Speaking as a super fan of the former serialized drama format in primetime, there were four primary series of this nature back in the 1980s: the original Dallas on CBS, which spun-off Knots Landing; Falcon Crest, which led out of Dallas on Friday, and ABC copycat Dynasty, which managed to finish one of its original eight seasons as the top-rated show in primetime. There was nothing like those season-ending cliffhangers.
Amazingly, 40 years have passed since we met the occupants at that troubled cul-de-sac called Seaview Circle in fictional Knots Landing, California. The official launch date of Knots Landing was December 27, 1979. And what most people don’t know is that Knots Landing was actually conceived before Dallas.
“Our initial plan was more of a wholesome drama about these different families,” Michael Filerman, who produced Dallas, Knots Landing and NBC drama Sisters, once told me. “But CBS decided they wanted something flashier and more of a saga, so we came up with Dallas. When Dallas began to click, we revisited the idea of Knots Landing and decided to take black sheep son Gary and his re-bride Valene and send them off to start a new life in that cul-de-sac.”
Flash to that first episode, 40 years to this day, and youthful Gary and Val, now married for the second time, move to the cul-de-sac populated with the Fairgates: Karen (Michele Lee) and Sid (Don Murray) and their children Diana (Claudia Lonow), Eric (Steve Shaw) and Michael (Patrick Petersen); the Averys: Richard (John Pleshette), Laura (Constance McCashin) and their young son Jason; and Kenny (James Houghton) and Ginger Ward (Kim Lankford).
At the time, Karen and Sid were dealing with Sid’s troubled daughter Annie (Karen Allen) from his first marriage; Richard and Laura were dealing with Richard’s failing law practice and their strained union; and record producer Kenny was not exactly faithful to Ginger.
In other words, there was never a dull moment in that picturesque looking environment.
“Initially, we featured crossovers from Dallas to tweak interest, but once Knots Landing could stand on its own there was not as much of a need,” said Michael Filerman. “It was all about developing the characters.”
One crossover plot that ultimately turned into one of the most talked-about events on any of these dramas was the “death” of Patrick Duffy as Bobby Ewing on Dallas in 1985, who was mourned by Ted Shackelford as his TV brother on Knots Landing.
“While it all ended up being Pam’s (Victoria Principal) dream on Dallas, there was no logical explanation for Knots Landing, said Michael Filerman. “So, from that moment on we kept the two shows separate.”
Donna Mills as Abby Cunningham — the “Female J.R. Ewing”
While Knots Landing scored enough viewers to be renewed for a second season, it was not attracting the proverbial water-cooler buzz its parent series was garnering, so along came Donna Mills as cunning Abby Cunningham, Sid’s sister, in season two. Her arrival, of course, resulted in scheming and conniving, and a series of illicit affairs (including Abby’s tryst, and eventual marriage, to Val’s beloved Gary Ewing).
“We were really on fire then,” Joan Van Ark, who played Val told me for an interview in CBS Watch magazine. “But it was far from the end of Gary and Val.”
Ultimately, the pair, now divorced again, have a one-night stand; Val gets pregnant (with twins); Val decides not to tell Gary; Val is told the babies are stillborn; the babies are actually kidnapped, Gary finds out he is the father; the pair learn the babies are alive; the two tots are returned; and Val marries Ben (Douglas Sheehan) and he tries to raise the children as their father.
“My plan initially was to have Val only find one of the babies, but I was advised against that,” remembered Michael Filerman. “The viewers loved Val and wanted to see a happy ending.”
Naturally, Ben bolts when he finds out he is not the father to Betsy and Bobby; Gary’s marriage to Abby sours; Val and Gary get back together; and then there is Karen and her second husband Mack (Kevin Dobson) next door; and Laura and her new husband Greg Sumner (William Devane), who were dealing with troubles of their own.
“Despite everything going on, I think what set Knots Landing apart were these characters people could relate to,” Michele Lee told me at the Summer Television Critics Association Press Tour in 2005. “The viewers could see themselves in these people. They related to them. And we tried to be as realistic as possible despite some of the circumstances going on.”
Knots Landing never reached the same level of popularity as Dallas (which led the primetime troops for three seasons). But it actually lasted longer (14 seasons versus 13 and one-half for Dallas). And there was also talk of a revival following the return on Dallas on TNT in 2012. While that has not happened (yet), there are still 344 hour-long episodes (plus a four-hour miniseries in 1997) to revisit (should one of the endless outlets see fit to air it again).
15 things you might not know about ‘Knots Landing’
In honor of the 40th birthday of Knots Landing, here are 15 facts you may not be aware of.
1. Excluding two short occasions, Knots Landing was always scheduled in the Thursday 10 p.m. ET hour on CBS. In the fall of 1981, the network moved it up one hour, to 9 p.m., into drama Jessica Novak, starring Helen Shaver. It aired for five weeks. Then, in the fall of 1986, CBS did the same thing, this time into new medical drama Kay O’Brien. That series lasted just eight episodes and its star was Patricia Kalmber, who found greater success as Georgie Reed Whitsig on NBC’s Sisters.
2. Knots Landing replaced crime drama Barnaby Jones, starring Buddy Ebsen, which moved to Thursday at 9 p.m. for the remainder of its final season.
3. Prior to Knots Landing, Joan Van Ark and Ted Shackelford appeared together in an episode of Wonder Woman on CBS in 1978.
4. Ted Shackelford was not the first actor to play Gary Ewing. On Dallas, Gary was portrayed by David Ackroyd. When the producers were in search of another actor for the role in Knots Landing, Joan Van Ark remembered the chemistry she had Shackelford him on Wonder Woman.
5. Donna Mills and Larry Hagman (who as J.R. Ewing on Dallas was her eventual TV brother-in-law) appeared together on the 1971-72 TV sitcom The Good Life. Also featured on that series was David Wayne, who was one of the actors to play Ewing nemesis Willard Barnes on Dallas.
6. After Lisa Hartman as singer Ciji Dunne was murdered by Chip (Michael Sabatino) at the end of season four (a crime that alcoholic Gary is charged with), the network was flooded with letters from the fans to bring her back. The following season, Hartman returned as lookalike Cathy Geary (who had the same initials as Ciji Dunne).
7. Stacy Galina began on Knots Landing as Mary-Frances Sumner, the daughter of Gregory Sumner (William Devane) in season 11, and returned for the final three seasons as a new character named Kate Whitaker, Sumner’s niece. Earlier in the series, Danielle Brisbois, who we knew from All in the Family and Archie Bunker’s Place, played Mary-Frances.
8. Knots Landing was a breeding ground for up-and-coming stars including Alec Baldwin, Helen Hunt, Kristy Swanson, Marcia Cross, Joe Regalbuto, Gary Sinise, Eric Stoltz, Brian Austin Green, and Halle Berry.
9. Emily Ann Lloyd and Christian Cousins, who played Val and Gary’s children Betsy and Bobby, also appeared as siblings in TV movie A Walton Thanksgiving Reunion in 1993. Earlier, they both had roles in 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger theatrical Kindergarten Cop.
10. Kevin Dobson, who co-starred opposite Telly Savalas on CBS crime drama Kojak from 1973 to 1978, joined the cast of Knots Landing as Marion Patrick “Mack” McKenzie in the fourth season premiere (on Sept. 30, 1982). Nicollette Sheridan, who was the stepdaughter Telly Savalas, made her first appearance on the series as Paige Matheson at the end of season seven (on May 8, 1986). Eventually it was revealed that Paige was Mack’s daughter.
111. Knots Landing finished one season, 1984-85, ranked in the top 10. Dynasty topped the charts that season, with Dallas No. 2 and Falcon Crest No. 10 overall.
12. Teri Austin, who was dating Gary at one point and tormented Val because she considered her a threat, was actually the live-in girlfriend of Ted Shackelford in real life.
13. The producers temporarily shut down the series in the middle of the 13th season to retool it after William Devane and Nicollette Sheridan complained that the quality was diminishing.
14. By the 14th — and final season — the network trimmed the episode count of Knots Landing to 19 and did not feature the primary actors in all the episodes due to budget cuts. But Michele Lee did not want to miss any episodes and agreed to appear for union scale in three installments. In those trio of episodes, she travels to New York and it reunited with her daughter Diana, who had not been seen on the series since season five.
15. Two of the cast members on Knots Landing died while the series was still in production. Steve Shaw, who played Eric Fairgate, was killed in an automobile accident on December 5, 1990; and Larry Riley, who played new neighbor Frank Williams, passed away on June 6, 1992 from complications from AIDS.
The best of ‘Knots Landing’
While those cliffhangers were certainly memorable, there were other scenes of note also worth remembering. The following incorporates both in my list of my top 10 favorites.
1. “Here in My Arms” (Oct. 3, 1985)
In this second episode of the seventh season of Knots Landing, Harry Fisher (Joe Regalbuto) returns the twins to an ecstatic Val as Karen (Michele Lee) and Val’s mother Lilimae (Julie Harris) tearfully looks on.
“I think I had more fan reaction to anything I have done with that story arc on Knots Landing,” Joe Regalbuto told me at the Summer Television Critics Association Press Tour in 2018.
2. “Living Dangerously” (May 6, 1982)
In this third season-finale, Val realizes her suspicions about Gary and Abby are true and she bolts out of her house with a suitcase in hand as Gary pleads for her forgiveness.
3. “Distant Locations” (December 20, 1984)
Troubled by the loss of her kidnapped babies, Val morphs into a character from her book “Capricorn Crude,” Verna Ellers, to escape her pain and travels to Tennessee to start a new life.
“That was the favorite moment of any scene I had on Knots Landing,” Joan Van Ark mentioned in that interview for CBS Watch. “The scene when I was staring into the mirror as I became Verna Ellers was like a dream for an actor.”
4. “Cement the Relationship” (May 14, 1987)
After Peter Hollister (Hunt Block), Jill’s brother, is murdered, Abby tells her daughter Olivia (Tonya Crowe) to go home, change clothes and act like nothing has happened. Both think the other one killed him. Abby proceeds to hide Peter’s body by burying him at a children’s playground that is about to be built. But a large crack found in the cement the next day means it may have to be dug up.
In a later episode, Nicollette Sheridan as Peter’s fiancé Paige admitted she accidentally killed Peter.
5. “No Miracle Worker” (January 8, 1987)
After finding hidden drugs in the bathroom, Abby confronts Olivia about her drug addiction. Olivia then gets Brian (Brian Austin Green) to pick up some school books from her friends, which contains drugs. And Brian returns home bruised up, resulting in Olivia’s decision to seek help.
6. “The Perfect Crime” (May 12, 1988)
Tired of Val’s dependence on Gary, Jill (Teri Austin) sneaks into Val’s house, gun in hand, determined to make sure that Val kills herself. Jill forces Val to swallow a bottle of sleeping pills, which is almost ruined when Frank (Larry Riley) and Julie (Kent Masters King) ring Val’s doorbell. But Jill forces Val to send them away and puts a suicide note on Karen and Mack’s door before she drives away, leaving Val unconscious.
7. “Noises Off” – two parts (December 3 and 10, 1987)
When everyone gathers at Greg’s (William Devane) house following Laura’s (Constance McCashin) funeral, Richard (John Pleshette) discovers that no one went to the clinic with Laura after they found out she was dying. Marking the 200th (and 201st) episode of Knots Landing, this two-part installment was largely improvised by the actors.
8. “I’ll Tell You No Lies” – (December 8, 1983)
Hiding out at Gary’s ranch, Chip (Michael Sabatino) tells Diana (Claudia Lonow) they must leave together. But when he sees Cathy Geary (Lisa Hartman), who he thinks is his murder victim Ciji, he stumbles back onto a pitchfork and is killed.
9. “Rise and Fall” – (December 5, 1985)
When Lilimae finds her preacher son Joshua (Alec Baldwin) is threatening Cathy’s life on the roof of a downtown building, she angrily confronts her son, which results in Joshua accidentally falling to his death.
10. “Critical Condition” – (November 19, 1981)
When Sid (Don Murray) chooses a risky operation that can prevent his paralysis at the disapproval of Karen, he ultimately dies on the operating table as his family awaits word on the results. The original plan was for Sid to survive, but Murray chose to prematurely exit the series.
Back to the Cul-de-Sac
In 1997, the core cast, plus cameo appearances by other former series regulars, reunited for four-hour limited series Knots Landing: Back to the Cul-de-Sac.
News of Karen and Abby becoming grandparents is one of the revelations. Combined with Gary and Val’s children Betsy and Bobby and Karen and Mack’s adopted daughter Meg (who is the real child of Laura and Greg Sumer), maybe there is a new generation of potential occupants for an eventual reboot of Knots Landing. While it is not something I might recommend, it sure would be fun to see the now older Karen and Mack, Val and Gary, Abby, Greg Sumner, Paige, and the others, stop by for guest appearances.
All these years later, nothing CBS has ever positioned in the Thursday 10 p.m. ET hour has come even close to Knots Landing. It was quite the memorable TV experience.
Marc Berman is the founder and Editor-in-Chief for Programming Insider. He also covers the broadcasting landscape, at present, for Forbes.com, Watch!, Newspro and C21 Media in London. His work has appeared in Campaign US, The New York Daily News, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, The Los Angeles Times and Emmy Magazine, among other outlets.