Okay, admit it–you watched “The Dukes of Hazzard”. The cheesy country TV show, starring an orange 1969 Dodge Charger named “General Lee”, was a cultural icon in the early 80’s. “The Dukes” was at the top of the ratings for years until contract disputes and casting changes killed it. But in Nashville TN, part of the show’s legacy lives on.
In 1975, Hollywood producer Gy Waldron released a movie called “Moonrunners”, based on the screenplay story of Jerry Elijah Rushing, who had been a moonshine smuggler in North Carolina back in the 60’s. “Moonrunners” revolved around the comedic attempts of back-country moonshiners to deliver their bootleg whiskey despite the attempts of corrupt local government and law enforcement to stop them. It was a mild box-office success.
In 1977, executives at Warner Brothers Television asked Waldron if he would be interested in turning the movie into a TV series. Waldron recycled many of the characters and situations from the movie, and came up with the basic formula for “The Dukes of Hazzard”. The heroes would be Uncle Jessie Duke, a wise old ex-moonshiner who was raising two of his nephews, Lucas “Luke” Duke and Beauregard “Bo” Duke, and his niece Daisy Duke. They were constantly getting into trouble with the corrupt local County Comissioner, Jefferson Davis “Boss” Hogg (a former moonshine competitor with Uncle Jessie), and his incompetent brother-in-law sidekick Sheriff Roscoe P Coltrane. To give the show a “Georgia” feel, country and western legend Waylon Jennings was asked to perform the title song and to act as narrator.
The series was picked up by Warner Brothers as a mid-season replacement, and nine episodes were ordered. Filming began in October 1978 in rural Georgia, and the first episode aired on CBS in January 1979.
When Warner execs saw the finished episodes, they thought it might have potential–which was confirmed by the high ratings the show’s first airings gathered. Warner decided to extend the series and ordered a full season’s worth of episodes, moving the production to a sound stage in California. Over the next few years new characters were introduced: Cooter Davenport is the local auto mechanic, Cletus Hogg and Enos Strate are Deputy Sheriffs, Lulu Hogg is Boss Hogg’s domineering wife, and Hughie Hogg, their son. In later seasons, as the ratings climbed, guest appearances were made by a variety of country/western singing stars and a couple of NASCAR drivers.
But the real star of the show was the “General Lee”, a souped-up ex-racing car and moonshiner driven by the Duke boys. Every episode featured several car chases and jumps as the Dukes evaded Sheriff Roscoe, who usually ended up crashing into a pond. (In the first season, the stunt drivers made a jump of 82 feet–a record that still stands.) The “Dixie” air horn in the General Lee was not written in the script. It appeared during filming, when the producer and director were having lunch and a car happened to drive by and sound its novelty horn–the production team ran out, stopped the car, and bought its horn for $300.
The General Lee was a 1969 Dodge Charger. The original scripts named the car “Traveler”, after Robert E Lee’s horse, but the producers renamed it to make it more “southern”. Since one or two cars were wrecked during the stunts in each episode, the entire series used up over 300 automobiles; the production staff had to use 1968 Chargers too and modify them to look like a 1969. By the end of the series, the producers were wrecking so many Chargers that they were stopping people in the streets to buy their car on the spot. In the show’s final years, as ratings dropped and the budget fell, miniature radio-controlled models were used for most of the stunt jumps. About 20 production-made General Lee Dodge Chargers still exist today, some in better condition than others.
For the first four seasons, the ratings were in the top 20. Tom Wopat and Roy Schneider became teen heartthrobs, and Catherine Bach became a sex symbol. Bach appeared in each episode wearing ultra-short cutoffs that soon earned the nickname “daisy dukes”. (When Warner Brothers execs first saw the costume, they threw a fit and banned them, giving in only after Bach agreed to wear a set of sheer pantyhose underneath them.)
As their star power increased with their ratings, the cast began having contractual disputes with WB and/or CBS. Ben Jones, the actor who played Cooter, walked off the set for several episodes during an argument over whether the character should have a beard. James Best, who played Sheriff Roscoe, left temporarily in a tussle over the dressing rooms. Sonny Shroyer, who played Deputy Sheriff Enos, left for one season to star in his own spin-off, in which the naive Deputy goes to Los Angeles, but that show was quickly cancelled and he returned to “Hazzard”. Jerry Rushing, the ex-moonshiner on whom the series was loosely based, appeared in a bit role as a used-car salesman, but later sued Warner Brothers over the rights to the characters, and settled for an undisclosed payment. As season five was about to begin shooting, Tom Wopat and John Schneider announced that they would not appear for filming: they were in a dispute with Warner Brothers over the sharing of income from “Dukes of Hazzard” merchandise. Bo and Luke Duke were written out and were hastily replaced by two new “cousins”, Coy and Vance Duke.
With that cast change, however, the fans deserted the show in droves. Wopat and Schneider resolved their disagreement with WB and returned at the end of the season, but the damage had already been done. The show’s ratings never recovered, and after a few more seasons of limping along, it was cancelled in February 1985.
The show went into syndication, where it remained popular. For a short time, there was an animated Saturday morning cartoon version, and in 1997 a reunion TV movie was released. Later, a “Dukes” theatrical movie was made with an entirely new cast. In 2015, in reaction to the controversy surrounding the Confederate Battle Flag, Warner Brothers, which still owned the show, announced that it would no longer syndicate the series or manufacture any merchandise.
After the series ended, Ben Jones, the actor who played “Cooter”, went into politics. He served two terms as a US Congressman from Georgia, from 1989-1993. When his district boundaries were redrawn, he lost his Democratic primary in 1992, then ran unsuccessfully against Newt Gingrich in 1994. Today, Ben Jones owns a series of museums/memorabilia shops called “Cooter’s Place”, one of which is in Nashville TN. The museum contains a collection of Dukes merchandise and photos, replicas of the General Lee, Daisy’s Jeep “Dixie”, Cooter’s tow truck, and Sheriff Roscoe’s patrol cruiser, as well as one of Sheriff Roscoe’s uniform costumes from the show and a roof from one of the first-season General Lee cars, autographed by Tom Wopat.
Here are some photos from a visit:
Replica General Lee
Daisy’s Jeep “Dixie”
Sheriff Roscoe P Coltrane’s patrol car
Cooter’s tow truck
Costume worn by actor James Best
The roof from one of the first season General Lee cars, autographed by Tom Wopat
Dukes of Hazzard memorabilia