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Assailed by critics, TV's Dukes of Hazzardnonetheless left a long cultural skidmark and still drives fans wild

In September 1978, cast and crew gathered in Conyers, Ga., at a local Holiday Inn to begin filming a new TV show.

No one could have envisioned then how, 25 years later, The Dukes of Hazzard would continue to delight fans worldwide.

"I think people love to look back to the days when a handshake was your honor and you did not have to lock your doors," figures James Best, who played bumbling Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane.

The series depicted the Robin Hood-like exploits of the colorful Duke family, whose members continually flabbergasted corrupt Mayor "Boss" Hogg by driving recklessly, running moonshine and causing various comical upheavals in the fictional community of Hazzard (believed to be named after Hazard, Ky., although the show carefully avoided any geographic specifics). The show's centerpiece was a souped-up orange Dodge Charger, nicknamed the General Lee, and Duke cousins Bo, Luke and Daisy.

The Dukes of Hazzard aired its first episode in January 1979 and ran for over six years in CBS primetime. It later went into syndication and spawned a spin-off series, several imitations and even a Saturday-morning animated series.

The Dukes had strong country music connections. Waylon Jennings sang the show's popular theme song and served as each episode's narrator, and numerous country stars made guest appearances - often as "victims" of Boss Hogg's notorious speed trap. (The Oak Ridge Boys were nabbed twice!)

Series stars John Schneider and Tom Wopat both went on to enjoy successful - though relatively short-lived - stints as country singers. John had four No. 1 singles, including "I've Been Around Enough to Know" and "You're the Last Thing I Needed Tonight." Tom had seven Top 40 hits and went on to briefly host The Nashville Network's Prime Time Country series.

Though critics derided the show for its cartoonish depiction of rural America, Dukes was a huge hit with viewers. They connected with its themes of family honor and grassroots resourcefulness, and with its message that the "underdog" Dukes always won out over the big, bad, corrupt establishment.

"I think it reflects the feeling in each of us that love and family will overcome greed," says Rick Hurst, who played Roscoe's hapless deputy, Cletus.

Perhaps it's that feeling that keeps fans coming to DukesFest, an annual celebration organized by Ben Jones, who played goodguy mechanic "Cooter" Davenport. This year's Fest drew 10,000 people to Sperryville, Va., where for five years Ben has run a popular museum and store called Cooter's Place. A new Cooter's Place location has just opened in Gatlinburg, Tenn.

"It's real humbling for all these fans to come out to just shake hands and have their picture made with us," says Sonny "Deputy Enos" Shroyer, who was on hand for this year's event. "It's nice to know you're loved and accepted by the public."

That love and acceptance shows no sign of stopping. In fact, rumors are flying of a possible movie version starring young Hollywood stars, an idea that doesn't sit well with Ben.

"Nobody can play me better than I can play me," he declares. "You can't replace Bo and Luke and Daisy and Cooter. We are the Dukes of Hazzard!"

But whether or not audiences get to see the Dukes on the big screen, it's a safe bet that they'll continue to watch reruns of the TV show and turn up for events like DukesFest.

"The Dukes of Hazzard holds a special place in the heart of America," notes Ben.

-- Pat Gallagher