Published on January 29th, 2019 | by Michael Ray0
Interview with Actor John Schneider on the 40th Anniversary of “The Dukes of Hazzard”
“Just the good ol’ boys, never meanin’ no harm”.
With those opening chords from Waylon Jennings, CBS started a Friday night tradition on January 26, 1979. The Dukes of Hazzard was a breakout hit.
The show, based on the 1975 movie The Moonrunners, pitted the heroic Duke family; Bo, Luke, Daisy, and their Uncle Jesse, against the bumbling and corrupt officials of Boss Hogg, Roscoe Coltrane, and his deputies in the fictional county of Hazzard, Georgia.
From the opening credits featuring the other star of the show, a 1969 Dodge Charger, named The General Lee, the children of the late-70s CB and fast car generation were hooked. The show celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.
Southern New York native John Schneider was 18 when he walked into the waiting room to test for the coveted role of the younger Duke cousin, Bo, in a very unorthodox way.
“I walked in with the best southern accent I had, along with a six pack of beer, and told them I was from Georgia. I drank one of the beers while waiting and when they called me in, I offered one to the casting director. Not really the right way to audition, but I was a young and cocky kid and it worked!”
Cast beside veteran actors like Denver Pyle, who played Uncle Jesse, the patriarch of the Duke family, and James Best, the comically corrupt Sherriff Roscoe P. Coltrane, production began on location in Georgia for the first five episodes of the show before it moved to California when CBS put in an order for a full season.
“We shot those first episodes and I knew we had something. From the car chases to the comedy, it captured the culture of the country at the time and not just in the South. Everyone was in love with Smokey and The Bandit, so I think we tapped into that love. At the same time, we presented a show that had so much to offer everyone in the family. Parents loved it, kids loved it. It was a show that you could watch together.”
By the second season, the show started to cement its place in the CBS Friday night lineup, placing second in ratings and viewers only to Dallas, which aired following The Dukes. The formula of the fun-loving Duke Boys against whatever criminal get-rich-quick scheme that Boss Hogg was planning, added a little something extra during this season that was dubbed “the celebrity speed trap.” Country acts the likes of The Oak Ridge Boys, Roy Orbison, Buck Owens, and Loretta Lynn all were victims of Hazzard’s finest, and, to avoid a traffic violation, they were enticed to perform at the local watering hole, The Boar’s Nest, conveniently owned by Sorrell Booke’s character of Jefferson Davis Hogg.
In 1981 with the popularity of the show, John released an album of his own on Scotti Brothers Records, It’s Now or Never, which reached number 8 on the Billboard Country charts. When I asked him about what bit him first, the acting or music bug, he had this to say:
“Storytelling. That is what bit me. I love to tell a story. Through acting or music, I love both. Being on the show opened the door for me with getting a deal on Scotti Brothers. Of course, the ‘celebrity speed trap’ had me shaking hands with Hoyt Axton, Mickey Gilley, and Mel Tillis, which was just beyond amazing. We had the soundtrack for the show come out in 81 featuring Johnny Cash, who was never on the show, but he recorded the song “The General Lee” for it. Getting to meet Johnny was a dream come true for me as a country artist.”
With the success of the show, Dukes of Hazzard merchandise was everywhere in the early 80s. Before filming was to begin on the fifth season, a contract dispute over merchandising royalties caused a delay for a few weeks, while stars John and Tom Wopat attempted to renegotiate their contracts. In one of television’s most questionable moves, the producers hired two actors who bore a striking resemblance to John and Tom and started filming the new season with previously never mentioned cousins, Coy and Vance Duke. After 19 episodes and a significant drop in ratings, CBS parent company Warner Brothers settled their dispute and brought back Schneider and Wopat.
“That was a difficult time. We were not asking for anything except what was owed to us. Hot Wheels, shirts, albums, models, you name it, had our faces all over them, and they were not willing to talk. To get the call telling me that we had been replaced was horrifying. I thought that may have been the end of the show right there. The fans were not having it though.”
The popularity of the show never seemed to quite recover, however, and by 1984 ratings had been in decline owing to the “Duke Switch” along with budget restraints which forced the show to use miniature effects depicting the General Lee’s feats versus the repeated costly repairs. The final episode was aired in February of 1985 after seven seasons. John continued to release music and act steadily through the rest of the 80 and 90s. In 2001 he was cast as Jonathan Kent, Superman’s Earthly adopted father in the WB show, Smallville.
“At first I kind of resisted. I was a fan of the Christopher Reeve movies and of course the George Reeves show, but Superman had been done in quite a few varieties and I just didn’t know if one more was going to bring anything new to the legend—that is, until I read the first few scripts—and I was sold. They cast Tom Welling and then Michael Rosenbaum and during that first reading of all of us together, I knew it would be something special that we were adding to the tale of Superman.”
The first episode set a ratings record for a WB debut, with 8.4 million viewers. Over ten seasons the series averaged about 4.34 million viewers per episode. By the end of its run in 2011, Smallville was the longest running North American science-fiction series by episode count. These days you can find John in The Have and the Have Nots on OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network. The show, now in its seventh season, is the highest-rated cable show on Tuesday nights and is based on the play by Tyler Perry set in Savannah, Georgia, returning John to the South onscreen once again.
“You know I am the very definition of a ‘Damn Yankee’ if there ever was. Here I am, a guy from New York State and I have made a living off being presented as a southerner. It was difficult to not really try and give my character of Jim Cryer an accent, just so he wouldn’t sound like Bo Duke. The cast and producers of the show are amazing to work with and it’s a joy to be a part of this show.”
The musical side of him has not been neglected either in recent years. In 2018, he launched an ambitious 52-song project, The Odyssey, releasing a song a week throughout 2018. He also dropped a Greatest Hits album before the end of the year.
Somewhere between all the acting and the music, John still managed to co-found the Children’s Miracle Network, a non-profit organization that raises funds for children’s hospitals, medical research, and community awareness of children’s health issues. Founded in 1983, they have raised more than $4.7 billion dollars which is distributed directly to a network of 170 hospitals. With all this to his credit, I asked him what he thought about being mostly remembered for the Iconic role of Bo Duke that started it all.
“I am just amazed at the staying power of it. It’s been almost 40 years since that show hit the air. I have met kids with their parents and grandparents who are fans of the show as well. I cannot think of anything else on TV that has had the staying power of that show. Smallville was an amazing show, but will it be remembered in 40 years? I doubt it. I don’t know if it was the wholesomeness of the show or what, but I am always floored at the fandom of the show. Ben Jones, who was Cooter on the show, has three locations of his restaurant/museum “Cooter’s Place.” It blows me away when the fans show up for signings or appearances. I am extremely proud of what we accomplished on that show.”
Unfortunately, in 2015, despite many lucrative years in syndication, The Dukes of Hazzard was pulled from broadcast television due to the controversy and debate of the Confederate battle flag that emblazoned the roof of the General Lee. John had this to say about that:
“You know it troubled me. It troubled me because it seems when you’re force-fed a certain narrative about a thing like the Civil War, it starts to get believed versus the actual facts about it. I think the South has to start with some serious reeducation on the matter, from the top down, and I just don’t think that will happen anytime soon. It’s a hotly debated subject of course, as it should be, but it’s sad to see a show that was not controversial at all, wind up in one. Thankfully Amazon has the show streaming for everyone to find and reconnect with and hopefully bring back some great memories of a little bit of a slower day and age!”
With a career spanning over four decades, John shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. He will keep “staightenin’ the curves and flattenin’ the hills” as long as the fans allow him to.
You can follow and stay up on all the John Schneider news, music and more on his social media pages:
And of course, his website https://johnschneiderstudios.com.