As the Ewing Family's Foe, Ken Kercheval Is Edging His Way into the Driver's Seat on Dallas
11/30/1981 at 01:00 AM EST
For most members of the cast, CBS' phenomenal Dallas—TV's hottest show again this season—has become a once-in-a-lifetime gusher. But Ken Kercheval, 46, can't win for losing. As Cliff Barnes, J.R.'s archenemy, he vainly tries to trip up TV's oiliest snake in the grass every Friday. And each week some 55 million viewers see the truth in the assessment Audrey (Afton Cooper) Landers spelled out in one episode: "Cliff," she said, "you're an L-O-S-E-R." Kercheval could put up with the sobriquet, but recently his son Caleb, 19, a University of Massachusetts sophomore, revealed that his classmates were nicknaming him "Loser" too. "I'd been admitting defeat at every turn on the show," says Ken, "but I assured Caleb that he would soon be deserving of another name."
That's a promise Kercheval will be able to keep. "Dallas' writers recognized that for Cliff to have any strength at all, he would have to have power and money," Ken explains. "Cliff is going to do a real turnaround and become a more viable foe for J.R." He may never get the full vengeance he swore on his daddy's grave, but next week Cliff scores his first major victory over Ewing Oil. To make the revenge even sweeter, four nights after cutting down J.R., Kercheval will star as a surgeon with Dirk Bogarde and Glenda Jackson in CBS' The Patricia Neal Story, a drama based on the actress's agonizing recovery from crippling strokes. "Ken is willing to try new approaches," says executive producer Leonard Katzman. "He is an extraordinary man, and his interests are by far the most wide-ranging of the Dallas actors'."
Kercheval's passion is collecting art, American antiques and autos, and he's nearly as obsessive about it as Cliff is about J.R. "Most of my friends are collectors," says Ken. "There's a tight network of people who know what others are interested in. I get calls from all over the country." Once he flew from L.A. to an antique-glass exhibition in Modesto, Calif., but, he says, "I walked in, knew right away it was no good and went straight back to the airport. But it would have been worth all the trouble if there had been one piece I liked." A more recent venture paid off: He just bought a chamber pot once owned by Abraham Lincoln. "It was very, very expensive," laughs Ken. "It's a wonderful piece with eagles all over it."
Kercheval learned collecting from his father, a country doctor in Wolcottville, Ind. (pop. 890). "It started when I used to go on rides with him," says Kercheval. "He collected glass in his spare time, and I got the bug too." A mediocre student, Ken dropped out of Indiana University after one semester in 1954 to accept the lead in a Terre Haute production of Kiss Me, Kate. He then studied drama for a year in California before heading for New York, where he met other young actors like Robert Duvall, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman (Caleb's godfather) and Suzanne Pleshette. "I thought she was crazy because she said she stayed in bed weekends until 9:30," he remembers. "I was up at dawn—just a country boy trying to learn city ways."
He spent two years at the Neighborhood Playhouse and another 18 in shows on and off Broadway and in three TV soaps. He also worked as a cemetery plot salesman, hard-rock miner in a sewer tunnel, carpenter, plumber and painter. "There were some bad, bad periods," recalls Ken, whose only marriage ended some 15 years ago. (In addition to Caleb, his children are Aaron, 24, a Berkeley grad student, and Liza, 21, an actress.)
Kercheval has worked steadily since moving ("reluctantly") to L.A. in 1976, but success was not without cost. "I've suffered from low self-esteem. I was lost, lost, lost," says Ken, who has tried therapy three times. "Each time I told my shrink lies. Of course, that's a way of lying to yourself." Therapy now means noodling at the piano and dabbling in songwriting.
Ken's lady for the past five years has been actress Pam Murphy, 36, whom he first met when she played his wife in the soap Search for Tomorrow. "Pam and I have a good relationship," says Ken, though he keeps his art-filled Hollywood pad as a retreat while sharing her Pacific Palisades home. "I don't really like the architecture of her place," he says. "What we might do is sell both places, then move into a house big enough for all of us—my collection too." Certainly the grandiosity celebrated by Dallas holds no appeal. "Money, power and prestige are what Cliff Barnes aspires to, even though he sees that the Ewings live in misery," says Kercheval. "For me, happiness is doing my best and trying to be helpful. Being a star and having money do not make for a happy person. I think I've learned the lesson, even if Cliff hasn't."