Actor who played JR's nemesis Cliff Barnes in Dallas

Born: July 15, 1935

Died: April 21, 2019

KEN Kercheval, who has died aged 83, was an American stage, film and television actor whose career came to be defined by a single role – that of Cliff Barnes in the hit soap opera Dallas, a part he held throughout the original run of the series from 1978 to 1993, and again in the 1996 television film Dallas: JR Returns and the series revival of 2012 to 2014.

Particularly because of the internationally attention-grabbing "Who Shot JR?" storyline and on through the 1980s, Dallas was a broadcasting phenomenon, a show which caught the imagination of the Western world through its masterfully melodramatic storylines, the sense of otherworldly opulence conjured amid a world of Texan oil barons with wealth beyond the dreams of regular people, and creator David Jacobs’ neatly-constructed, Romeo & Juliet-like tale of romantic and business relations between two warring oil families.

Alongside the show’s defining performer Larry Hagman, who played the villainous, rapacious yet compellingly cunning JR Ewing, Kercheval was the only star to appear throughout the entirety of the show’s run, his name becoming branded onto the minds of millions of viewers as it flashed up over the gauche but extremely catchy theme song.

Cliff was JR’s brother-in-law and opposite number in the Barnes family, by turns a lawyer, bureaucrat and mid-level industry functionary, driven on by a hatred and desire for revenge against JR.

The rivalry between the pair had been passed on by their fathers, and Kercheval and Hagman’s characters and performances were a study in opposites; JR smart, smooth-talking and jet-setting, Cliff bumbling, over-eager and liable to trip up his own schemes, with a particular taste for Chinese take-out. Yet Cliff had more than one affair with JR’s wife Sue Ellen (Linda Gray), and he ended the original series by taking ownership of Ewing Oil from under the nose of his opposite number.

“I thought as an actor, how am I going to do this and have an audience have any belief in this guy, (that) he's not some kind of imbecile who keeps coming back up to get whipped?” Kercheval told a fan Q&A for the Ultimate Dallas website, referring to Cliff’s lack of self-awareness in constantly being outwitted by JR.

“I thought, the only way is to add some humour to it, just to say ‘dust yourself off, get up and start all over again’… I really tried to add humour to his character.”

Yet his performance also allowed for moments of pathos, and Kercheval spoke fondly of fan favourite scenes where Cliff met his estranged mother (played by Priscilla Pointer) and offered her a sweet. He also spoke of acting opposite the late Barbara Bel Geddes as Ewing matriarch Miss Ellie, whom he described as his best friend on the set.

The role of Cliff Barnes undoubtedly typecast Kercheval, and – although he enjoyed a lengthy career in television which began in 1966 – his choice roles came either pre-Cliff, or in guest appearances in other shows while at the height of his fame. These included such popular shows of the time as Kojak, CHiPs, Starsky and Hutch, The Love Boat and Perry Mason, with brief post-Dallas spots in Diagnosis Murder, the revival I Still Dream of Jeanie, LA Law, Murder, She Wrote and ER.

His film appearances were brief, most notably encompassing the Roy Scheider-starring cop thriller The Seven-Ups (1973), small parts in Sidney Lumet’s classic Network (1976) and Norman Jewison’s union-based Sylvester Stallone vehicle F.I.S.T. (1978), and a late-career role in low-budget mob thriller Corrado (2010).

After studying music and drama at university in his native Indiana, he apprenticed as a lighting operator at summer theatre in Fayetteville, upstate New York, and began life as an actor at Sanford Meisner’s Neighbourhood Playhouse in New York in 1956.

He made his Broadway debut with Something About a Soldier in 1962, took roles in the original Broadway productions of Chicago and Fiddler on the Roof, and more recently played the General in Plymouth Theatre Royal’s 2006 production of White Christmas, a role he returned to in the UK for a number of years, including a run at the Edinburgh Playhouse.

Ken Kercheval was born in Wolcottville, Indiana, in 1935 to mother Christine, a nurse whose family were farmers and coal miners, and father Marine, who was known as ‘Doc’ because he was a fifth-generation doctor and surgeon.

Raised in the small town of Clinton, he went on to marry four times and father five children with an age difference of 35 years between them, as well as becoming a grandfather several times over.

A lung cancer survivor in the 1990s, he reportedly died of pneumonia, and leaves behind a legacy of being – for a time in the 1980s – one of the most recognisable faces and characters in the world.