35 Years Ago: ‘The Dukes of Hazzard’ Rides Off Into the Sunset
The Dukes of Hazzard wound down its run with a finale that aired on Feb. 8, 1985.
The good ol’ boys of Hazzard County, Ga., cousins Bo and Luke Duke (John Schneider and Tom Wopat), had spent seven seasons foiling the schemes of county commissioner Boss Hogg (Sorrell Booke) and his dimwit underlings of deputies led by bumbling Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane (James Best). But the true star of the show was a customized 1969 Dodge Charger known as the General Lee.
It marked the end of a pop culture phenomena that centered around Bo and Luke on probation for running moonshine for their Uncle Jesse (Denver Pyle). Walking the straight and narrow could've come easy for the Dukes – aided by their brunette bombshell cousin Daisy (Catherine Bach) – but it's their probation officer Boss Hogg who is perpetually crooked, always looking to stick it to the family for always standing up for what’s just and fair, that kept them in trouble with the law.
The Dukes of Hazzard, based on the 1975 box office flop Moonrunners, became a surprise hit for CBS and became a part of their lucrative Friday night lineup. But it had long lost its luster by the mid-'80s, and the network pulled the plug on the show.
“The final day has to come sooner or later…in this case it was later,” Booke told a visiting Entertainment Tonight as filming wound down on the series.
“As actors, your job generally lasts six weeks, you know – ‘Movie of the Week’ or maybe a couple of months in a show onstage,” Wopat said. “To have something that runs seven years, it’s just phenomenal.”
Eviscerated by critics as “one of stupidest, crudest and lowest-aiming series in CBS history,” it was surprising The Dukes survived as long as it did, despite quickly finding an audience following its debut in January 1979. The program rocketed to the No. 2 slot in the ratings by its third season, second only to Dallas, the blockbuster nighttime soap opera that followed it.
But the momentum suffered greatly when Schneider and Wopat left ahead of Season Five in a dispute over royalties from merchandising. The pair sued Warner Bros. claiming they were owed $25 million based on the $190 million in sales of Dukes of Hazzard related items including toy lines, clothing and board games. Warners counter-sued for $92 million, alleging breach of contract and libel.
The show recruited unknown actors Christopher Mayer and Byron Cherry serving as replacements Coy and Vance Duke to kick off the fifth season. Schneider and Wopat returned with four episodes left -- both they and Warner Bros. dropped their lawsuits -- but the damage was done. The series dropped from No. 7 to No. 33 and never quite recovered.
It certainly didn't help that The Dukes of Hazzard suffered from a declining quality in script-writing throughout the final two seasons. Plots ranged from a robot being declared sheriff to contaminated drinking water turning Luke Duke into Mr. Hyde to an alien from another planet landing in town. And if the stories weren't bad enough, miniature sets were designed to cut down on the production costs of the show, with two-foot models replacing actual-size General Lees, of which a rumored 300 were destroyed during the series' 147-episode run.
The February 1985 conclusion of The Dukes of Hazzard wasn’t particularly memorable. Though it marked the directorial debut of Schneider, “Opening Night at the Boar’s Nest” was fairly by-the-numbers, with Lulu Hogg (Peggy Rea) hosting her annual charity talent show at the local watering hole and the expected hijinks taking place. Roscoe performs a magic act as “Coltrano the Great,” using Boss as an assistant in a disappearing bit. But he really does go missing when a fresh-out-of-jail convict and his brother kidnap him for a million-dollar ransom. It’s up to the Duke boys to rescue their nemesis and attempt to comfort the sheriff – in a notably tender scene by Best – inconsolable at the loss of his “little fat buddy.”
“Dukes fans often ask why the show didn’t go out with more of a bang, one last special episode that saw Uncle Jesse pay off the farm or at least let Bo and Luke off probation,” Schneider said in his 2019 memoir My Life, My Way. “Truth is, the network still wasn’t in our corner. At least not enough to give us a proper goodbye. We’d heard rumors that the series would be ending after season seven, but I don’t think I believed it back then. We were still a Top 20 show and I felt a certain last-minute call would come saying there couldn’t be a world without The Dukes. For the record, the show was never officially cancelled. CBS just didn’t pick us up for season eight.”
The final scene of the episode saw the whole cast up on the Boar’s Nest stage laughing it up and embracing, but it wasn’t the last one shot. That would be an everyday one of Schneider and Wopat in the General Lee sharing dialogue. "Unlike the televised ending where we all hugged at the Boar’s Nest, I remember saying, ‘Well, that’s a wrap.’” Schneider remembered. “The rear projection screen went blank, and I cried like a baby behind the wheel of that engine-less General.”
A dozen years later, while experiencing an injection of nostalgia courtesy of the show’s popularity in syndication on The Nashville Network, the cast returned for a 1997 made-for-television movie titled The Dukes of Hazzard: Reunion! that was a hit for CBS, followed three years later by the less well-received The Dukes of Hazzard: Hazzard in Hollywood.