Larry Hagman listens to a reporter's question while visiting the...

Larry Hagman listens to a reporter's question while visiting the Southfork Ranch in Parker, Texas, made famous in the television show "Dallas." (Oct. 9, 2008) Credit: AP

Larry Hagman, whose J.R. Ewing was the patron saint of TV villains and among the three or four most iconic figures in the medium's history, has died at 81 after a long battle with cancer. His family announced his death through Warner Bros. Television, the producer of "Dallas," in a statement that said in part that he died peacefully Friday, 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 led to a liver transplant, Hagman was dogged for years by reports of perilous health -- many of them in the tabloid press. But he continued working over that period and even reprised J.R. for the TNT remake that bowed earlier this year.

He was an esteemed character actor and sitcom superstar of the '60s with "I Dream of Jeannie," but a single role -- John Ross Ewing -- would define a career and to a large extent a medium when the three networks were king and "Dallas" TV's supreme guilty pleasure.

A pragmatist to the core and scion of a show business legend -- he was Mary Martin's son -- Hagman saw J.R. exactly for what it was: the role he was born to play. Long before getting cast as J.R., he showed the script to his mother, who enthusiastically told him he would love it. "It's got all bastards in it, all dark characters," he recalled years later. "I knew this character from the get-go."

Born Larry Hageman on Sept. 21, 1931, in Fort Worth, Texas -- his father was a district attorney -- he moved to New York long after his parents' divorce when his mother became one of the great stars of Broadway. The precocious stage brat also was a knockabout who went from school to school and eventually landed in the Air Force.

He made a name for himself on Broadway ("A Priest in the House," "The Warm Peninsula," "The Nervous Set"), which led to a TV role ("The Edge of Night") and that in turn to "I Dream of Jeannie," the amiable Sidney Sheldon hit about an astronaut who finds a beautiful genie, played by Barbara Eden.

Afterward, Hagman landed 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 Bobby -- and Victoria Principal -- Bobby's doting and beautiful spouse, Pam -- as the leads.

During early episodes, Hagman and his on-screen wife, Linda Gray as Sue Ellen, had no written speaking parts. They made up their own dialogue, bitter natterings that instantly defined their Bickersons-style relationship, which the producers found more intriguing than the lines written for the other stars. New stars were then born.

The 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 to 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 14 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 also was inspiration for easily the most famous cliffhanger in TV history. On Nov. 21, 1980, some 83 million viewers tuned in to find out who shot J.R.

"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.

Five facts to know about the star who played J.R. Ewing on "Dallas":

HIS FAMOUS MOM. Larry Hagman was the son of singer-actress Mary Martin, who starred in such classics as "South Pacific" and "Peter Pan." Martin was still in her teens when Hagman was born during her marriage to district attorney Ben Hagman.

CLAIM TO FAME. Years before "Dallas," he was on "I Dream of Jeannie," in which he played an astronaut whose life is disrupted when he finds a comely genie, portrayed by Barbara Eden, and takes her home to live with him.

HIS REAL-LIFE ADVOCACY. Hagman was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver and acknowledged that he drank heavily for years. He had a transplant after a malignant tumor was discovered in 1995, and it turned him into an advocate for organ donation and a hospital volunteer. He was an anti-smoking activist who took part in "Great American Smoke-Out" campaigns.

WHAT HE WANTED ON J.R.'s TOMBSTONE. "It should say: 'Here lies upright citizen J.R. Ewing. This is the only deal he ever lost,' " Hagman said in 1988.

WHO SHOT J.R.? The answer to that cliffhanger was one of the most-watched TV events. It was J.R.'s sister-in-law, Kristin Shepard (Mary Crosby), whom he impregnated, then threatened to frame as a prostitute unless she left town.

-- AP

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