Fervor for the television show “Dallas” was intense in 1980, when the Queen Mother met actor Larry Hagman and joined the worldwide chorus asking: “Who shot J.R.?”
“Not even for you, ma'am,” replied Hagman, who portrayed villainous oil baron J.R. Ewing at the center of the popular prime-time soap from 1978 until 1991.
An estimated 300 million viewers in 57 countries had seen J.R. get shot by an unseen assailant, a season-ending plot twist that is credited with popularizing the cliffhanger in television series.
Hagman, who became a television star in the 1960s starring in the sitcom “I Dream of Jeannie,” died Friday at a Dallas hospital, said a spokesman for actress Linda Gray, his longtime co-star on “Dallas.” He was 81.
A year ago, Hagman announced his second bout with cancer. He had spoken candidly about decades of drinking that led to cirrhosis of the liver and, in 1995, a life-saving liver transplant.
“He was the pied piper of life and brought joy to everyone he knew,” Gray said in a statement. “He was creative, generous, funny, loving and talented…. an original and lived life to the full.”
For years, he was considered the unofficial mayor of Malibu, where he lived for decades in an oceanfront home. He often led impromptu ragtag parades on the sand while wearing outlandish costumes and flew a flag from his deck that declared “Vita Celebratio Est” - “Life is a celebration.”
As an actor, Hagman came with a serious pedigree. He was the son of Mary Martin, a legendary star of Broadway musicals best known for originating the role of Peter Pan in the 1950s.
On “Dallas,” Hagman's J.R. Ewing was “the man viewers loved to hate,” according to critics, a scheming Texan in a land of plenty. Much of the show's run paralleled the nation's fascination with big money and big business in the 1980s, and the role made him an international star.
“Here is a man born to play villainy,” former Times TV critic Howard Rosenberg wrote soon after the show's debut. “His performance on ‘Dallas' is a salute to slime.”
A Texas native, Hagman often said he played the character as a composite of “all those good old boys” he had known growing up, “who caught more flies with honey instead of vinegar.”
He approached the role as “a cartoon,” Hagman once said of the role that earned him two Emmy nominations. “It was outrageous comedy to me.”
By his own admission, Hagman drank his way through “Dallas.” Champagne was “his poison” - he would uncork a bottle by 9 a.m. and keep the bubbly flowing all day. He once poured bourbon on his cornflakes.
“The drinking sometimes made it harder to remember lines, but I liked that constant feeling of being mildly loaded,” Hagman said in 1995 in People magazine.
Diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver during a checkup in 1992, Hagman said he became an instant tee-totaler. After developing a cancerous tumor on his liver, he underwent a liver transplant three years later.
“I'm often asked how my liver transplant operation changed my life. Aside from saving it, nothing changed,” he wrote in his 2001 autobiography, “Hello Darlin'.” “It confirmed what I've always tried to do - live my life as fully as possible before the clock runs out.”
When Hagman arrived in Hollywood in the 1960s, he had already appeared in a half-dozen Broadway plays and spent two years on the daytime television soap opera “The Edge of Night.”
From five television pilots, Hagman chose to read for the part of astronaut Tony Nelson on “I Dream of Jeannie.” Created by Sidney Sheldon, the show plugged into the nation's space mania and owed a creative debt to another hit series, “Bewitched.”
Jeannie was played by Barbara Eden, who complicates the life of uptight Nelson after he aborts a mission on a desert island and unleashes her character - a magical and alluring genie - from a bottle.
“I liked the premise of ‘Jeannie,'” Hagman wrote in his book. “It was good, wholesome, escapist fun, with a healthy dose of sexual tension.”
When many television shows were switching to a color format, “Jeannie” debuted in fall 1965 in less expensive black and white because it wasn't expected to succeed. When it became a hit on NBC, the next four seasons were shot in color.
The network “finally woke up and realized what they had bought,” Sheldon later recalled, “a show about a beautiful, half-naked girl, living (unmarried) with a man, saying, ‘What can I do for you, Master?' ”
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