At the end of his 2001 autobiography, Larry Hagman said that he was not going to sum up his life at the end because “as far as I’m concerned, I’m still playing the game.” He kept playing, too, right up to the end on Friday, when cancer finally claimed the TV icon at age 81.
It is, of course, fitting that when he died he was still playing J.R. Ewing. for the latest reworking of Dallas on TNT. This, more than any other, was his defining role, It was a role that he still found interesting, and lucrative, taking it on even when he was dealing with cancer, and years after he had told me that he did not want to be a regular on a series because he was getting too old. And one in which he could still steal the audience from other performers, even the next-generation characters filling air time on the new Dallas.
Of course, Hagman wasn’t J.R. Although he had his flaws, including enough battles with alcohol that he had to have a liver transplant, he had far more scruples than his TV counterpart, and stayed married to the same woman for more than 50 years.
But Hagman could be as tough as J.R., especially when it came to deal-making, and did share with J.R. a joy about life that it seemed nothing could diminish, and certainly not a little something like cancer.
I remember Hagman fondly from crossing paths with him several times over the years. As much as you might hear about difficult relations between stars and the press, Hagman seemed to enjoy the give and take. And because he enjoyed it, reporters were eager to talk to him. When Hagman was at a press gathering, no matter what other stars were around, he drew a crowd.
Always a laugh
At the height of Dallas, Hagman would open up his Malibu home to reporters attending a TV critics tour. Other Dallas stars would be on hand, but it was Hagman’s HQ — one where, showing his considerable sense of humor, the Hagman-directed Beware! The Blob would be showing on the TV while the party was in progress. (Hagman liked to note that the 1972 movie was reissued on video after his Dallas climb with the tag line “the movie J.R. shot.”)
Even well into his seventies, in 2006, he was at a press event because he had taken on a recurring role on the FX series nip/tuck. Again, people gathered around. Again, Hagman had stories, and laughter arose.
And it all could have gone very differently. Before Dallas, Hagman first had to deal with being known for his bloodlines — as son of actress Mary Martin. And even when he had done plenty of work in movies and television, he thought his strength was situation comedy, as demonstrated by his early work on I Dream of Jeannie with Barbara Eden. He almost passed on the original Dallas in order to star in another sitcom.
There were times when it appeared he had settled into being a character actor, sometimes in small but showy roles (as in the movie Harry and Tonto), sometimes in just plain small ones. He is, for example, briefly seen in the first of Christopher Reeve’s Superman movies but says in his book that he needed the work because “I was broke again.” But he might have made a career out of playing various kinds of weasels if Dallas had not happened.
And it almost did not. In his book, Hello Darlin’, Hagman says he was wary of this thing called Dallas. For one thing, the money wasn’t good (which he would remedy once the show was a hit). And even though he was an established TV name, his role was not the main one. He was leaning more toward a show called The Waverly Wonders — a sitcom.
But his wife, Maj, read the script, and saw it could be Hagman’s once-and-for-all breakthrough. Of course, it was, because J.R. let him play not only comedy, but also dramatic moments, triumphant villainy, clear-eyed scheming — and as a ladies’ man. All the notes he had been hitting in roles seen and unseen were now available in one place, and after some early ratings struggles, that place became the most-watched spot on television. (The Waverly Wonders went on with Joe Namath as the lead, and lasted about a month. The original Dallas ran 13 years.)
Yes, there were other characters on the show. And behind the scenes was producer Leonard Katzman — who saw Hagman’s potential and began making J.R. more important in the show, and who introduced the season-ending cliffhangers that kept people talking about Dallas during long summer hiatuses. But on camera, making it all work, was Hagman. After Dallas, as he went on to other roles (and periodic returns to J.R. in reunion movies and the TNT series), there was no doubt about what he could do.
So it was that he never had to sum up his own life. But we can do it for him: Larry Hagman, solid actor, engaging presence, great talker — and TV immortal.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including in the HeldenFiles Online. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.