacobs says. Dallas had been on TV for 13 years when it ended—“a rare thing,” as Jacobs put it. “When the show started sinking a little, fading, it was just tired. It needed some craziness. Not crazy stories, just some outrageousness in the writing.”

One of the things that was wrong about the Dallas ending is that it wasn’t illuminating for J.R., so why do it? It should have been more radical.

David Jacobs

Jacobs still sees Linda Gray occasionally, and says he always wanted to inject her “sense of fun” into the character of Sue Ellen—indeed, early on in making the show, Jacobs and Gray would meet up at the hotel bar where cast and crew were staying to give Sue Ellen more lines at the expense of Pam. There was a “flirty edge” off camera between Gray and Patrick Duffy, which Jacobs always thought should have been played on screen.

How did Jacobs feel about how the original series of Dallas ended in 1991—with Joel Grey as the devil, showing J.R. what the rest of the Ewings’ lives would have been like without him, culminating with J.R. finally being goaded into possible suicide? (A subsequent movie proved he had not.)

“It was like It’s a Wonderful Life. I just didn’t think that worked,” said Jacobs. “I would have liked a character really having to take stock. One of the things that was wrong about the Dallas ending is that it wasn’t illuminating for J.R., so why do it? It should have been more radical or gone against the It’s a Wonderful Life idea, with J.R. not understanding what a great life he had. Or maybe he should have done another horrible thing, like kicking puppies.”

“The greatest pleasure I got out of Knots Landing was keeping it real.”

Jacobs’ heart has always been with Knots Landing. Dallas may be better known, but it was Knots that remained his most cherished child. It was also the better show. Jacobs recently spoke to Henry Winkler on the phone, the Fonz himself, who was producing a “where are they now?” kind of show, which had led to him watching a lot of Knots Landing.

“I didn’t watch it at the time. This show could run today!” Winkler told Jacobs excitedly.

The show began in 1979, and used the characters of Gary Ewing (Ted Shackelford) and wife Valene (Joan Van Ark) decamping west to begin a new life in the eponymous Californian cul-de-sac. It wasn’t much of an escape from J.R. for them, with attempted murders, affairs, double-dealing, baby kidnap, and the consistently vexatious presence of another iconic TV villain, Abby (Donna Mills).

As Dallas’ popularity picked up, CBS asked Jacobs for a spin-off. Out came the original script inspired by Scenes from a Marriage, with Gary and Val now written as the leads, and the link back to Southfork—although in an alternate reality, because while Dallas had a dream season to explain Bobby’s reappearance, Knots Landing did not.

Jacobs was now the boss of his ex-wife Lynn’s second husband, which sounds pretty soapy itself. “We were close enough friends,” Jacobs said of his relationship with John Pleshette, who played Richard in Knots Landing. “I had a big fight to get him on the show. It was just easier to be decent about things. The best, easiest way to have some things happen is not to pick fights. John is very opinionated, just like Richard. Richard was definitely John,” Jacobs laughed. “But our fights were always about the work.”

Jacobs recalled that Alec Baldwin, who played insane, abusive preacher Joshua Rush, had said in his memoir that he had been born an actor but Broadway icon Julie Harris, who played his mother Lilimae Clements on Knots, had made him professional. He had also noted that all the things the women on Knots Landing had said were things believed by Jacobs.

Jacobs agrees with this. “Knots Landing was written for women,” he said proudly—and at its heart were strong female characters: Karen (Michele Lee), Val, Abby, Laura (Constance McCashin), and later Paige (Nicollette Sheridan).

Knots Landing married really rich production values with really strong melodrama that worked in this middle-class setting. We could make a great scene out of someone putting their hair in curlers.

David Jacobs

“The greatest pleasure I got out of Knots Landing was keeping it real,” said Jacobs. “In Dallas, if a car pulled up in front of a building, there was always a parking space. Those things bothered me. In Knots Landing if someone bought a car they talked about financing it. Dallas set the stage for continuing drama. Knots Landing married really rich production values with really strong melodrama that worked in this middle-class setting. We could make a great scene out of someone putting their hair in curlers.”

Sure, this reporter said, but Knots Landing also knew how to make things crazy, such as when evil Jill (Teri Austin) tried to make Val commit suicide, or when the latter’s babies were not dead, as she presumed, but taken from her.

Jacobs was concerned with the lack of Black lead characters on the show, which his studio bosses in those days were initially resistant to. He tried to ensure that as many secondary professional characters featured in episodes were Black, until he was finally able to write a Black family on to the cul-de-sac in Season 9 (1987-8)—the Williams’, Frank (Larry Riley), Pat (Lynne Moody), and Julie (Kent Masters-King).

How and why did CBS relent, this reporter asked.

“I just did it,” said Jacobs.

He recalled speaking at an event for Knots Landing’s 200th episode, making the point, masked in a joke, that Knots Landing had lasted so long “because CBS had forgotten to cancel it. They didn’t love it the way they loved Dallas, because of the ratings.” Jacobs and his more beloved TV child were left alone to their own devices. He recalled Dallas producer Lee Rich once saying after a meeting at CBS. “They don’t care about Knots Landing.” The network kept the show on air, said Jacobs, “as part of the price of having Dallas.”

The irony of this is that Knots Landing was the better show, and deserved as much of an audience—as well as care and attention—as Dallas. As well as soapy melodrama, there was also humor. The middle-class setting made the characters feel relatable, even if their storylines were occasionally outlandish. The writing was sharp and nuanced, and its lead actors utterly inhabited their characters.

Today, it is Knots Landing that remains beloved by fans (who can feast on lovingly curated gossip and interviews at KnotsLanding.net)—and Michele Lee, Joan Van Ark, and Donna Mills still delight fans with public appearances, such as the “Stars in the House” special of last October, hosted by Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley.

Even if all the ’80s soaps became more and more loopy as their seasons wound on, Jacobs insists, “I always let Knots go its own way, and tell its own stories. We had a brilliant cast who were always willing.” He is particularly proud of the storyline which saw Abby deal with her daughter Olivia’s (Tonya Crowe) drug addiction, a storyline inspired by the 1985 TV movie Toughlove. The episode where mother insisted daughter go cold turkey was one of the best Knots Landing ever did, Jacobs thinks.

While ’80s TV was relatively sparse when it came to LGBTQ representation—the homophobia and nervousness of networks and advertisers dictated it so—Jacobs said the extremely vanilla flirtation of Laura and Ciji (Lisa Hartman) was deliberately written as a lesbian subplot. The network had been nervous about it, just as it had been resistant to Black characters—and Filerman, gay himself, had been “responsive to the network’s reluctance,” and uncomfortable about pushing the same-sex storyline, Jacobs said.

The only show Jacobs loved making as much as Knots Landing was Paradise, the ill-fated family-based western series he did afterward. One article from the early 90s, when Knots—like Dallas—was undergoing later-in-life story and character problems, says that the actors had gone to Jacobs with lists of issues and requests for changes.

Michele understood that every word that came out of Karen’s mouth was mine, me, the way I felt. Karen’s alter ego was me.

David Jacobs

When this reporter asked Jacobs if they were divas or nightmares to work with, he says emphatically, “They were absolutely not like that. They could be very protective. If Joan (Van Ark) wanted a change to something Valene was saying or doing, she would send my wife flowers, and send my kids toys. Ten minutes later the problem would be taken care of.

“Michele (Lee) would say the script was fine, there were just these one or two things. I remember once she didn’t want Karen to be dying. And two weeks later a new script would come out of that. She also knew how to handle me. We were too much alike. We were too New York, too Jewish, and we’ve always been friends.”

“Michele understood that every word that came out of Karen’s mouth was mine, me, the way I felt,” Jacobs said. “Karen’s alter ego was me. She was the one who got maddest at the political situation. She was most angry over prejudice.” Karen famously delivered “the Pollyanna speech”—a suburban cri-de-coeur about the decline of decency and community—which, Jacobs revealed, first came from the cast ad-libbing at Jacobs’ house. The scriptwriters then shaped it into the famous speech. “It came from the guts of the show,” Jacobs says.

However, he laughed, he was against the agonizingly drawn out twin babies’ kidnap storyline, saying to Richard Gollance, the scriptwriter who proposed it, and Filerman that it was too evil even for Abby to be involved in. The storyline tempered her involvement, but it was still one of the show’s most memorable storylines.

Donna Mills was nothing like Abby, Jacobs says. “She really was the easiest person to work with, along with Julie Harris.” Her arrival in Knots Landing was deliberately delayed until season two, and planned as a surprise to audiences not expecting a Volvo-driving mom of two to become the show’s chief antagonist.

Jacobs recalled he had first seen Mills on screen one cold winter while staying alone at a friends’ place in the Hamptons.

The local cinema had a double feature for a dollar on Monday nights; and so it was that he saw Mills playing Toby, Clint Eastwood’s very nice artist girlfriend in Play Misty for Me (also starring Jessica Walter, who died on Wednesday, aged 80, as the psychotic Evelyn). Jacobs said Mills was his “dream shiksa,” and couldn’t get her out of his head. At Mills’ Knots Landing farewell lunch, he said that if anyone had told him just a few years later they would be working together, he would not have believed them.

It was never easy when stars like Mills left the show. The very presence of Don Murray (Sid Fairgate) and Julie Harris ensured a “well-behaved and professional set,” recalled Jacobs. When Murray asked to leave the show to do movies, it took two men to replace him, said Jacobs—Kevin Dobson as Mack MacKenzie, Karen’s second husband, and William Devane as Greg Sumner, cigar-chomping business tycoon; the former for his butchness and the latter for his gravitas.

As the years went on, the network kept seeking budget cuts, and so much-loved stars—like McCashin as Laura—left the show, leaving Jacobs with the task of “amputating” parts of the show to save the whole. He knew the show was in trouble when the female store and restaurant workers near the studio stopped interrogating him and excitedly critiquing the previous night’s outrageous plot developments.

I like to think Knots Landing would have evolved into Big Little Lies. I thought that was just fabulous.

David Jacobs

The Knots Landing finale, with the central characters reuniting in the cul-de-sac with the villainous Abby noting it’s “just like old times,” felt “a little too understated” to Jacobs. “I would like it to have been more dramatic.”

“I like to think Knots Landing would have evolved into Big Little Lies,” Jacobs said. “I thought that show was just fabulous.” Jacobs also enjoys watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and The Queen’s Gambit, in which he was particularly struck by the relationship of Beth (Anya Taylor-Joy) and her adoptive mother (Alma, played by Marielle Heller): “I’ve never done a mother-daughter relationship on TV done so well.”

Jacobs laughed that since retiring 20 years ago, he had repeatedly said Dallas and Knots Landing had changed the format of primetime drama.

He noted that Bochco’s Hill Street Blues was scheduled against Knots on Thursdays at 10 p.m. “It became everybody’s darling,” Jacobs recalled. “The first couple of years, I always won the numbers and he would win the Emmys. And of course, Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law also reinvented the form. Stephen Bochco and I once did a panel. He said all TV shows were cop shows. And I said, ‘That’s funny. I always say all TV shows are family shows.’ And he said, ‘Same thing.’”

“I think the middle class is the most interesting class.”

So, Jacobs’ true devotion was to Knots Landing rather than Dallas? “Absolutely. I have very middle class… I don’t want to say values, but tastes and ambitions. I think the middle class is the most interesting class. Do you know what show I like now? Succession, it’s a really great drama, but I don’t want to be in that world. Knots Landing has that same middle-class footing I have. I used to get pissed off in the early days of Dallas when Bobby would go to the bank and ask for $300 million.”

A colleague once joked to Jacobs that she was going to pretend to be him, or someone “who never doesn’t want to come to work.” It was good to hear, but not entirely true, he said. He left television because he found himself having to worry about things he had never had to worry about before, like budgets. “It just wasn’t fun anymore,” he said. “What was right for me, what stirred my juices, wasn’t there anymore.”

I have no doubts, I have never had doubts. I never regret anything. I never plan anything. I never had any goals, but it’s worked out.

David Jacobs

Jacobs is proud to have two television hits and to have made 57 episodes of Paradise as his swan song. “One of the reasons I walked away was because I didn’t want to do the same thing over and over again. I have no doubts, I have never had doubts. I never regret anything. I never plan anything. I never had any goals, but it’s worked out.”

There is also a David Jacobs show we have never seen. He first pitched The Last Island in 1977, featuring a place “like Nantucket or East Hampton.” The show opens the week before Labor Day, and by the end of the pilot, the island inhabitants have no contact with the outside world. “It becomes both utopia and the end of the world. They have to create an entirely new society. All the parts felt right, and the pandemic has made me think again about how things change and don’t change.”

Jacobs almost sold the show to the BBC last year, but its producer said they could not do it because the most intriguing thing about the show—the change in society and values—“was not the same as British values.”

Jacobs said his life today, at 81, was “weird and wonderful.” He is one of a six-member “cabal” of friends whose connections date back to their teenage years in Baltimore. The group was born between 1939 and 1941. Jacobs is the oldest, and when he turned 80 in 2019 he held a birthday party for all the group. “We had a great week, it was terrific.” He is presently grieving the loss of one of the group, Bob, who died two months ago.

I’m so mad he died first. There is no time in any day that I don’t reach for the phone to call him. So that’s affected me a lot. I am really grieving.

David Jacobs

A few years ago, Jacobs thought he had Alzheimer’s; his father suffered from it, and his sister has it. The tests revealed nothing was wrong, but a heart test revealed he needed to have an aortic valve replaced. He had the operation, and recovered fast, and was soon able to drive. Bob had seemed to have survived the cancer he had fought, and needed the same aortic valve replacement, and—encouraged by Jacobs’ recovery—had the same surgery.

“Of all those people who I know who are not related to me by blood, I loved Bob,” said Jacobs. “We were always friends, right to the end. I’m so mad he died first. There is no time in any day that I don’t reach for the phone to call him. So that’s affected me a lot. I am really grieving. I never grieved before, you know. I have lost aunts, uncles, and parents—but they’re supposed to die, you’re conditioned for it. But I can’t stand this. I hate it.”

Jacobs says he has lost a few friends in recent times, like Bob, Michael Filerman, and Lee Rich. “At least Mike had the good grace to be older than me,” Jacobs said. It hasn’t affected how he sees his own mortality. “I know I’m going to die. Since losing Bob, I realize the thing I dread is other people dying. I don’t want any of the other guys to die, but I have to put up with that.” He cherishes his wife, his children, and grandchildren (one in Sherman Oaks, one in London; both born when he was 72), and his friendship with Lynn.

Is Jacobs still proprietary when it comes to Dallas and Knots Landing? “I’m much more protective of Knots Landing. It needed more protection because it was ignored. However, that’s changing, and in fact you see a lot of Knots Landing now.” Jacobs paused, and chuckled softly. “I still feel they’re both mine. I’m their dad.”

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