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March 23, 2005, 11:43AM

Who'll get a shot to play J.R. is Dallas movie's mystery

Reuters News Service

NEW YORK -- When hair was big, and big oil was brash and unbowed by scandal, Dallas was the world's favorite soap opera.

Now the 1980s story of the Ewing family and their Texas oil empire is coming to the big screen, updated to the present day with an all-star cast. Instead of "Who shot J.R.?" the mystery now is who will play J.R., the devious oil man with a glint in his eye and a cowboy hat setting off his business suits.

"Wealth and power, greed and corruption in Texas -- it's a very pertinent topic," screenwriter Robert Harling said in an interview shortly after turning in his script to Legally Blonde director Robert Luketic who will direct the film.

Associated Press photos
Catherine Zeta-Jones and Brad Pitt are rumored to be possible stars in plans for an upcoming Dallas movie. 

The author of Steel Magnolias, who also wrote the screenplay for the 1996 comedy The First Wives Club, has been working for 18 months on the Dallas script which takes the original characters from the pilot of the 1978-1991 series.

"It's reinventing the Ewing family as if they existed now in 2006 when the movie comes out," Harling said, explaining that he did not follow the plots developed over more than a decade in the series, though fans will recognize some things.

"In this story Bobby and Pam meet, fall in love and get married, J.R. and Sue Ellen are Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and we have the patriarch Jock and the matriarch Miss Ellie."

"These characters are outrageous -- one of things I told the studio is I'd like to do 'Dallas on acid,'" Harling said, promising humor, glamour, cliff-hangers and suspense.

He said the plot and characters were informed by such dramas as the collapse of oil giant Enron as well as by modern day celebrities such as heiress Paris Hilton.

When news of the film came out last year, Hollywood papers mentioned Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta-Jones as possible stars but Harling said he had been sworn to secrecy over who would take the roles made famous by Larry Hagman and Linda Gray.

"They really want the big, all-star, flashy, go-for-it version of the TV series," Harling said.

Speaking over lunch in New York before flying to Los Angeles to work on casting, Harling said it was a challenge to make the script attractive to "a huge all-star cast."

"You have to give them meaty roles, and in a two-hour or less film it's a challenge to give eight people meaty roles."

The concept of remaking a much-loved vintage series as a movie is hardly a new one. From Charlie's Angels to Starsky and Hutch and The Dukes of Hazzard, TV classics have been trotted out with mixed success in recent years.

Harling said the difference was that most of those films were essentially capers, expanded for the longer format.

"What's been so fascinating and challenging about Dallas is it's a serial format, so they told a story over the course of 26 hours or whatever," he said.

"It's a totally different kind of storytelling."

He is mindful of living up to the tradition of Dallas.

"It's such a beloved and well known piece of work but there's also the people that are 18 or 19 years old who don't know anything about it," he said.

"You have to tell the story in a way that reintroduces everything and also catches up all the fans who know it backwards and forwards. You can't disappoint those people but you must also thrill and excite the new people."

"There's so many great hallmarks of Dallas, things like the plot twists and the cliff hangers," he added.

Harling describes the plot as the story of a "very, very rich, powerful, dysfunctional family and their adventures in 2006 ... against this backdrop of big Texas."

He insists he has no political agenda despite the fact that Texas' most famous son these days is President George W. Bush who has a ranch in the Lone Star state.

"Texas is in the White House so you can't ignore that and it's the source of some humor," Harling said. "But the Ewings don't know the Bushes."

And what of the most famous, and mocked, plot twist in the history of soap opera -- the so-called "dream sequence" when Bobby Ewing emerged from the shower a year after he was killed off, wiping out the events of the past season as just a dream.

There will be no shower scene, Harling said. For the moment, that's all he's giving away.

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