In the closing moments of Dallas's ninth season finale on May 16, 1986, Pamela Ewing awoke to the sound of running water. Walking into the bathroom, she saw her ex-husband, Bobby Ewing—the very dead, recently-run-over-by-a-speeding-vehicle Bobby Ewing—greet her with a smile.
The Associated Press called it the “most famous shower scene since Psycho.” Viewers were shocked. According to Patrick Duffy (who played Bobby Ewing), not even the cast, crew, or CBS executives knew the scene had been shot. It was edited in less than an hour before airtime; Victoria Principal, who played Pam, hadn’t even been on set with Duffy. She was reacting to another actor in the shower.
It was the show's most audacious move since they created a mystery around who tried to murder Larry Hagman’s J.R. Ewing six years prior. For the next four months, viewers wondered if this Bobby was a twin, an imposter, or if the entire previous season had been a bad dream.
Speculating on the latter, TV Guide wrote that it was the least likely. “Besides rendering the entire past season’s episodes meaningless,” they wrote, "what a cheat that approach would be for audiences.”
For most of its run, Dallas had enjoyed the kind of ratings dominance that was feasible only in the 1980s, when three networks ruled and audiences had an appetite for bigger-budgeted versions of the daytime soaps. When Duffy’s Bobby Ewing was struck by a hit-and-run driver in the eighth season finale in May 1985, more than 300 million viewers in 80 countries watched as cast members cried real tears over his deathbed: Duffy was well-liked, particularly by lead actor Larry Hagman.
Duffy, however, felt he had taken Bobby as far as he could. Sensing film opportunities, he decided to leave the series and shut the door on any potential for a return by allowing the character—one of the heirs to the Ewing oil fortune—to choke on rubber. As the fan site UltimateDallas.com described the narrative fallout, the Ewings promptly collapsed in the wake of his death:
An emotionally-numb J.R.'s only response is to angrily lash out at Sue Ellen, who had just returned from having lunch with Dusty while the Ewings were at the hospital. "Where were you Sue Ellen? While momma and everybody were cryin' their eyes out, where the hell were you? Go back to your bottle! Go back to your cowboy! I don't care where you go, just get out of my sight!"
Duffy’s departure coincided with a regime change behind the scenes. Longtime executive producer Leonard Katzman left, replaced by Philip Capice. The switch irritated Hagman, who got along better with Katzman and felt adrift without Duffy on set. During the post-Bobby season, the series fell from number one to number seven in the ratings. A network poll indicated Dallas was one of the shows experiencing a measurable decline in audience interest. As show producer/executive story editor David Paulsen put it, warring brothers J.R. and Bobby were a take on Cain and Abel; now that there was no Abel, the narrative steam had been drained.
One day, Duffy came home to a message on his answering machine. It was from Hagman, who wanted to meet for dinner. He asked whether Duffy would be interested in returning. Duffy’s wife, Carlyn, joked that the only way that could happen was if the entire ninth season had been a dream.
Katzman—who had been reenlisted by a barnstorming Hagman—didn’t think it was so funny. Independent of Carlyn’s joke, he envisioned a scenario in which Bobby’s fatal hit-and-run would be nothing more than the result of Pam’s restless sleep. Duffy, who had appeared in a few TV movies but had otherwise not experienced the career surge he had been expecting, was agreeable to returning—if not for the creative possibilities, then for the bump in pay he’d be getting, from $40,000 to $75,000 per episode.
In April 1986, CBS announced that Duffy would be appearing on the show, but whether it would be as Bobby Ewing was still a secret. Katzman and Duffy went to a New York sound stage—the show filmed in Los Angeles—and set up a shoot they declared was a commercial for Irish Spring soap. Duffy lathered up, turned, and said, “Good morning.” Out of context, it didn't mean much. The footage was later spliced into a reaction shot of Principal, who believed her character had just stumbled upon the dead body of her new husband, played by actor John Beck.
As the episode aired, however, the reports of Duffy’s return seemed premature. The show had already set off two bombs during its climax, seemingly expending what dramatic energy it had. It was only in the remaining 30 seconds that Principal discovered Bobby, leading to rampant speculation about who, exactly, she had found.
In interviews, Duffy and Katzman were coy about how Bobby Ewing could be revived. They eventually softened up to narrow it down to three options, all of which were shot at a cost of $25,000, one of which included Bobby surviving the car impact and recuperating in private. To throw tabloids off their trail, Katzman even had some still photos taken of Duffy in head bandages. Closer to the fall premiere, CBS took out an ad in TV Guide declaring one of the three explanations was correct, but that viewers would have to tune in to find out which one.
Airing opposite NBC’s increasingly popular Miami Vice, Dallas revealed all on September 26, 1986. Principal—who now sported slightly longer hair owing to the break in shooting—explained to Bobby that she had dreamed his death.
“Pam, what’s the matter?” Duffy asked. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
For many viewers, that may have been a better alternative. Katzman’s dream explanation essentially wiped out a year’s worth of continuity, resurrecting one actor’s character killed the year before (Jenilee Harrison, bombing victim), erasing Pam’s marriage to Beck, and eroding the audience’s faith in the show. Though Dallas lasted another four seasons, it never again captured the top slot, ceding the top nighttime soap honors to Dynasty.
Hitting the reset button seemed the logical solution at the time. For his part, Duffy remained unapologetic, calling it a “get out of jail free card” and bemoaning the fact that Bob Newhart’s sitcom, Newhart, got away with depicting its entire run as the dream of Newhart’s former character on The Bob Newhart Show. When TNT revived Dallas in 2012, it ran an ad with the cast—including a returning Duffy—in the shower, promising fans “No, you’re not dreaming.”