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Larry Hagman: An appreciation
Larry Hagman, whose "Dallas" character, J.R. Ewing, was the patron saint of TV villains and among the three or four most iconic figures in the medium's history, died Friday after a long battle with cancer.
His family announced his death in a statement released by Warner Bros. Television, the producer of "Dallas," which said in part, that he died peacefully surrounded by his "family and closest friends [who] had joined him in Dallas for the Thanksgiving holiday."
Diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver in 1992 after years of heavy drinking and later a malignant tumor that lead to a liver transplant, Hagman had been the subject of reports of perilous health for years, although he had continued working over that period and even reprised J.R. for the TNT remake that bowed earlier this year.
Although an esteemed character actor and sitcom superstar of the early '60s with "I Dream of Jeannie," it would be the single role of John Ross Ewing that would define his entire career as well as the entire television medium when the three networks were king and "Dallas" TV's supreme guilty pleasure. It was also a Reagan era landmark while the baronial Ewings and their malefactor-in-chief were somehow (per some contemporary critical assessments) even a reflection of that time as well.
But a pragmatist to the core and scion of a show business legend -- he was the son of stage and film actress Mary Martin -- Hagman saw J.R. exactly for what it was: The role he was born to play. Long before getting cast for J.R., he showed his mother the script, who enthusiastically told him he would love it. "It's got all . . . dark characters," he recalled years later. "I knew this character from the get go."
Born Larry Hagman on Sept. 21, 1931, in Fort Worth, Texas, where is father was a district attorney, Hagman would eventually move to New York long after his parents' divorce, when his mother had become one of the great stars of Broadway.
A precocious stage brat, he went from school to school and eventually landed in the U.S. Air Force. After the service, he began to make a name for himself on Broadway ("A Priest in the House", "The Beauty Part", "The Warm Peninsula", "The Nervous Set") which led to a daytime TV role in "The Edge of Night" and that, in turn, to the sitcom "I Dream of Jeannie," the amiable Sidney Sheldon hit about an astronaut who discovers a beautiful genie in a bottle, played by Barbara Eden.
After "I Dream of Jeannie" ended, Hagman landed only mostly bit parts. Even the role of J.R. was meant to be only part of the scenery. The David Jacobs-created and Leonard Katzman-produced prime-time soap was essentially billed as a Romeo-and-Juliet soap set in the oil patch, with Patrick Duffy -- J.R's eminently decent younger brother -- and Victoria Principal -- Bobby's doting and beautiful spouse -- as the leads.
But during early episodes, he and his on-screen wife and longtime nemesis, Sue Ellen -- Linda Gray -- were told to be in the background, without any written speaking parts. Instead, they made up their own dialogue -- bitter natterings that instantly defined their Bickersons relationship, which the producers found more intriguing than the words they had written for the other stars.
The squabble-fraught Ewing marriage was to become the most famous in all of television, with J.R. as womanizer, cheat and all-around creep to Sue-Ellen's wronged woman, who plotted his demise with such energy and ingenuity that she even bought a film studio so she could produce a movie about his shenanigans.
But J.R. was the black -- and vital -- heart of "Dallas," TV's top-rated show in three of its 13 seasons, from 1978 to 1991. He was laconic, cruel, devious, petty, spiteful, jealous -- a grab-bag of twisted, depraved human traits that Hagman made utterly compelling.
He was also the inspiration for easily the most famous cliffhanger in television history. On Nov. 21, 1980, some 83 million viewers tuned in to find out exactly who shot J.R. The question had dominated television culture for months. Alas, the answer -- Kristin Shepard, played by Mary Crosby -- is now largely forgotten.
After show ended, Hagman saw a lesson in the role: "The opulence, the consumerism, the food, the cars -- these things made them want more than their governments provided them," Hagman told a magazine, attributing the collapse of the Soviet Union, in part, to J.R. and his minions.