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Getty Images (mountains, foothills, oil rig, skyline); PictureLux/The Hollywood Archive/Alamy Stock Photo (Diahann Carroll); Pictorial Parade/Getty Images (Linda Evans); Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Photo Archive (Joan Collins, pond fight, Heather Locklear, John Forsythe, Moldovian wedding); Eddie Sanderson/Getty Images (Joan Collins in mud). Photo illustration by Sean Parsons

Comas, Catfights, and Clothes: An Oral History of Dynasty

Forty years after Denver’s most infamous fictional family first rocked the small screen, the stars of the scandal-happy primetime soap reveal the true stories behind America’s guiltiest pleasure.

Oil

During the 1980s, one television program came to define and reflect the culture of its hometown. That show? Dallas, the sordid prime-time soap opera that followed the travails of Texas’ fractious, oil-drilling Ewing family. But Dynasty, which premiered three years later, seemed divorced from any earthly realm. While it, too, revolved around an oil-rich clan, the Carringtons, Dynasty’s storylines strayed far further into the fantastic, from towering rooftops (from which at least one baby was tossed…or so it seemed) to foreign kingdoms (where the main characters were machine-gunned to death…or so it seemed). The plots were propelled by the fierce rivalry between two women—Alexis Carrington Colby and Krystle Carrington, forever locked in a bitter feud over oil magnate and Carrington patriarch Blake—and the glamorous outfits they wore, and very often ripped apart, during their pitched battles. As otherworldly as Dynasty was, it did possess one tenuous tie to reality: Denver, where the Carringtons lived, married, divorced, remarried, died, came back to life, divorced again, remarried again, and, once, discovered a trove of stolen Nazi treasures beneath a lake. Although Dynasty was filmed in Los Angeles, it was Denver that helped inspire the series, after famed producer Aaron Spelling (of The Love Boat, 90210, and Melrose Place) met and befriended a Colorado billionaire named Marvin Davis.

Douglas S. Cramer (Dynasty producer, in his oral history for The Interviews by the Television Academy Foundation): Dynasty came about because Dallas was a big hit.… Aaron said, well, “we’ll do oil, but somewhere else. There’s more oil in Denver.” And he had met in Palm Springs Marvin and Barbara Davis.

Federico Peña (Denver mayor, 1983–’91): Marvin was in oil and gas. Marvin was a real estate developer all over the country. I think at one time he and his company bought Pebble Beach Resort.

Dick Fleming (president and CEO, Downtown Denver Partnership, 1980–’86): There was a location in the Palace Arms restaurant in the Brown Palace Hotel that was reserved at all times for him.

Peña: He was physically large. But he was also a large character. He and his wife started the Carousel of Hope Ball to raise money for the Barbara Davis Center for Childhood Diabetes. Marvin, who at that time had a large investment in [20th Century Fox], would bring all these movie stars to Denver. And it was the thing to go to in the city. He’d raise $3 million, $4 million, or $5 million, and at the end of the evening, he’d stand up and say, “I’m going to match it!”

Linda Evans (played Krystle Carrington, Blake’s wife): The Carousel of Hope Ball. I think we were there twice. They actually based Blake and Krystle after that couple (the Davises) who was so successful. [Marvin] and Aaron [Spelling] became best friends. That’s why they chose Denver, because that’s where their empire was.

Linda Evans (middle) poses with billionaires Barbara and Marvin Davis. Photo courtesy of Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

Cramer: Anyway, [Esther and Richard Shapiro] wrote the pilot and were very involved the first year, and they really focused on the downstairs side of the family and the working class because they thought that was different from Dallas.

Esther Shapiro (co-creator, in her oral history for The Interviews by the Television Academy Foundation): We began thinking of a series that had everything that you’re not supposed to put on television. Rich people, the Midwest, older women…lots of business, entrepreneurs, greed, opulence, all the Donald Trump stuff, really. And he was a big fan. [Spelling] was a great cheerleader on it. And when he read the first eight pages, he called us and said, “This is going to be huge.”

Evans: I completely and totally loved Aaron for the fact that he chose me, because I was at the time considered older at 38. In those years, Farrah Fawcett and the younger girls were there. It wouldn’t have been inappropriate for Blake to have had a younger secretary he fell in love with. The fact that [Spelling] hired me at my age, I adored him. Then he hired Joan at her age. He had confidence in us.

Richard Shapiro (co-creator, in his oral history for The Interviews by the Television Academy Foundation): Esther went to New York with a suitcase full of dailies and showed it to [ABC’s] board of directors.

Esther Shapiro: Leonard Goldenson [founder and president of ABC] just jumped up and started clapping. He never did that before. He said, “This is what my network is about.”

Evans: I loved Esther and Richard Shapiro. Especially the first three seasons of the show, they really were writing something very important for the public. They wrote about homosexuality, they wrote about mental health issues, they addressed so many issues that weren’t on television at the time.

Cramer: It was originally called Oil. And it was deeply boring.

Enter Alexis

Dynasty debuted in January 1981, the same month Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as the 40th president of the United States. The pilot centered on the marriage of Blake to Krystle, his former secretary, and the season delved into topics that were rarely addressed on broadcast TV; in particular, the fact that Blake’s son Steven was bisexual. But its weighty subject matter didn’t interest audiences, and Dynasty failed to challenge Dallas in Nielsen ratings, finishing 28th. The season one cliffhanger, however, had introduced a mysterious new character, Blake’s ex-wife, Alexis Carrington, who was poised to energize the show—as soon as producers could find an actress to play the part.

Nolan Miller (costume designer, in his oral history for The Interviews by the Television Academy Foundation): The last show [of the first season], John Forsythe [who played Blake Carrington] was on trial for murder. Accidentally, he had killed his son Steven’s lover. At the last minute, they told me, we have to have an extra walk across the front of the courtroom. You have to have a hat with a veil on [her], because we don’t know who is going to be Alexis.

Cramer: [Spelling], in a shocking meeting at the network, said, “Well, you give us the [season two] pickup”…and he took a breath, and we were all on the edge of our seats, and he said, “We’ll deliver either Elizabeth Taylor or Sophia Loren for the lead.” Within five minutes, [the network] said, It’s a pickup, you have it, it’s on the air, go back to work. Well, we walked out—I turned to Aaron, as did Esther, and said, “Can you do it?” He said, “There’s no worry.” …When he called [Taylor] first she said, “Aaron, you’ve got to be kidding. I wouldn’t do television. I couldn’t handle it. I wouldn’t go through it.” She never would do Love Boat, and she hung up, and that was over. So we pursued Sophia.

Miller: They were offering [Loren] $600,000 for six episodes, which was pretty fantastic in those days.

Cramer: But we could never announce she was doing it. Carlo [Ponti, Loren’s husband] called Aaron one day and said “…we want to talk about when she’s going to be through, because I’ve got a movie coming up and we want her to start in December.” He had never mentioned that before, but Aaron had never mentioned it was a five-year deal and that she had to do 30 shows a year…. So she was gone.

Miller: Aaron remembered [Joan Collins] though from Fantasy Island, and everyone said, “Oh please, she’s such a B actress.” …Aaron said, Joan will be a bitch made in heaven.

Esther Shapiro: When we mentioned her to the network, they thought she was just over the hill. And it just made us mad.

Cramer: [Spelling] showed us a shot from a scene from Fantasy Island, and it was Joan Collins as Cleopatra, and he said, “This is it.” And Candy [Spelling, Aaron’s wife] said it was quite right: Whenever you couldn’t get Elizabeth Taylor all through the 1960s and ’70s, you used Joan Collins.

Miller: And as soon as Joan came in—pow! It was magic. She set fire to the thing.

Evans: It just added so much life and intrigue. It suddenly became very fascinating to people. That kicked us off in the right direction.

John Forsythe (played Blake Carrington, in his oral history for The Interviews by the Television Academy Foundation): It was about a family in Denver, Colorado, the head of which was a powerful, somewhat magnetic figure, a tremendously wealthy man whose family was a very trying group. And above all, one of his great enemies was Joan Collins, his ex-wife who desperately tried to wreck his life and all the people around him. So it was a very, very fruitful avenue to follow.

Esther Shapiro: It’s cathartic for women to watch somebody else go for it…. She can go after younger men. She can play with money. She can speak her mind. And women loved it. I remember one of the book editors that we had said that her niece [was being confirmed] and all 12 of the girls picked Alexis as their [confirmation] name.

As Alexis, Collins became the perfect foil for Blake and Krystle, delivering withering one-liners (“I’m glad to see your father had your teeth fixed, if not your tongue”) and hatching endless plots to ruin their lives. At the same time, Collins, who did not respond to interview requests for this story, garnered endless tabloid headlines for her supposed mercurial behavior on set.

Mark Zunino (costume assistant): I hadn’t met her before, and I was waiting in her fitting room. She came in and crossed the room to a dressing table, and when she turned around and saw me in the mirror, she started screaming, “Get out of my fitting room!” She thought I was a fanatical weird fan, and the more I would try and tell her what I was doing, the more frightened she was. Heather Locklear was walking by and opened the door to see what the commotion was. I was just trying to explain I was new, I’m here to see Joan, and Heather just grabbed me and said, “Well, Joan’s not here today. It’s only Alexis right now. So come with me.”

David Paulsen (executive producer, 1988-’89): She’s uh…um…well, she, she….

Krystle and Alexis settle an argument. Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Photo Archives

John James (played Jeff Colby, Blake’s daughter’s on-again off-again love interest): Joan had just started working. I believe it was the beginning of the second season, it was a beautiful California day, we were sitting outside, having lunch on the break, and she sidles up next to me. The first thing out of her mouth—I’d never met the woman—she said, “J.J., how much are you making an episode?”

Evans: Joan was a friend. She used to come to my house in Malibu. Joan is fun! We never had one fight, ever, on the Dynasty set. Ever.

James: We became very close friends. I don’t want to name drop, but to go to her house for a Saturday night cocktail party with Roger Moore, Elton John, Jackie (her sister), Allan Carr, and then have Elton John sit at a piano and just rage until three in the morning—it was a lot for a 26-, 27-year-old to take in. But it was great times.

Forsythe: I was much more comfortable with Linda than I was with Joan, who’s a very, very good actress incidentally.

Miller: I had asked to bring Prince Mubarak from Kuwait on the set…. And we walked on the set and Joan came straight toward me: “The pillows match my dress,” and she’s carrying on. And I said, “Well, we’ll do something about it.” She said, “Well, they want me to change and I’m not going to.” And I said, “Joan, may I present his Royal Highness Prince Mubarak of Kuwait.” She goes, “Hello, excuse me, I have to go back to work,” and she stormed away. I said, “Your Highness, I’m sorry, but it’s not a very good day on the set.” He said, “Don’t apologize. I would have been disappointed if she had been any other way.”

Carrington Couture

To design the wardrobe for the extravagant Carrington clan, Spelling turned to Nolan Miller, who had worked on Spelling shows before, such as Charlie’s Angels, The Love Boat, and Fantasy Island. Miller had also dressed icons, including actress Joan Crawford, and paid homage to the padded shoulders, large hats, and striking silhouettes of 1940s Hollywood when envisioning the personal styles of Alexis, Krystle, and the rest of the Dynasty women.

Miller: When I was called into Aaron’s office, Esther Shapiro and Aaron were there. He said, “I never want to see them wear the same thing twice, and if Cary Grant wouldn’t go to bed with her, I don’t want to see her.”

Forsythe: This was a show that I think was predicated on the whole MGM vision of what a movie should be. The gowns were beautiful, the women were beautiful, the men were for the most part very attractive. The settings all glorious. Like an old MGM movie.

Florence Müller (textile and fashion curator, Denver Art Museum): The difference between Dynasty and Dallas is in Dallas it’s J.R. who is the main character, and he’s a masculine character. In Dynasty, it’s feminine characters who are dominant. Women are becoming much more powerful in the professional world, and the big shoulders are expressing this.

Miller: Joan would sometimes look at me at a fitting and she’d say, “Darling, do you think we’re going over the top?” …I was having an interview and they had just watched her shoot a hospital scene and she had a big hat on with veils, she had furs, she had a big envelope handbag, gloves that she was playing with. [The interviewer] said, “Don’t you think it’s a little ridiculous that she was dressed like that in a hospital scene?” And I said, “Why? She was supposed to intimidate everybody when she arrived at the hospital.” I said, “Well, you saw her coming down the hall; you got out of the way, didn’t you?” And he said, “Yeah.” I said, “So did everybody else.”

Evans: It was every woman’s dream. We could go into Beverly Hills and point at anything we wanted and say, “Send it to Nolan Miller.” I could wear anything I wanted. Armani. Valentino. You point, you get.

Miller: Doug Cramer was more hands-on than anybody could ever imagine, down to the crystal glasses and what kind of Champagne Alexis is having for breakfast…. I could call him and say, “You know, there’s a scene where she’s supposed to have a new diamond necklace. Do you want us to borrow one from Tiffany’s?” “Yes. I want it to be in a Tiffany’s box, and I want it to be real.” We’d call Tiffany’s and they’d loan us a big, $2 million diamond necklace and send it with a guard.

Evans: The only time I didn’t see [the guard] is when I went to the ladies’ room. But he’d stand right outside the door.

Miller: Then the ratings kind of started slipping a little. They blamed it on the hats and the shoulder pads. Somebody at work said it’s too unrealistic, that people don’t wear big hats and shoulder pads. So they announced, foolishly, just a blank announcement that they were getting rid of shoulder pads and hats. You laugh and think, So what? It caused a furor. Women’s Wear Daily was phoning us, phoning the office. They even phoned from Paris. Bergdorf Goodman, particularly, called the producer and said, “Are you people crazy? Every garment we have in stock has shoulder pads—what are you doing to us?”

Shoulder pads showed the strength of Dynasty’s women. Photo courtesy of Marka Alamy Stock Photo

Esther Shapiro: Our merchandizing went well over a half a billion dollars…. We did rugs. We did everything. We did hats.

Robert Shapiro: I have a tuxedo.

Esther Shapiro: Tuxedoes, yeah, we did. And jewelry. Jewelry was a big one.

Miller: Marshall Fields did the entire store as Christmas with the Carringtons. They had mannequins made to look like every character. Every window was a different scene; there was Linda Evans at her dressing table in a negligee.… This one night it was freezing and snowing very hard and it’s terrible. I wanted to look at the windows, and I went out and there were two little ladies bundled up like Eskimos looking at the big window. I was standing nearby just looking at the window, and I heard the woman say, “Oy, can you imagine what it would be like to be this rich?”

The Moldavian Massacre

Led by Alexis’ conniving and seducing—as well as cast additions Heather Locklear, who played Steven’s blue-collar seductress Sammy Jo, and Diahann Carroll as Dominique Deveraux, Blake’s long-lost half-sister—Dynasty embraced camp and introduced a formerly kidnapped child, a thought-to-be-dead husband, and a rash of amnesia. The wilder the storylines, the higher the ratings went. In 1985, the show finally reached number one, thanks to a season-ending episode called “Royal Wedding” in which Amanda Carrington (the surprise daughter Blake never knew Alexis had) marries the prince of a European kingdom called Moldavia—before armed gunmen crash the ceremony.

Forsythe: I thought one of the great weaknesses in Dynasty were the stories.

Paulsen (a writer, producer, and director for Dallas before joining Dynasty): We used to joke about it at Dallas, because it was so crazy.

James: You go, “Oh my gosh, we’re doing what now?” I mean, for [my character] they created a storyline where Adam decides to poison me by painting my office with poison paint. The fumes were causing me to hallucinate. You gotta look at that and go, “Oh boy.”

Cramer: We drifted into it. We found that the further we went, the more outrageous the show got, the more the audience responded.

Robert Shapiro: We were reaching the end of a season and our cliffhanger [had been leaked to] Star Magazine or one of those. We were sitting around and saying, “What could we do?” And somebody of dubious tact—myself—said, “Let’s have the baby go over the roof.”

Paulsen: I think in one of the later episodes, they all went into a palace or something like that, all the major characters, and some people came in and shot them all up and there was blood all over the place. Everybody should have been killed by the number of gunshots.

James: The Moldavian Massacre, it was called.

Esther Shapiro: Camille Marchetta was the writer on Dallas who did the “Who shot J.R.?” storyline. We hired her…. We had a lot of pressure from the network to do the most outrageous things we could. And she came up with a storyline.

Camille Marchetta (writer and producer, 1984-’85): I just felt like writing a romance like the one between Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday. Threaded through everything else was this story of Blake’s daughter being delivered into marrying this prince of this kingdom. I felt grounded in that story because even though Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck was a film, Grace Kelly actually did it. So I thought, OK, we can pull this off.

“Royal Wedding” reflected the weakness of the show’s plots. Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Photo Archives

Cramer: We weren’t really sure who was working and who wasn’t…. [Producers Eileen and Robert Pollack] said, “Let’s just shoot half of ’em off, and we won’t even be sure who’s alive and who’s dead,” and it gave us the opportunity to breathe.

Miller: They were machine-gunning the whole chapel and everybody’s covered in blood, and only Ali MacGraw [who played Jeff Colby’s girlfriend at the time] died.

Also popular among fans were the recurring fistfights between Krystle and Alexis, which began during the second season and escalated from ripped pillows to water wars to mud wrestling to, eventually, Krystle beating Alexis with a plastic mannequin arm.

Evans: The minute they found out that people loved to watch us beat each other up, it was every season.

Esther Shapiro: It’s not an opera, so you’re not going to sing. So what else can they do except go at each other?

Evans: The first fight was when I came to her apartment because I found out that she was responsible for shooting the gun that made the horse drag me and I lost my baby. It was pretty serious stuff. They came to me and said, “We’re thinking about doing a fight, how do you feel?” I said, “Oh my God, Barbara Stanwyck [who co-starred with Evans on the 1960s TV show The Big Valley] raised me on how to do this.”

Miller: Joan did not like these, uh, physical things…. The minute it started getting rough, Joan would say, “Can we have the stunt doubles?”

Jeannie Epper (Evans’ stuntwoman in the famous Lily Pond fight scene, in which the characters wrestle in a water fountain): My job was to run, grab her, and take her into the water. [Collins] is so funny. I dunked her, and when she came up she was sopping wet. When it was time for her close-up, she wanted them to spritz her. And Linda looked at her, and Linda looked at me, and she said, “I don’t think so, Joan,” and she took her head and pushed it underwater.

Reign’s End

Dynasty’s ratings began to fall after the 1985 finale, while the show’s cost continued to climb. In 1988, ABC moved the soap from its Wednesday time slot to Thursday night—where it competed with NBC’s powerful lineup of The Cosby Show, A Different World, and Cheers.

Paulsen (who took over as executive producer during the final season): The president of ABC hated the show. He told me so. He said, “I’ve been trying to get this damn show off the air for years. Next summer I’m going to do it.” Which kind of put a cap on my run.

Miller: [The Moldavian Massacre] was the beginning of the end.… It lost its believability at that point.

Paulsen: Times were changing. This was in 1988. The first batch of the ’80s was the Reagan era, and everything was a bit more fanciful then, when people had more money, people were out having a good time—more than they were in the ’70s. But toward the ’90s, things were getting more serious.

Esther Shapiro: It’s one thing to do fantasy grounded in reality. It’s when you get out of this world and it gets that much bigger that it just—you better get off the air.

To rein in costs, Paulsen cut the appearances of Dynasty’s two main female protagonists; Krystle developed a brain tumor, and the surgery to remove it left her in a coma (just in case the show decided to bring her back).

Evans: I asked to leave Dynasty because I thought the show was going to go on forever. It didn’t feel like there could be an ending to it.

Paulsen: I also negotiated Joan down from 22 episodes to I think 11. She did not like that at all.

Forsythe: I didn’t want to be on a show that continued to deteriorate. But that’s the very nature of television, I think. It comes to a point and then the juices stop flowing and, unfortunately, the show then goes out of existence.

Esther Shapiro: Every time we got away from the core characters and the core kind of relationships, Dynasty suffered.

Dynasty fell to 69th in the ratings and was canceled following the season nine finale, in which an agent of a mysterious organization called the Collection shoots Blake on the steps of the Carrington mansion. Still, the series spawned a spinoff, a 1991 reunion, and, in 2017, a reboot on the CW.

Cramer: When people ask me what I think of it, or how I feel about it today, I just say I loved what television was. The things I think back to—the catfights in Dynasty, and Archie Bunker yelling at his wife, and Noël Coward and Mary Martin singing in their show, or Dinah Shore, or some of those great Carol Burnetts. We don’t have that anymore.

Richard Shapiro: I think Dynasty did what television is meant to do. It entertained people. I think that’s the legacy.

Esther Shapiro: I think it’s about fantasy, really. I think it allows you to fulfill some fantasies that you don’t have in your everyday life. Especially for women. Just for an hour or so, you can experience all that. That’s what I think.

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