Monied Matriarchs: Profiles of Ellie Ewing & Angela Channing
Originally published in August 2015
We can run, but we just can’t hide from the 80s. It’s not hard to find sitcoms from the 60s, 70s and 80s on TV. But it is nearly impossible to find a drama, unless maybe you get Hill Street Blues.
In the late 70s and well into the 80s, the legacy broadcast networks still ruled. A majority of the baby boom was now well into adulthood. With a sputtering economy, energy crisis and ongoing tensions in the Middle East, we were a nation at peace. Ronald Reagan had taken the helm as president from Jimmy Carter.
Each year set new records of women graduating from college. Everywhere, there were aspirations that this would be a period of prosperity. America was a world leader to be feared. We invented, manufactured, marketed and consumed better than any country in the world.
Lee Iacocca, CEO of Chrysler, gives us his hard sell on his latest fleet. During those dark days of the America auto industry, Chrysler had declared bankruptcy. This 1982 ad precedes the advent of the vehicle that would save Chrysler and change mothers' lives forever.
Chrysler, thank you for giving us the most thoughtful, durable mini-van on the market.
For these reasons, and the fact that I was a teenager in this era the TV shows Dallas and Falcon Crest are eerie time capsules. While they were never intended to be documentaries of society life, this was an indicator of how Americans thought the tremendously wealthy lived, houses, cars, car phones and butlers.
It should come as no coincidence that producers for both Dallas and Falcon Crest, launching adult themed soap opera dramas, both sought out accomplished actresses to anchor their shows. Barbara Bel Geddes and Jane Wyman, respectively, were movie stars. Blue chip stock for viewers over 40 .
This installment of Advanced TV Herstory takes a look at these two women, the two shows and the two characters of Miss Ellie and Angela Channing. Show business – TV in particular - is an industry skews young. The voices and messaging that accompanied these two actress’ performance struck notes that could only have been delivered from women who were 60 and 67 respectively.
First you’ll learn a bit about Barbara Bel Geddes and Jane Wyman. I’ll give you a run-down of the shows. They aren’t readily available online. Most seasons of Dallas are available on DVD, but only the first two seasons of Falcon Crest were released.
Then we’ll get a good understanding of the two characters – these women strong enough in any episode to change minds with a single statement. However, they were strong in very different ways, which may well have reflected the evolving expectations of women in the workplace and family setting.
So put on your Pendleton cashmere turtleneck or St. John suit and return to a time when the sky was the limit. This clip tells you a bit about Barbara Bel Geddes’ acting chops.
BBG family sticks
By the time the producers of Dallas called her to star in their show, Barbara Bel Geddes was an acclaimed stage and movie actress, earning Oscar and Tony nominations for her work in the 40s and 50s. She’s most remembered for her role as Midge, in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Pearls, cardigans, A-line skirts… her look defined preppy - down to the navy blue pumps.
Hitting middle-age, she’d made guest appearances on shows throughout the 60s, but TV was not interested in a woman of Barbara’s age or acting caliber. Then in 1977 she performed in a made-for-TV production of Our Town, opposite Hal Holbrook.
Larry Hagman maintains that the signing of Barbara Bel Geddes as the first casting for Dallas established the show’s aspirations for quality.
Now about Jane Wyman. Jane Wyman started out her career as a dancer and during the busy Hollywood days of the mid-'30s, was discovered by agent William Demerest (yes, Uncle Charlie from My Three Sons) and invited to screen test. From just one test and no formal training or credentials, Wyman was signed to a six month contract with Warner Brothers.
Wyman is known for her challenging, mostly serious roles. She was nominated for an Oscar twice and took the honor in 1948 for her role as Belinda McDonald, a deaf-mute rape victim in Johnny Belinda.
She transitioned over to TV with ease in the 50s, including the offering Jane Wyman Presents the Fireside Theatre which lasted for 3 seasons. She took on guest roles and acted in the occasional made-for-TV movie.
In 1979 Wyman was again a household name, by virtue of the fact that her ex-husband, Ronald Reagan, had declared his presidential candidacy. She had already endured the additional attention accorded her, his visible, successful ex, when he ran for and served as governor of California.
Wyman exercised good judgment in keeping her remarks and reflections on her husband to a minimum – a positive, respectful minimum. She had a pretty healthy opinion of herself and in all sincerity, likely wanted to keep the focus of any interview on her.
It’s reported that Barbara Stanwyck got the first offer to be Falcon Crest's Angela Channing, but declined. Wyman, perhaps hungry for all sorts of legacy-career reasons, sunk her teeth in and gave it her all.
Now for a closer look at the Dallas the show and Miss Ellie the matriarch.
Dallas was America’s longest running primetime soap opera. It’s focused on the Ewing family and their Texas oil interests. Miss Ellie, played by Bel Geddes, has been married to Jock for 40+ years.
We know from a 1986 made-for-TV movie prequel that Miss Ellie was a childhood friend of Digger Barnes. Digger’s life, even in 1978, is a series of bad choices, so back in the 30s, Miss Ellie took up with Jock just as his first oil contract came in. The timing couldn’t have been better.
Her family owned and operated SouthFork as a cattle ranch, but the Depression and disease to the herd had put the ranch in dire straights. As an innocent teen, Miss Ellie married Jock to ensure the livelihood of SouthFork.
That marriage would also launch a decades-long squabble between the Ewings and the Barnes, which would carry into the next generation.
Jock and Miss Ellie have three sons, J.R., Gary and Bobby. Yes, Gary is part of the Knots Landing spin-off, but that’s another story. J. R. and Bobby carry most of the testerone plot lines. This includes the animosity towards Digger and his son Cliff. But Bobby goes and changes the equation when he marries Pamela Barnes, played by Victoria Principal.
Yes, it was all very soapy, you’ve got your share of infidelities, business maneuvers, jealousies, health crises and natural disasters. Miss Ellie, for all 2 minutes of screen time she averages in most episodes, is the conscience of the family.
Bel Geddes appeared in all but one season of the show, from 1978 to 1990. Following triple bypass heart surgery, she left the show due to health reasons. They didn’t write her character out of the show. In 1984, producers signed Donna Reed – yes, TV’s Donna Reed, to a three year contract to become the new Miss Ellie. It didn’t go well. This video clip contains statements from Reed and her husband, and also two unnamed Dallas crewmembers.
BBG comes back
Bel Geddes returned in the 9th season and completed the run with the distinction of being the only original member of the cast to have won an Emmy.
Year in and year out, Miss Ellie is the Ewing family moral compass.
She was happily married to Jock Ewing until her co-star, Jim Davis, died unexpectedly in 1981. They cover his death as a real event in the TV family, which ran with the emotion of a team in mourning. Rather than replace his character with another actor, they made Miss Ellie a widow. Three years later she married Clayton Farlow.
Throughout the show’s run, Miss Ellie reconnected with her long lost brother and restored her relationship with Gary, who up and left SouthFork after getting a girl pregnant in his teen years. That pregnancy resulted in Lucy (played by Charlene Tilton), who is a challenge to Ellie and was not the daughter surrogate Ellie had hoped she would be. As Ellie says early in season one, Lucy is spoiled and the Ewing men can’t say no to her.
Imagine the signal it sent to all sorts of widows when Miss Ellie, determined but by no means glamorous in her wealth, marries Clayton. Miss Ellie wears sweaters with blouses and turtle necks underneath them. Her hair is sensible and natural. Her make-up – positively minimal. The openness of her facial expression exudes honesty. American women saw themselves in her.
But the guilty pleasure of soap operas give you the distraction, escapism and vicarious living you need to make it through your week.
Early in the show’s run, writers have Miss Ellie battle breast cancer and a mastectomy. She also helps countless characters through their own challenges, including Sue Ellen’s alcoholism (memorably performed by Linda Gray).
The arc of Bobby and JR battling for control of the company brings Miss Ellie to deliver some of her most compelling lines. This is 1987. Americans love to loathe JR as much as any nefarious enemy, real or fictional. Consummate actress Bel Geddes delivers a speech of conscience and values that every mother has, at some point. THIS is quality.
If you were a Dallas regular, you know the amount of time Miss Ellie appears on screen is pretty paltry. But in TV hertory, she plays an extraordinary and memorable role – Miss Ellie is an icon of stability and goodness. Her breast cancer arc caught the attention of former First Lady Betty Ford, herself a cancer survivor. Mrs. Ford lauded Barbara for her moving portrayal. That year Time magazine named Barbara one of the 10 Most Respected Women in America.
Bel Geddes was so trusted, that in 1986, Campbell’s soup company enlisted her to pitch their new line of Home Cooking Soup.
Still as preppy and old money-looking at she was in Vertigo, Barbara carried that look to Dallas and again in a canned soup commercial. No-nonsense, approachable, humble and caring.
Which is kind of funny, because in an interview with People Magazine, she said of her career, “They’re always making me play well-bred ladies. I’m not very well bred and I’m not much of a lady.”
Oh Ms. Bel Geddes, verbal slayer of JR Ewing and other evil-doers, we respectfully disagree.
Falcon Crest was similar to Dallas, and to a show that would soon become its rival, Dynasty, in at least a few ways. They were set in medium-sized American cities – Dallas, San Francisco/Napa wine country and Denver.
They involved family run, privately owned enterprises that were spread across multiple generations or branches of a family.
In Falcon Crest, Angela Channing and her brother had shared ownership of land on which the vineyard and estate stood. Angela’s brother dies accidentally, but Angela rigs the body to be discovered at the bottom of a canyon, in the driver’s seat, so that authorities will assume it was a drunk driving accident. Such conclusion would bode better for her in terms of her brother’s will.
Angela Channing has been grooming her handsome grandson Lance, played by Lorenzo Lamas, to eventually take over the business.When what to our wondering eyes should appear but Angela’s brother’s heir and his wife, played Robert Foxworth and Susan Sullivan. According to the will, these two are entitled to the original family property, which is a portion of the larger estate Angela has built.
Angela attempts to buy and intimidate them out, fearing she will lose control.
From there, it blossoms into a soap opera of epic proportions with medical maladies, shady business wranglings, infidelities, and Angela’s disapproval of the romance between grandson Lance and Apollonia – the leading lady of the movie Purple Rain.
Perhaps with an eye to demographics or inexpensive contracts for big name studio talent from Hollywood’s heyday, the eight seasons unfold to include Cliff Robertson, Gina Lollobrigida, Cesar Romero, Celeste Holm, Lana Turner and Mel Ferrer.
Now, on to Jane Wyman as Angela Channing. This clip from the 1984 Golden Globes sort of sums up the field Wyman competed against for best actress and what was on everyone’s minds about the character she played.
As a veteran of the silver screen, Wyman had a hand in all sorts of decisions behind the scenes of Falcon Crest.
In a 1986 biography, author Lawrence Quirk quotes Wyman about her original impression of the character of Angela Channing:
After I told them I was plenty old enough and had enough gray hair without putting on that dreadful wig,” she told an interviewer, “I decided to do something about Angela. Not only was she too mean and vicious, she was just plain boring. I wanted Angie to be an interesting character. She’s a tough-as-nails businesswoman in every sense of the word, but the trouble with the pilot was that she was just too nasty.”The book goes on… "She had no intention of letting Angela Channing become a sort of J. R. Ewing of the wine business. Said Wyman,‘I feel I’m representing all women in business. I may come off as a hard, tough character, but I want Angie to show she’s also capable of love.
Ok, wow. TV had never experienced a woman character, let alone a mature woman character, who came across so cold, so driven.
With her extensive film experience, Wyman brought a certain eye to Channing’s look. She made wardrobe decisions throughout the show. Again, from the book,
I like sexy and very female clothes. I’m not a stranger in this business. I really don’t want to get involved in all the production junk, but I do. I think everyone should. To get a good show, everything you’ve got must go into it, but you can’t spread yourself too thin or everything suffers.
If you get the chance to even watch the opening credits, you see red suits buttoned right up to her throat, shoulder pads and a hair style that is well, not relaxed. Now some might say that at that point, she was vying for fashion icon status against Nancy Reagan, who had already been trend setting first lady for a few years.
While many describe the entire show of Falcon Crest as simply “campy,” Wyman took her role and character very seriously. As well she should. She pulled down $3 million for the show’s last season, while Nancy Reagan had to hold fundraisers to pay for red china and renovations for the White House.
As the show launched its 5th season, Wyman revealed to Entertainment Tonight how close her personality is to Angela’s.
FC 5th season
In the 8 seasons, Angela is ruthless against any person or organization that would take even a sliver of her empire. Remember the storyline about her brother’s suspicious death being the catalyst for her having full control of the estate? Here’s the verbal volley between Wyman and the brother’s widow, played by Lana Turner.
As we know in 2015, outsized egos are sometimes very necessary. They provide an armor to break new ground and a sense of confidence that others can only envy. Wyman rode the Angela Channing character hard, delivering an edginess that American women knew they needed to acquire, at least a little bit, in order to compete.
When the careers of these two fine actresses began, most American women listened to daytime dramas on the radio and later watched them on TV. Plot lines of betrayal, infidelity and romance filled the hours in between diaper changing, cookie baking and getting dinner ready for the family.
By the late 70s and early 80s, fewer women were home watching daytime TV. They were at their jobs, classes or doing community work that served their interest. Thus, the desire for daytime drama plot lines, glitzed up a bit with high stakes wheeling and dealing, was still there. With their shoulder pads, tuxedos, fancy cars, big hair and beautiful people, Dallas, Knot’s Landing, Falcon Crest and Dynasty eased the transition for millions of women.
Within that transition, we examined how our values carry over from our personal or family expectations to that of our workplace and colleagues. Within the plot constructions of just these two shows, Dallas and Falcon Crest, two excellent actresses could take on very different styles, deliver sharp, well-written lines and hold their own in a man’s world.
We’ll close with this Dallas scene, breakfast at the pool. Sue Ellen joins Miss Ellie, Donna Krebs, played by Susan Howard and Jenna Wade, played by Priscilla Presley before her plastic surgery. While we don’t all live this lifestyle, we’ve all been a part of this conversation.
Falcon Crest, Dallas. Watch them with a new sense of appreciation, if you ever get the chance.
Sources for this installment of Advanced TV Herstory are Lawrence Quirk’s 1986 book, Jane Wyman: The Actress and the Woman.
There is a 5 part interview of Jane Wyman conducted by Carole Langer, found online. Entertainment Weekly clips found online covered the season previews and details of the Miss Ellie actress drama. Larry Hagman and Charlene Tilton comments about Barbara were part of a commentary voice over feature of Season One Dallas episode in the DVD set. Both shows have numerous sites managed by fans.
Remember to register your comments or ideas at Advanced TV Herstory’s iTunes page or at Libsyn, wherever you go to listen to these episodes. Follow the podcast on Facebook and Twitter.
Many thanks to Alison Abrams for assistance with the script. As she heads into her senior year with Northwestern University’s Radio, TV and Film program, it’s only a matter of time before she’s making TV herstory.
Thanks for listening.