The thrust of the series was initially the feuding families, with J.R. just a supporting character. However, his popularity grew and the producers acknowledged he became the "break-out character". Two highly rated 1980 episodes became pop culture zeniths. In "A House Divided" and "Who Done It?", the audience witnessed J.R. being shot by an unknown assailant. After the cliffhanger was broadcast in March, the audience had to wait until the October conclusion. The summer of 1980 was all abuzz with a new national obsession known as "Who shot J.R.?". Riding the crest of his newfound popularity, Larry Hagman threatened to leave the series unless his contractual demands were met. CBS leaked rumors of recasting, but the actor eventually prevailed.
J. R. shared oil duties with his kind-hearted kid brother Bobby, while fair-haired middle brother Garrison (Gary) moved to California. An alcoholic, Gary and his wife Val were spun-off into the prime time soap, Knots Landing. Gary's daughter Lucy was whisked away to the ranch by J.R. Knots Landing was created before Dallas, but it was not bought by CBS until 1979.
J.R.'s extramarital flings and an obsessive drive to maximize profits left no time for the Southfork Ranch and animal husbandry, which were mostly the domain of his half-brother Ray Krebbs and mother Miss Ellie. J.R. was keen on women and mean on his arch nemesis Cliff Barnes. The two characters were the only ones who remained with the series throughout all 14 seasons.
Though ever the womanizer, J.R. had two wives: Sue-Ellen (played by Linda Gray) and Cally (played by Cathy Podewell), and three sons: John Ross III, Terrance Harper, and James Beaumont during the show's run (one each to his wives and one from an earlier, off-screen affair). J.R. drove a pale green Mercedes-Benz with the license plate "EWING 3" (patriarch Jock was #1). J.R. drove a Cadillac Allante convertible from 1987-1991.
The series capitalized on ending each season with ratings-grabbing cliffhangers. Some notable cliffhangers included the "who shot J R?" dynamo, a floating female corpse in the pool, a blazing mansion fire, Bobby mistakenly being shot while sitting in J.R.'s office, and the kidnapping of Miss Ellie by her half-crazed sister-in-law. Usually, no longlasting damage was done to any essential cast member — unless they wanted to leave the series. Both Bobby and Pam were killed-off, with Bobby returning in a dream-sequence. As Dallas drew to its 1991 finale, "Conundrum", J.R. was finally undone by a combination of his enemies and booze. Abandoned by most family members (Sue Ellen, John Ross, Miss Ellie, Lucy...), J.R. was set-up by West Star Oil owner Carter McKay. Believing that Westar was available, J.R. sold his half of Ewing Oil to Cliff Barnes, only to discover that this con was engineered by Mackay (whom J.R. previously framed for murder). J.R. had bought up worthless voting rights with no hope of buying the required shares to use them. He had lost both companies. J.R. contemplated suicide and could be seen wandering around the Southfork pool with a bottle of bourbon and a loaded revolver. After an It's a Wonderful Life-like fantasy in which J.R. is shown what life would have been like had he never been born, the series ended as a gunshot rang out and Bobby dashed into the main bedroom of Southfork shouting "oh my God" at the mystery sight which met him. J.R.'s fate was not revealed.
In a later reunion movie it was revealed that Joseph Rollins had shot J.R. And ran away to Europe disguised as J.R. himself.".
Another reunion movie (in which Ken Kercheval was absent) saw J.R. try and fail to force a merge with Ewing Oil, but he claims a consolation of conning $50,000,000 from Carter McKay.