Berlin Hidden Gems: How TV's 'Dallas' Toppled Romanian Communism

Hotel Dallas Still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival

The 'Hotel Dallas' husband-and-wife filmmakers tapped actor Patrick Duffy for a surreal take on how the '80s series helped end the reign of Romania’s dictator.

Patrick Duffy actually wasn’t surprised when Romanian director Livia Ungur and her collaborator (and husband) Sherng-Lee Huang contacted him, asking if he would reprise his iconic role as TV’s Bobby Ewing for their surreal art house film, Hotel Dallas.

The experimental drama, which premieres in Berlin’s Panorama sidebar, explores the impact the 1980s TV soap had — and continues to have — in shaping Romanians’ image of capitalism and the West. Dallas was the only U.S. TV show to air in Romania during the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu. Apparently, the dictator thought the over-the-top portrayals of Texas cutthroat capitalism would remind his subjects how good they had it in the communist state.

Instead, the show became a hit and its stars folk heroes. If you believe the hype, Dallas helped inspire the 1989 Romanian revolution that toppled Ceausescu.

"For years, Larry Hagman would tell me how he took personal credit for defeating communism," Duffy told The Hollywood Reporter. "I used to take that with a grain of salt, but over the years, I had the strangest series of coincidences. I was at the Washington correspondents' dinner, and the Romanian ambassador ran over to shake my hand and tell me how important Dallas was to defeating the communist regime. Then, just last June, I was in Monte Carlo with my wife and the same thing happened: The Romanian ambassador there came over, his eyes welled up with tears, and he took his pin — of the Romanian flag — and pinned it on my jacket."

For Ungur and Huang, the impetus for the film was the actual Hotel Dallas, a life-size replica of the J.R. Ewing bunkhouse from the show that was built by a newly rich capitalist in Romania in the 1990s. At first, it attracted hordes of tourists and Dallas fans, but now "it’s more of a run-down shell," says Huang. "A lot of Romanians are kind of embarrassed about the place."

In the film, Ungur stars as a Dallas-obsessed Romanian who, like her country, is haunted by the show and its impact. The characters of Bobby and J.R. appear only as ghostly apparitions in voice-overs. Initially, Huang had planned to voice the Bobby parts himself, but on a whim, he sent a copy of the nearly finished film to Duffy.

"I admit, at first I didn’t understand it," Duffy says. "It wasn’t the kind of movie I’m used to seeing. So I showed it to my sons, who said, ‘This is brilliant, you have to get involved.' " Duffy ?waived his usual fee, asking only for "a good bottle of wine" to revisit the career-defining role.

Huang says he’s ambivalent about the show’s influence on the country and its people. "If you look at the brand of corrupt crony capitalism embodied by J.R. in the show, it’s very much the kind of capitalism running things in Romanian now," he says. "So the legacy of Dallas is a complicated thing."