For a family show about two good old boys, The Dukes of Hazzard has seen its share of controversy.
Before it even premiered on CBS on Jan. 26, 1979, then-CBS programming chief B. Donald Grant squared off with a roomful of TV critics who hated it. Among their objections was that "the two male leads appear to be on the wrong side of the law, that the subject of illegitimate parenthood was treated humorously, and that one of the female regulars is often seen in skimpy costume," according to a Hollywood Reporter account. One North Carolina critic went further, calling the show's stereotypes "out of line with the New South."
Grant ignored the critics and Hazzard went on to air on CBS from 1979 to 1985, winning over millions of ardent fans in the process. In its initial run, the series drew as many as 20 million viewers per episode and by its third season had become the second-biggest show on TV. Those fans would introduce their own children to the series when it ran for years in constant syndication.
Annual fan conventions like the Good Ol' Boys Fest in West Virginia — thrown by Ben Jones, who played Cooter the mechanic before going on to become a Democratic Georgia congressman from 1989 to 1993 — have been known to draw over 100,000 spectators.
But a cloud hangs over Hazzard: What haunts the action comedy these days is the Confederate battle flag painted on the roof of the boys' ride, the General Lee, a fiery orange '69 Dodge Charger.
The renewed fervor to ban that flag — viewed by many as a slave-era hate symbol — is giving the cast deja vu. In 2015, after Dylann Roof murdered nine Black congregants in a South Carolina church, TV Land, the only network airing the series at the time, took the show off the air. (It hasn't returned to broadcast TV since, but currently streams on Amazon.)
The war over the General Lee has even pitted Duke against Duke.
"I have never had an African American come up to me and have any problem with it whatsoever," John Schneider (Bo), 60, tells THR, adding that "the whole politically correct generation has gotten way out of hand."
Tom Wopat (Bo's cousin Luke), 68, strikes a more conciliatory tone. "The situation in the country has obviously changed in the last 40 years. I feel fortunate to be living in a time when we can address some of the injustices of the past," he says. "But the car is innocent."
The show's creator, Gy Waldron, grew up in Lenoxburg, Kentucky, where he fondly remembers a childhood in which both flags flew proudly. "I had relatives fight on both sides of the Civil War and we honored both the American and Confederate flags," says Waldron, 87. "No one even connected the Confederate flag with slavery. It was simply a part of our Southern culture."
That said, Waldron does "wholeheartedly support the Black Lives Matter movement and its quest to address racism around the world," he adds.
"There are 80 million descendants of the Confederacy — one out of four people has that heritage. Most of them have no problem with the flag at all," Jones asserts. "This was a family show. Black families watched it for generations. I know this. I had a [congressional] office right there in the Martin Luther King district. King's right-hand man Andy Young is a dear friend of mine. We couldn’t care less about rebel flags."
Schneider concurs. "Dukes of Hazzard was a unifying force. Mom, grandma, everyone wanted to watch it together. But who benefits from division?" he says. "The Dukes of Hazzard has been shot down, I believe unfairly. We haven’t missed a generation yet, but we may miss this next one."
One logical move — to erase the flag digitally — is a nonstarter, at least as far as Jones is concerned. "That wouldn’t please anybody," he says. "Because after 40 years seen all over the world — in thousands of jigsaw puzzles, on model cars and lunch boxes — the General Lee, by not having the flag there, would just draw attention to itself."
Adds Jones: "That would be like taking the 'S' off of Superman's chest."
A version of this story appears in the July 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.