Obituary: Larry Hagman / World loved to hate his portrayal of J.R. on 'Dallas'

Sept. 21, 1931 - Nov. 23, 2012

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Larry Hagman's portrayal of one of television's most beloved villains, J.R. Ewing, led the CBS series "Dallas" to enormous world popularity for more than a decade in the 1980s.

For a time in the late 1970s and early '80s, Mr. Hagman could lay claim to the title of most famous actor in the world. "Dallas," a soapy saga of a ranch-owning Texas oil family, was a hit in 57 countries. The rich villainy of J.R. revived Mr. Hagman's career after his co-starring role in the hit 1960s sitcom "I Dream of Jeannie" had typecast him as a lightweight comic actor.

The celebrated signature episode of "Dallas," which resolved the question "Who shot J.R.?" -- a mystery masterfully marketed by the network and the show's producers -- set viewing records, with an estimated 350 million people all over the world tuning in for the answer. (The shooter turned out to be Kristin Shepard, played by Mary Crosby, the scheming adulterous sister of J.R.'s wife, Sue Ellen, played by Linda Gray.)

The episode became the second-highest-rated television program ever (after the final episode of "M• A• S• H") with a rating of 53.3 percent and an average audience of 41,470,000 households.

Mr. Hagman, who died Friday at age 81, had been in Dallas filming an episode of the TNT cable channel's reboot of that series, which had made him the man audiences loved to hate from 1978 to 1991. The cause was complications of cancer, his family said in a statement.

In October 2011, shortly before filming began on the new "Dallas," Mr. Hagman announced that he had a "treatable" form of cancer. It was the latest of several health problems he had experienced since learning that he had cirrhosis in 1992. (Mr. Hagman acknowledged at the time that he had been a heavy drinker.) In 1995, he received a liver transplant after doctors discovered a tumor on his liver.

"As J.R., I could get away with anything -- bribery, blackmail and adultery," Mr. Hagman said after receiving his diagnosis last year. "But I got caught by cancer."

Nonetheless, he said, he relished the opportunity to reprise his best-known role.

Few actors enjoyed their fame as much as Mr. Hagman, who portrayed the oilman-robber baron J.R. as, in one critic's words, "an overstuffed Iago in a Stetson hat." At the height of the show's popularity, he liked to hand out fake $100 bills with his face on them.

When TNT decided to remount "Dallas" with a new generation of Ewings, it invited Mr. Hagman to return as J.R. He won praise for his performance, with some critics saying that he remained the best thing about "Dallas." The new version, which made its debut this year, was a success for TNT, which ordered a second season.

Mr. Hagman was born in Fort Worth on Sept. 21, 1931. His mother was actress Mary Martin, who would become famous for her performances in "South Pacific," "Peter Pan," "The Sound of Music" and other Broadway shows. His father, Benjamin Hagman, was a lawyer whose clients included a number of wealthy Texas oil men; Larry Hagman's memory of those tycoons would later help shape his portrayal of J.R. Ewing. ("They had such a nice, sweet smile," Mr. Hagman recalled. "But when you finished the meeting, your socks were missing, and you hadn't even noticed they'd taken your boots.")

His parents were divorced when he was 5. He was brought up in Los Angeles by his maternal grandmother, and after she died in 1943, he spent time with his father in Fort Worth and with his mother and his stepfather, Richard Halliday, a producer, manager and agent.

"I never resented her; she was never around," he said of his famous mother in an interview with Playboy magazine at the height of his fame. "As far as I was concerned, I enjoyed my youth very much."

Mr. Hagman attended a series of private and military schools in several states, leaving most of them, he admitted, with little distinction and occasionally at their request. After returning to Texas to live with his father, he graduated from Weatherford High School and later attended Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., which also proved to be an academically unsuccessful experience.

His abbreviated college career led him to a return to Texas, this time to his first theater job, at the Margo Jones theater in the round in Dallas. He later served apprenticeships in stock companies in several states.

In 1951, his mother arranged a small role for him in the London company of "South Pacific," in which she was starring. He remained in Europe for five years, four of them in the Air Force as a director of USO shows.

Returning to the United States, he became a busy New York City stage actor in the late '50s and early '60s, with supporting roles in "The Nervous Set," "The Beauty Part" and other Broadway plays. He was also seen frequently on television, which at the time was still largely based in New York, appearing in series like "Studio One," "The Defenders," "Sea Hunt" and the daytime soap opera "The Edge of Night."

Mr. Hagman came to Hollywood in 1964, and first attracted notice that year with a small but important role as the interpreter for the president (Henry Fonda) during a tense phone call with the Soviet leader in the nuclear-war thriller "Fail-Safe." Shortly after that, he found his breakthrough role: Tony Nelson, an astronaut whose life is both plagued and enlivened after he finds a beautiful genie (Barbara Eden) in a bottle, on "I Dream of Jeannie."

After that, Mr. Hagman was mostly a supporting player again, on television and in the occasional big-budget movie like "The Eagle Has Landed," although he also starred in two short-lived sitcoms, "The Good Life" (1971-72) and "You Again" (1973). Then came "Dallas."

After Mr. Hagman's well-publicized health problems in the mid-1990s, he was once again a welcome presence on television, if an infrequent one, with a recurring role on "Nip/Tuck" and appearances on "Desperate Housewives" and other series. He was also seen in "Primary Colors," "Nixon" and other movies.

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First Published November 25, 2012 5:00 AM


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