Actor Larry Hagman: Adored by a Genie, Shot by a Mistress -- and Loved by All
I was talking with a friend of mine today about Larry Hagman, who died Nov. 23 at the age of 81.
“Ah, Major Nelson,” he said.
True, true, but that may not be the first name that comes to mind when you think of the life and career of Hagman.
When you think of Hagman, you think first, foremost and forever of "J.R.," the unredeemably scheming, double-crossing, philandering, more Texan than Texas tycoon J.R. Ewing for 13 years on “Dallas,” the prime time soap opera where oil wells weren’t the only gushers. Hagman, with those about-to-take-off big eyebrows, a gleaming, predatory smile and the requisite larger-than-they-should-be cowboy boots and hats, was the patriarch and anaconda-in-chief for millions of viewers.
When at the end of one season, J.R. was shot in the shower by persons unknown and his fate still unknown until the start of next season—your old basic prolonged cliff hanger—record millions watched and more kvetched about J.R.’s fate and the name of his assassin all summer. Talk about the reality of unreality shows.
“Dallas” buzzed its way through the 1980s and the Reagan era, where corporate greed was as big a trend word as it is today, accompanied by junk bonds and oil wells. “Dynasty” soon followed, featuring a female version played by the rhymes-with-witchy Joan Collins. But it was always Hagman’s J.R. who was the man you loved to hated or, in women’s case, hated to love. There was something iconic and big in the part, an American character made up of equal parts of bad breath and expensive after shave.
J.R. was not all Hagman was—in fact, except perhaps for a too-long-a-time penchant for living big and giving in to his appetities, mainly alcohol, Hagman was known by reputation as one of the good guys, a gentleman, warm and funny, an actor’s actor with whom his fellow actors loved to work. Linda Gray, who played his “Dallas” wife on the show called him her best friend of 30 years. She returned for a recent TNT reprise of the show and was at his side along with his family last week when Hagman passed away from complications of his long bouts with cancer. He also had at one point chirrosis of the liver, which resulted in a liver transplant. Asked how the transplant changed his life, Hagman quipped, “I didn’t die.” In addition, he created a foundation benefitting organ transplants and became a champion of the cause
Hagman really did play other parts than J.R.—including the part of Major Tony Nelson, an American astronaut who finds himself keeping company with a fetching genie, played by Barbara Eden, in a hit sitcom, "I Dream of Jeannie," that preceded “Dallas.” He also acted on Broadway. He had the genes for it—his mother was Mary Martin, the legendary Broadway star of “South Pacific”—in which Hagman performed with her once in London-- and “The Sound of Music” not to mention being “Peter Pan” on television. Martin headed for California when she was still a teenager, and both of them understood a little something about enduring fame.
Hagman had small but significant roles in a number of films before and after he hit it big in television series, notably as the interpreter for Henry Fonda’s U.S. president in the nuclear crisis film, “Failsafe,” a blustering general in “The Eagle Has Landed” and a truly fine part of a politician who cannot quite let go of ambition in the thinly-veiled Clinton campaign movie “Primary Colors,” which starred John Travolta and Emma Thompson.
Hagman always insisted he played J.R. as a kind of cartoon, a composite of numerous Texans he had known all of his life. He also admitted that he fairly floated through the length of the show, on doses of daily champagne. He said he liked working while being a “little loaded.”
Other than for his excesses, Hagman was nothing like J.R.—he was noted for his charitable work, he was married to his wife Maj Axellson for 59 years.
He accurately noted the craziness surrounding the shooting of J.R. episodes. “We were in the middle of a hostage crisis and there was an election campaign but all everybody wanted to know was ‘Who shot J.R.?’ "
For the record, it was Kristin, J.R.’s scheming sister-in-law and mistress, played by Mary Crosby, who shot him. Take that.