The Good Guy
Down-to-earth Dallas star Patrick Duffy tells Barry Egan how Buddhism helped him to deal with the murder of his alcoholic parents
Patrick Duffy isn't wearing rattlesnake-skin cowboy boots but wooden clogs he bought online. The moral icon of Dallas — the soap opera that benchmarked the Eighties — is having his photo taken in a suite in the Four Seasons when I walk in.
Me: “Have you been photographed in the shower yet?”
Duffy: “They won't remember that,” referring to the photographer and her assistant. “They're far, far too young.”
Most of us, however, will never forget that scene in May 1986, when Duffy's character Bobby Ewing returned from the dead in Dallas. His wife, Pam, with the eternally expanding chest, awoke to find Bobby in the shower, despite the fact that the previous year he had been killed off when he was run over by a car driven by his sister-in-law, Katherine Wentworth.
I have never interviewed someone before whose face had been used as a creature's leg on South Park — in the Spanish-language dub of the same episode, the creature's Duffy leg is replaced with Ricky Martin; in the Hungarian-language dub, the Duffy leg is replaced with Tom Cruise. South Park apart, there is a lot about talking to Duffy that is simply surreal. Every person I told that I was meeting Duffy was overwhelmed by the prospect. We grew up with Bobby Ewing and Dallas. So, to actually meet the man bordered on a religious experience because this is not, on many levels, Patrick Duffy.
This is JR's brother.
This is the dutiful, good husband of Pam, the all-round nice guy of Ewing Oil.
This is the goody-goody son of Jock and Miss Ellie.
This is the Nietzschean superhero in the 10-gallon cowboy hat who saved the lives of Ray, JR, Sue Ellen and John Ross when Southfork Ranch was mysteriously set on fire. It seems like he never went away at all.
“The last episode of Dallas was in 1991,” he says. “Unfortunately, it was a terrible episode to end the show on: it was a sort of It's a Wonderful Life with Larry as the Jimmy Stewart character. In that episode, I was an ineffectual-schlep kind of brother, who got divorced three or four times and was a Las Vegas reject. And four or five years later, when we did the Dallas movies, I was the good-boy Bobby again.”
How close to Bobby are you?
“It's hard to say, isn't it?”
If the house was on fire, would you run in and save everybody?
“Well, sure,” he smiles. “I suppose I am more than 50% Bobby. We are exactly alike except I wish I had his money. And he wishes he had my wife.” As for Duffy's wife of more than 30 years, former ballerina Carlyn Rosser, he says she “would say that I'm 90% Bobby, but Bobby didn't have much of a sense of humour. I'm a bit more stupid in the sense of being silly.”
Like any character in a soap that lives on long after the show has gone off the airwaves, Duffy has become so identifiable as Bobby Ewing that he must sometimes wonder — perhaps after the millionth joke about coming out of the shower in Dallas — whether it was worth it.
“Of course it is worth it,” he harrumphs. “First of all, if I never work again, I probably have one of the more enviable careers. One of the great things I enjoy telling people, because I feel so fortunate — I worked 23 years in a row and only had three weeks when I wasn't under contract making money. That is huge. For literally 23 years I never worried about what I was doing the following week. It was just a fait accompli. It was wonderful. Now that hasn't been consistent. Step By Step stopped in 1998,” he says, referring to his US family sitcom, “so it's been literally 10 years that I'm waiting for the phone to ring for a job. But I've been fortunate enough in those 23 years to establish a security for myself.”
When you start to know anything about Duffy — and his incredible life story — you begin to realise that security has less to do with money than faith. He has been practising Buddhism ever since he met his Buddhist wife Carlyn in the early Seventies. They were married in a Buddhist ceremony on February 15, 1974.
That faith was sorely tested on November 18, 1986, when Duffy's parents, Terrance and Marie Duffy, were murdered during the robbery of their Montana bar. The drunk teenagers who killed them, Kenneth Miller and Sean Wentz, were sentenced to 180 years in prison. Duffy's older sister, Peggy
Joanne, who was a captain in the Seattle Police Department, was, he says, emotionally “destroyed” by the murders.
“The interesting things were the two different points of view and the visceral reaction to those murders,” Duffy says, adding that he was obviously affected by the act and the stupidity and the senselessness of it but he was “not affected in the same way that my sister was; in the sense of I have somehow come to understand — Buddhistically — from my point of view what the essence of life is. And how it continues.
“I'm not talking about reincarnation,” he adds. “But life is eternal. It manifests and becomes latent at various times. So I have never felt disconnected from my parents, ever. It goes on.”
Where did your anger at your parents' killers go?
“I was mad at the people. This is interesting because I got a lot of stick for this when I said it initially, because when I said it people felt, ‘Oh, you're unfeeling and you don't care for your parents'. I said, not only did it affect myself and my sister, but the two boys — and they were young boys at the time — it completely ruined their lives. They were totally shit-faced drunk and did a stupid thing. They had never done something like that before. It destroyed their families too. That single act had repercussions everywhere.”
He has never been to see the killers in prison. Just because he is a Buddhist, he says, doesn't mean he doesn't have anger.
But Duffy was able to function in life without a need for revenge or retribution.
I ask him to recall the night it happened.
“My dad,” he begins, “had earlier kicked these two young boys out because they were too drunk, in their early 20s — and they didn't like that and they continued to drink for several hours on their own, and they came back just before closing. They came in and shot them.”
His parents were shot dead in the bar that Duffy and his sister, like characters in a Tom Waits song, grew up in. “It was an American bar-bar. It was all hard liquor and beer. No wine,” he says of the small-town watering hole his parents took over from his grandparents in 1946. They also ran another small bar about 60 miles away.
“My dad was a pretty bad alcoholic his whole life, from his teenage years on. He had a serious drinking problem,” Duffy says. “Towards the end of his life, he actually did clean it up quite a bit, but at a certain point in 1960 it got so bad he got arrested so many times because he was driving back and forth between the two bars completely inebriated.”
Asked how his mother coped with his dad's drink problem, he replies that, “she drank pretty much cup for cup with him. They weren't nasty drunks. They weren't mean drunks. They just drank.”
And how did you and your sister cope with it?
“It never affected us as children,” he says. “My parents were never abusive or any of that. It was almost an adjunct of their profession as bar owners and bartenders. It wasn't like my dad would power-drink and just fall down. He was a constant drinker during the work day and by the end of the work day he was closing up the bar fairly well loaded every night. He had a wonderful social ease around people.”
Even the local police appeared to appreciate this wonderful ease. “They loved him,” says Duffy. They were finally forced to tell him, however, that they were going to have to arrest his father and actually put him in jail — “for a long time” remembers Duffy — if they caught him drink driving again. They suggested leaving the state would be a good idea for a while.
Duffy recalls that his dad bought a trailer house and they drove to Seattle. Patrick Duffy was 13 years old and didn't know the particulars of why they were leaving their home, but he knew that something was up.
This sense became even more evident on the way to Seattle. “My dad was arrested leaving Montana,” he says. “My dad and I were in the truck pulling the trailer and my sister and my mother followed in the car. My dad stopped at every bar leaving Boulder, Montana, to have a drink. He got so drunk that he got pulled over by a policeman who wasn't one of his friends and he was arrested. So my mother and my sister and I spent the night on the side of the road in this trailer, and then the next morning my mother bailed him out and we continued on to Seattle.
“I have a very vivid memory of sitting in the truck with my father and him driving down the wrong side of the road. I sat there thinking, ‘This is interesting'.”
‘Interesting' would doubtless be as good a word as any to describe Duffy's life.
“I'm 60 next month. And my wife will be 70 in July,” he says. Carlyn retired from dance after the birth of their eldest son Padraic, 35 years ago. They also have another son, Conor. They live in an old ranch house in Oregon that was built in 1908, originally as a fishing lodge.”
He talks with a passion of enrolling at the University of Washington in his early 20s, having fully intended to be an architect. It was only when his drama teacher, Maxine Dysart, suggested that he might make a living out of acting that he thought about it seriously. Although he also played the lead in The Man From Atlantis, it is Dallas and Bobby Ewing that will forever be associated with Patrick Duffy.
His pal, Linda Gray, rings down on the phone from her room in the Four Seasons. “Linda and I,” he says of the actress who played slurring sexpot Sue Ellen, “have been best friends for 30 years. The highlight of Dallas was not the work. The highlight of Dallas was going to work.
“My wife always made fun of me. She said, ‘I have never seen anybody leave for work every day of their life so happy'. I was always happy going to work because I knew I was going to see Larry and Linda and play. And I knew I was going to get a paid a lot of money to play.”
Talk returns to his late mother and father. He says his sister has never got over her anger at the manner of their deaths.
“Our system in the States is a bit wonky. I am all for the perpetual incarceration of both of those people — that is the cause and effect of the act that they did — but unfortunately they keep coming up for parole. And every time they come up for parole, she and I write a letter saying we would just as soon they not be paroled, etc etc,” he says.
“That worked until a little over a year ago when one of the two got out on parole. He is a free man.”
I ask him is it too late for him and his sister ever to forgive his parents' killers.
“I don't forgive them,” he says.
“I think what she has got to do is let go of the concept that she has a responsibility for their punishment.
“That's the problem. And that's the problem universally with all the conflicts in the world.”