I Burnt the ‘Dynasty’ Set Down: Pamela Bellwood and John James on the ’80s Show and Controversial Reboot
The Daily Beast
October 1, 2017
John James laughs deeply, recalling the infamous Moldavian massacre of Dynasty in 1985, when a wedding in the fictional East European kingdom became the memorable season five-ending bloodbath.
The thinking says James, who played the morally upstanding and very buff Jeff Colby, was that Dynasty had to top Dallas’ defining cliffhanger of who shot the evil JR. And so, it was that that he recalls stuntmen as revolutionary guards smashing through windows to shoot the entire cast.
“We shot the scene and the producer said, ‘Everyone freeze. Do not move.’ We’re lying on the floor and the producer and make-up artist walked around the cast. We knew they were going to make up the dead people. I’m lying on top of Ali MacGraw who is playing Lady Ashley Mitchell, Jeff’s photographer girlfriend at that point. I was lying on top of her, protecting her as Jeff would do, but not protecting her well enough.
“I’m not going to keep my eyes closed, and I see, Tim, suddenly two pairs of feet stop in front of us, and a hand comes down with red make-up on it, and puts a big red dot in poor Ali’s forehead.
“She looked at me and said, Do you think it’s serious?’”
James roars with laughter.
“That is the Moldavian crisis.”
“I said, ‘Ali, I’m sorry darling. I’ve enjoyed working with you. I hope to see you on the other side.”
We are speaking just before a 57-DVD set of all the Dynasty episodes is released on October 10, the day before the new Dynasty premieres on the CW. Going right back to the show’s beginning stories that debuted the show in 1981, the new Dynasty features (as yet) none of the old cast.
On the matter of the reboot, James—as polite and charming as Jeff Colby—attempts some diplomacy, though with barbs.
“I haven’t seen it. I’ve seen the billboards all over Los Angeles. I think it would have been nice if they had done the fans’ service… I mean I can’t imagine why reboot it and not have at least somebody from the old show on it. I don’t know. It’s not my call. I’m not in television.” James hasn’t been asked to be in the new show, but Jeff is now played in a markedly more multi-culturally cast show by African American actor Sam Adegoke.
‘The whole set was really on fire’
Poor Claudia Blaisdel Carrington had another terrible end.
On her title card of Dynasty, Pamela Bellwood, who portrayed the character from 1981 to 1986, emerged blinking into a room to switch on a light, and that pretty much summed up the character: confused, depressed, crazy, and constantly being made crazy.
And so, at the end of her time on the show when the producers wanted to make Claudia crazy again (after a brief and discombobulating period where she had become another corporate power player), she protested.
“It made no sense to me, I asked then not to,” Bellwood recalls today. “They said, ‘Say the lines.’ I said, ‘Well, it’s my last show. Maybe not.’”
Karma of a kind was on Bellwood’s side. Claudia lit a candle for each of the Carrington family she felt had betrayed her. One of the candles fell into a drape, the room was suddenly on fire, and the last we see of Claudia was her face wreathed in flames.
‘The whole set was really on fire,” she recalls. “It was awful, crazy, I had to have a paramedic carry me out. The sound stage was destroyed. Beams were falling. I thought it was all very apocalyptic, and it seemed like karmic retribution. Maybe they’ll think of bringing her back.”
They didn’t, but now, over thirty years later the character is returning to the CW’s Dynasty, this time played by Brianna Brown. One of Bellwood’s sons showed her an interview with Brown paying tribute to “the iconic Claudia Blaisdel.”
“I said to my children, you didn’t know your mother was iconic. So she’s coming back. Good luck to them. I’m glad to have been in the original. One has to see what happens in the new one.”
Does she want to return too? “What could they do? Bring me back as my own mother? I’m not sure I want to live with that. It doesn’t matter. Actors are like circus performers. They never get it out of their blood. If they call me, I’ll say yes. It’s always better to say yes to life than no.”
‘You became like public property’
The attention that came with the show in the 1980s was overwhelming, Bellwood says. Claudia was “challenging” and Bellwood wanted to make her sympathetic and a role model for others with mental illness.
Her famous scenes and storylines include dropping what looked like a baby bit was in fact a doll off a tall building; being driven mad by calls from her dead husband Matthew, who wasn’t dead (of course he wasn’t), but who wasn’t making the calls either; and then having relationships with unsuitable Carrington men like Adam and Steven.
“I got a ton of mail,” Bellwood recalls. “People responded viscerally to Claudia. I had a sense of responsibility about how to portray her so people wound up with a bit of hope.”
Bellwood recalls going to gay bars in L.A. where people dressed up as their favorite Dynasty characters, and being recognized all over the world. “The reaction to the show was so overwhelming it made you realize the power Donald Trump probably feels. People respond to everything he does all the time unfortunately.
“You became like public property. People felt like they knew you because you were in their homes. It was difficult because I’m a private person. For me it was odd because I’m not that frivolous a person who needs that acclaim. It’s not something I need to validate or define myself.”
The nice airline seats and fast service were lovely, Bellwood says, but now, she laughs, people look at her and say, “You look familiar. Did you ever work at Nordstrom?” She wanted to sink back into anonymity. “I was happy to have the work, to go to work, but then leave work.”
As for Steven Carrington being gay—Claudia one of his longtime female relationships—Bellwood, like Gordon Thomson (Adam), thinks the producers were trying to “do something that they weren’t that comfortable with because of the atmosphere and misinformation of the time around AIDS.”
She liked Claudia being a counterweight to the “wealth and silliness of the Carringtons, and that her character’s mental health issues meant she had “more to do than wear shoulderpads.”
The Moldavian massacre was “the moment Dynasty began to take a turn, from that moment it floundered a bit. Dynasty had a simple concept, and it wasn’t going to go much beyond that,” Bellwood says. Bellwood would have liked Claudia to have surmounted her problems and helped others.
Though she didn’t like all the glamor and isn’t a glamazon in real life, Bellwood says, “You can’t say it wasn’t fun. It was fun. I’ll always have a tenderness for her. It was an emotional marriage of sorts to play her. I’m fond of the memory of her and always will because she was a part of my life.”
‘Everybody believed we were rich, believed we were these characters’
John James had a similar experience to Bellwood’s. “You go from a nobody to someone who loses their anonymity in a very few years.”
A friend asked him recently why he hadn’t done another TV show right after finishing in Dynasty after nine seasons. “Dynasty had very different kind of intensity,” James said. There was something about it that drove people crazy. People wanted to be near us and touch us. Everybody believed we were rich, believed we were these characters, and wanted that lifestyle. Dallas was different. It was hometown. Dynasty was candy.”
James knew that Jeff’s relationship with Fallon (Pamela Sue Martin, and later Emma Samms) would be epic, because both characters mirrored the actors themselves.
“Pamela Sue was a free spirit. I’m a very conservative stuffed shirt and I was attracted to her obviously and I think her to me as human beings, and they wrote exactly what we were which created conflict on stage and it created that lightning.”
One of his favorite scenes with Martin was when “she is threatening to abort our child, and I tell her she can’t, and I’m in a towel and she’d in a bathrobe, and it was just one take.”
Many fans preferred Martin to Samms as Fallon.
James is characteristically Jeff-like about Samms’ introduction. “I was as supportive as I could be under a great deal of stress. She was a very different kind of Fallon, gentler than Pamela Sue and without her edge. But she is a lovely actress and that was her interpretation of the role.”
As for his own heart-throb status, James laughs. “I didn’t like women banging on my door when I was doing a play in Akron, Ohio, at 3 o clock in the morning. It was obviously flattering. But I had been to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts for two years. I had been told I was too good-looking for a shampoo commercial. But I took acting seriously. It made me work harder to make characters work.”
Did we have sex with groupies or was he careful not to?
“I was as careful as I could be, Tim.”
‘What we were doing was not straight drama’
Jeff’s storylines could be bonkers, most notably when Adam poisoned him with paint. “Well, I’d like you to put yourself in my shoes,” he says with a chuckle. ‘That script shows up and you start reading it and you say ‘Whaaaat?’ and then you think, ‘Maybe I’m reading it wrong.’”
But it was based on a real story, and James thought, “OK, we’re going to have to go with this and go big. I had no other choice. It was very strange, but I went with everything they wanted me to do.”
Everything? “OK, I did once say no. That’s when they wanted me to have an affair with my half-sister Monica. It was the last season and they were really running out of steam. I said no.”
As for Fallon getting beamed up by a UFO, perhaps the show’s most notorious moment, and other outrageous moments, James says: “It’s a lot like comedy. Comedy is outrageous, and the best comedy is when you play it straight and believe it. What we were doing was not straight drama. It was not Hill Street Blues.”
Jeff was a good guy in a sea of sharks, the audience’s way in to the crazy carnival of greed and terrible behavior. Jeff just wanted a normal family, poor deluded fool. Didn’t James ever want Jeff to go bad?
“Oh sure. It’s a lot harder to play a good guy. You’ve got to keep it interesting, because it can get really boring to play the victim and be reactive not proactive. I wish I could have played Gordon’s (Thomson, Adam) role because he could scheme and twist the knife. I found playing Jeff difficult in that sense.”
He loved it when Jeff and Adam fought on the scaffolding of a building; it was really the both of them, no stuntmen, and James’ fear of heights adding a layer of tension.
I looked at the suit and said, ‘Goodbye Jeff’
There were large egos to contend with, James recalls. John Forsythe (Blake) didn’t like the show spinning off to The Colbys. There was a lot of competition between Joan (Collins, Alexis) and Linda (Evans, Krystle), as there are between two leading ladies as I had seen in the theatre. We were very collaborative and worked hard on set, but rarely saw each other off set because I think we got sick of each other working 5, 12-hour days a week.”
Forsythe was jealous of Collins, because he was protective of Evans. “But Joan was so dynamic. As Alexis, she bought that little bit of magic dust that made the show complete. She was instrumental in turning the show into what it became. I loved Jeff’s scenes with Alexis. He stuck it to her, she stuck it to him.
“And here I am in my 20s and—when we did The Colbys—here are Charlton Heston (Jason) and Barbara Stanwyck (Constance) telling me about the days of MGM. I was not in character in those scenes with them. The director would tell Barbara how to do a scene, and she would do it her way.”
Playing opposite Collins, James had a device that made fart noises, which would so fool and exasperate her, she’d cry out, “JJ, would you go to the bloody bathroom?”
The fame the show bought was startling, James recalls, “because television creeps under people’s doors.” On safari in Kenya, he was told by his hosts about the Dynasty VHS tapes that would arrive by plane. In Lagos, while stretching his legs in an airport, he was suddenly being cheered by fans. He loved, and still loves, being a pin-up for gay men.
Indeed, James had auditioned to play Steven and ended up playing Jeff. The weirdness of Steven’s gay storyline was down to the time, and the choice to play it “incrementally rather than full-bore,” as James puts it. “There were a lot of advertisers who might not to be too happy about it.”
The 1980s won’t fully leave James alone. Next year, alongside Maxwell Caulfield and Sean Young, he will be starring (and producing) in Axcellerator, a Romancing The Stone-like action movie.
James sighs. A man recently said to him that he really missed seeing him on TV.
“The day I remember most clearly was my last day where I took off Jeff’s proverbial suit. They loved me because I never threw my costume on the floor. I always hung it up.” OF COURSE JEFF DID. “I put it on a hanger, placed it in the closet, looked at the suit and said ‘Goodbye Jeff,’ and closed the closet and that was the end of it. Bye.”
After doing, as he puts it, “235 hours of television,” he was tired, and wanted a normal life with his wife Denise and children, who he has raised. Now those children are older (Laura, his daughter, won America’s Next Top Model in 2012, and his son Phillip is serving in the Air Force.) Now, with more freer time, it’s nice to have casting directors calling James again.
If the new Dynasty calls him, James says, “Sure, I’d look at the script first and of course why not?”
And so what if the new Jeff (Adegoke) is African American? This is Dynasty, where Blake (Forsythe) and Dominique Deveraux (Diahann Carroll) were half-brother and sister.
The writers could definitely find a way to make the two men related, I say. “I’m sure they’ll come up with something, Tim,” James says with a light chuckle.