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TV Flashback: “Knots Landing” Debuted On This Day In 1979

Considering December (Christmas through the end of the month, in particular) is a breeding ground for repeats and leftover programming on the broadcast networks, serialized drama Knots Landing launching on this day in 1979 was an unusual maneuver. Of course, given the sudden surge of Dallas, the parent series of Knots Landing, it certainly made sense to come up with a spin-off. But did you know that Knots Landing was actually conceived first?

“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.”

From the Beginning

Airing out of the veteran detective drama Barnaby Jones, starring Buddy Ebsen, and facing newsmagazine 20/20 on ABC and the short-lived Columbo spin-off Kate Loves a Mystery on NBC, the fictional Knots Landing, California marked a new beginning for Dallas’ Gary (Ted Shackelford) and Val (Joan Van Ark), now married for the second time. As you many recall, that ‘ol rascal J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman), who appeared in a few early episodes of Knots Landing, broke up their first marriage. Here Dallas matriarch Miss Ellie (Barbara Bel Geddes) purchased them this home and the pair was hopeful the second time at the altar would only bring good things.

Trust me – it didn’t. There was never a dull moment in that picturesque looking environment!

Featured initially on Knots Landing were 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 coping with his failing law practice and their strained union; and record producer Kenny was not exactly faithful to Ginger. But it was Donna Mills as the alluring villainess Abby Cunningham, who joined the cast in season two, that sparked interest in Knots Landing. Her arrival resulted in scheming and conniving (a la J.R. Ewing), and a series of illicit affairs (including Abby’s tryst, and eventual marriage, to Val’s beloved Gary).

Ultimately, Gary and Val, 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. It goes on…and on!

Like any serialized drama, cast members came and went over the years on Knots Landing. Most notable were the arrivals of Kevin Dobson as M. Patrick (”Mack”) McKenzie in season four (in place of Don Murray, who exited early in season three); Lisa Hartman as singer Ciji Dunne (and later Cathy Geary), also in season four; William Devane as the crooked politician and businessman Greg Sumner in season five; and Nicollette Sheridan as Paige Matheson in season eight.

Knots Landing was also 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.

Then, of course, were those classic season-ending cliffhangers, a staple in the serialized drama genre at the time. Who could forget Val bolting out of her house with a suitcase in hand as Gary pleads for her forgiveness for his affair with Abby in the third season finale? Or Abby kidnapped by the Wolfbridge Group, Abby hiding Peter’s (Hunt Block) body by burying him at a children’s playground, or Jill (Teri Austin) trying to poison Val? Then there is Sheila Fisher (Robin Ginsburg), who disbelieves the claims that the babies were adopted illegally and shouts to warn husband Harry (Joe Regalbuto) as he takes off with one of the twins in his car. “Harry, they are here to take the babies.”

“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 in the traditional Nielsen ratings. But it actually lasted longer (14 seasons versus 13 and one-half for Dallas). And there was also talk of a revival following the three season 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.

All these years later, nothing CBS has ever positioned in the Thursday 10 p.m. ET hour has come even close to Knots Landing. Note to one of the nostalgia networks: how about a revisit with this beloved drama?

Happy 43rd Birthday, Knots Landing!

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