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David Jacobs, Who Turned Soap Opera Into Prime-Time Gold, Dies at 84

by nytime
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David Jacobs, who more than anyone invented the modern prime-time soap opera when he created “Dallas,” the long-running CBS series about an amoral oil baron and his feuding family, and followed it a year later with “Knots Landing,” died on Sunday in Burbank, Calif. He was 84.

His son, Aaron, said he died in a hospital from complications of a series of infections. Mr. Jacobs had also recently received a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.

Mr. Jacobs had written for several television shows when, in 1977, he pitched CBS on what he called an American version of “Scenes From a Marriage,” Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 mini-series, which was later turned into a film. His story shifted the location from Sweden to a Southern California cul-de-sac with a focus on four middle-class couples.

CBS showed some interest but passed, asking him to write a glitzier saga instead.

“Which meant Texas to me,” Mr. Jacobs recalled in a 2008 interview with the Television Academy. Working with Michael Filerman, an executive at Lorimar Productions, he wrote a script about the wealthy Ewing family.

When Mr. Filerman sent the script to CBS, he gave it the title “Dallas.”

“‘Dallas?’” Mr. Jacobs recalled saying to Mr. Filerman. “‘Kennedy was killed in Dallas. I don’t want to do this in Dallas. First of all, it was oil people and Houston is the oil city. Dallas is the banking city.’ And Michael said, ‘Who knows that? Who cares? Do you want to watch a show called “Houston”? ’”

The title “Dallas” stuck, and the series made its debut in 1978, becoming a megahit for CBS. It took its basic cues from the daytime soap-opera genre — long-running melodramas with core casts that were originally known for being sponsored by soap manufacturers.

The cast of “Dallas” featured Larry Hagman as the oil baron, J.R. Ewing; Patrick Duffy as his brother Bobby; Barbara Bel Geddes and Jim Davis as their parents, Miss Ellie and Jock; Linda Gray as Sue Ellen, J.R.’s wife; and Victoria Principal as Pamela, Bobby’s wife.

In a cliffhanger to end the third season, J.R. was shot. In the fourth episode of the next season, the identity of his assailant was revealed:It was his sister-in-law and mistress, Kristin Shepard (Mary Crosby). The episode generated a 53.3 Nielsen rating, a record at the time for an entertainment program. (That record would be broken in 1983 by the final episode of “M*A*S*H.”)

Mr. Jacobs soon had another series in mind, about a postapocalyptic utopia. But when he pitched it to CBS, a top executive demurred, opened a desk drawer and handed Mr. Jacobs his old script about the couples in the cul-de-sac. It was “Knots Landing.”

“Is there any way we can make this a ‘Dallas’ spinoff?” Mr. Jacobs recalled the executive asking.

Mr. Jacobs spun off two recurring characters from “Dallas” — Gary, another Ewing brother (played by Ted Shackelford), and his wife, Valene (Joan Van Ark) — and added an ensemble of other characters. “Knots Landing” made its debut in 1979 and became another long-running hit, lasting 14 seasons.

David Arnold Jacobs was born on Aug. 12, 1939, in Baltimore. His father, Melvin, was a bookie, a cabdriver and an insurance salesman, among other things. His mother, Ruth (Levenson) Jacobs, was a homemaker.

By his own account, Mr. Jacobs disliked school until he attended the Maryland Institute College of Art, from which he graduated with a degree in fine arts in about 1961. But while he had artistic talent, he said, he recognized that he wasn’t talented enough to make a living as a painter.

He moved to New York City and turned to writing. Over the next dozen or so years, he said, he wrote entries for The Book of Knowledge, a children’s encyclopedia; articles about art, architecture and other subjects for various publications, including The New York Times Magazine; biographies of Beethoven and Charlie Chaplin; and short stories for magazines like Redbook and Cosmopolitan.

Mr. Jacobs moved to Los Angeles after his divorce from Lynn Oliansky to stay close to their daughter, Albyn, and found work in TV.

He was hired early on to rewrite scripts. One was an episode of “Delvecchio,” a 1976-77 crime drama starring Judd Hirsch as a detective studying to be a lawyer. (A producer threw the script in a garbage can.) Another, in 1976, was for “The Blue Knight,” a police procedural starring George Kennedy.

Mr. Jacobs was hired as a staff writer for “The Blue Knight,” but the series was canceled soon after. It had been a Lorimar production, and the company’s Mr. Filerman gave him a deal that led to the creation of “Dallas” and “Knots Landing.”

The key casting decision in “Dallas” was who would play J.R. In the academy interview, Mr. Jacobs recalled being on a conference call with the actor Robert Foxworth, who was being considered for the role.

When Mr. Foxworth asked how the ruthless J.R. could be made more sympathetic, Mr. Jacobs recalled, he told him that was not going to happen. “He likes being the son of a bitch,” Mr. Jacobs said, “and he believes that you get them before they get you.”

Mr. Foxworth turned down the role, but he would later be was one of the stars of “Falcon Crest,” another prime-time soap.

“Dallas” ended its long run in 1991, “Knots Landing” in 1993. Mr. Jacobs was a creator, producer and executive producer of several other series through the 1990s, but none were as successful. He returned to his roots as an executive producer of “Dallas: The Early Years,” a 1986 TV movie presented as a prequel to the series; ”Knots Landing: Back to the Cul-De-Sac,” a 1997 mini-series; and “Knots Landing Reunion: Together Again,” a 2005 TV movie.

A “Dallas” reboot ran from 2012 to 2014 on TNT. But Mr. Jacobs told that he had been excluded from any creative input into the series and later said in an interview with The Daily Beat that he had hated it.

In addition to his son, Mr. Jacobs is survived by his wife, Diana (Pietrocarli) Jacobs; his daughters, Albyn Hall and Molly Jacobs; and two granddaughters.

In 1981, the debut of “Dynasty” — a much more opulently staged prime-time soap starring Joan Collins, Linda Evans and John Forsythe — provided formidable competition for “Dallas.”

“‘Dynasty’ was a better expression of second Reagan administration values than ‘Dallas,’” Mr. Jacobs wrote in an article for The Times in 1990, “because, while ‘Dallas’ was about the quest for money, ‘Dynasty’ was about the things that money could buy. In ‘Dallas,’ money was a tool, a way of keeping score.”

He added: “During almost any other period, ‘Dynasty’ would have been regarded as more vulgar than ‘Dallas.’ In the mid-’80s, however, ‘Dynasty’ was widely viewed as the classier of the two shows.”

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