Ken Kercheval was one of two actors — the other being Larry Hagman — who starred on the entire run of the TV hit of the ’80s, Dallas (1978 – 1991). The Indiana native played Cliff Barnes, the not-so-nice guy who always seemed to get outfoxed at the last minute by the prime time soap’s resident heel, J.R. Ewing (Hagman).
Many years ago, while working and living in Los Angeles for TV Guide Canada, I interviewed Kercheval for a section we used to do back then called “Celebrity Chef.” This was basically an excuse to sell grocery coupons and other food-related advertising in the magazine. Being a TV star, in other words, was way more important than being a culinary expert as far as landing a story in this section of the magazine.
Kercheval’s connection to food was novel, at least: he had recently become a partner in a popcorn farm. “On Dallas, I battle J.R. Ewing,” he told me (and likely many others). “In the popcorn business, I fight J.R. Redenbacher.”
Kercheval insisted his farm in his wife’s home town of Louisville, Ky, grew the best corn. Co-star Linda Gray (Sue Ellen), he said, had his popcorn shipped by the case. The one actor on the set who was not impressed was Hagman. “Kenny,” he said to Kercheval, “nobody goes into farming these days.”
That was back in 1986 and Hagman may have had a point. When I last ran into Kercheval seven years ago at one of those Hollywood Shows in Burbank, Calif., he was signing autographs for cash, admitting he had lost a fortune in the popcorn venture.
He was certainly a good sport, however, about that TV Guide food story photo shoot. Photo ace Gene Trindl was a master when it came to simple camera tricks. His idea for Ken the Popcorn King: cut a hole in a large box lid. Insert lid upside down over Kercheval’s noggin. Fill lid with popcorn. Voila: Ken’s a poppin’.
When I met up with Kercheval years later at that Hollywood show he was saddened to learn Trindl had passed away. The two ate popcorn and swapped many industry stories on the day of that shoot.
Kercheval’s career was much more than Dallas. He broke into TV as an actor in the early ’60s in series such as The Naked City and The Defenders. He had a run on the daytime serial The Secret Storm and ducked into episodes of Kojak and Starsky and Hutch. Early Broadway stage roles and scenes in a few features, including “Network,” was also part of his C.V.
He kept coming back to Dallas, however, joining a couple of TV-movie revivals in subsequent years as well as the recent TNT series reboot. Kercheval may not have been cut out for corn, but he always knew what buttered his bread.