Celebrating 45 years since the 'Dallas' premiere, the actress and Principal Secret founder talks to PEOPLE about on-camera love, off-camera success, and creating an iconic show
Premiering as a miniseries in April of 1978 and then as TV show in September, Dallas would remain on the air until 1991. A nighttime soap chronicling the lives, loves, and oil of the Ewing family, the show would have seminal moments — "Who Shot J.R.?" became a national question and a PEOPLE magazine cover — and really created a template for the cliffhanger. (And, perhaps, the power of a dream sequence.)
One character, Pamela Ewing, became a fan favorite. Principal, 73, created that role, joining the show at its start and stayed for nine years.
Her character had a car crash, she left the show, and then a different actress played Pamela, while Principal moved on to TV movies and then began to focus on her health and wellness projects. She wrote a book, The Body Principal, in 1983, and then three more, and launched her skincare company, Principal Secret, in 1991. She stepped away from the company in 2019.
Here, she talks to PEOPLE about her life in and out of Dallas.
PEOPLE: When did you know Dallas would be a hit?
VP: I always believed that Dallas would be a hit but it was a "slow build" in the beginning. The a-ha moment for me occurred in early 1980. (This was before "Who Shot JR."). It was my day off on a Saturday morning and I had decided to drive to Fox Hills Mall for a furniture sale, specifically a new sofa for my den. I drove to Fox Hills and arrived at the furniture store. I had only been in the store a short time when people who had seen me walking through the mall began to crowd inside the store. The situation rapidly became unmanageable. The quick-thinking store manager locked both of us inside of his office and called the police. They arrived, dispersed the crowd and escorted me to my car. Everyone in the crowd had shouted for an autograph and addressed me as "Pam." The policeman also requested autographs and shared their enthusiasm for the show. I drove home with a new, profound awareness of the popularity of Dallas and the recognizability of it's characters — and without that new sofa!
What is a favorite episode of yours?
I loved every one of the first five episodes in the mini-series. It was called a mini-series because CBS made a savvy business decision to present it as a mini-series, so that they could gauge the audience response and decide if they should spend the money necessary to go to series and order more episodes. The first five episodes, for me, were a lot like falling in love. Everything was new and fresh. Every day of shooting was filled with emotion, bonding with the cast and excitement. Each new script was filled with discovery and surprises. Every moment vividly alive in my memory to this day. It was delicious!
I continued to love working on Dallas for many years, but a special episode stands out in my heart: "Mastectomy," a two part episode. I adored Barbara Bel Geddes, who played the matriarch Ellie Ewing. She would come inside the makeup room in the morning, squeeze my cheeks together, like you would a child, and call me her "little monkey face." It was loving and I loved her in return.
Barbara had shared with me some deeply personal elements of her life. Including the death of her husband and her breast cancer diagnosis and the resulting mastectomy in such unimaginable proximity. I first read the script for "Mastectomy" and my response was fury. I mistakenly thought the producers and writers had plundered Barbara's personal story. I went to Barbara about it and she assured me that she was part of the decision and had even participated in certain aspects of the story and writing.
Her bravery and willingness to publicly shed light on a subject, that at the time, lived in the shadows, was an act of courage that gave me greater insight into Barbara's strength of character. She was my hero. And these two episodes are the "diamonds of Dallas." And that is why she won that Emmy!
What's a question you've been asked more than any other?
"What was it like kissing Patrick Duffy?" And here's my answer: Excellent!
Larry Hagman played J.R., a pretty sinister character. But how did he make you laugh?
Whenever Larry and I had a particularly intense scene, just the two of us as JR and Pam, he would sometimes surprise me by delivering his most sinister line in a Groucho Marx impression. Larry Hagman, playing JR, playing Groucho Marx. Which always made the entire scene hilarious to me, and impossible for me not to break character and laugh. And my response, my uncontrollable laughter, caused him to light up with such mischievous accomplishment and delight. I don't think the public is aware of how perceptive and thoughtful Larry was to other people's feelings and situations. Larry liked to play "the clown." But beneath that persona, was a deeply sensitive man who cloaked himself in the role of the jester.
The shower, "It Was All a Dream" episode at the beginning of season 10 is seminal for fans. (And controversial for some other cast members.) What do you remember about reading that script for the first time?
Actually reading the script and the actual airing of the show was a two-part experience for me. In the original script, Mark Graison (played by the actor John Beck) is in the shower at the end. The scene with Patrick was shot at another location under tight secrecy and then surreptitiously edited into the show that aired. So, I too, was able to experience the complete surprise of viewing Patrick in the final shower scene. My immediate response was to call Patrick at home, happily screaming, "You're back!"
And then I read the following script. The Dream Season. I have struggled with this over the years. But I cannot think of another way to tie up, or clean up, all of the loose ends of the entire previous season without essentially "disappearing them." The Dream Season accomplished that.
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How did you prepare for the role of Pam Ewing?
l'm basically a method actor and I was already 28 years old, so I had life experience to draw upon. Conflict is part of everyone's life and certainly conflict within families and between families has been a ripe subject for centuries. And then the fabulous Larry Hagman made it so accessible!
Your departure from the show after nine years, in 1987, left fans wanting for more. Would you ever play Pam Ewing again?
It was a life-changing and thrilling experience to be chosen to play Pamela Barnes Ewing. I tried my best to bring her to life and portray her for nine years. Sometimes the producers, writers and the actor have a different vision of a show's direction and the character's journey and development... or lack thereof. When the visions are so divergent that the character becomes unrealistic and unrecognizable to the actor, then it is up to the individual actor to decide where the boundaries lie and what actions are necessary to continue to flourish as a person and as an actor. I made that decision for myself. It was not hasty, but rather a two-year process of letting go. I feel that I honorably completed the role of Pamela Barnes Ewing,
When you launched the wildly successful skincare line Principal Secret, you helped create a template widely used today for many celebrities and skincare launches each year. What advice would you give an actor entering the skincare game today?
It was a privilege and great adventure to break out of the "box" that actresses had traditionally been confined to and to pursue another real passion of mine. The care of our amazing skin. I have always had a love and fascination for skincare so founding my own skincare company was a dream come true and a lot of dedicated work. I am gratified and grateful that I was able to help create a path for the next generation of actresses to pursue their passions and express their entrepreneurial abilities. But I think it is very important that I share the following advice: I chose skincare because I loved it. Because I was confident that I would be really good at it. I chose partners that respected my vision and did not restrict my endeavors, but in fact, encouraged and supported them. I did not have a manager telling me what to choose to do or anyone holding out a check to pay me to pursue what they felt was the best choice. I chose what called to me.
So my advice is this: Don't just choose skincare because others have succeeded. There are so many passions to choose from. Choose what fulfills you, the thing that will make you want to work all day and night, the creation that wakes you up in the middle of the night with ideas. The thing that you will love doing. Because if you do that, you will have succeeded.
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