Thanks, J.R.: A Tribute to Larry Hagman (1931-2012)

This morning my heart, like those of millions of Dallas fans around the world, feels heavy after learning that our beloved Larry Hagman, who created one of television’s most iconic TV characters, J.R. Ewing, has passed away at the age of 81 after a long battle with throat cancer. According to the report from the Reuters news service, Larry passed, appropriately enough, in Dallas, surrounded by his family, which included his long-running TV wife and close friend Linda Gray. It’s truly touching that Linda could be there for him in his final moments given that they, along with Patrick Duffy, remained the closest of friends long after the original Dallas ended its run on CBS. The camaraderie among the three was so obvious and genuine in the many interviews they did together to promote TNT’s revival of the show. One of the best things about having the show return was seeing these veteran actors rekindle their amazing chemistry so effortlessly, as if years had not passed since they had performed together. Larry was clearly diminished, physically speaking, after his well-publicized bouts with cirrhosis of the liver and later liver cancer, but his joy at being “back in the saddle” as J.R. was evident in his eyes. He often quipped during interviews about wanting the new Dallas to run as long as the original. For him, it was not to be, but how wonderful it is that he was given the opportunity to come full circle and relaunch the Dallas franchise successfully so that a new generation could discover the mystique of this amazing show. Of course, Dallas was not Larry’s only notable credit. He was a fixture as a guest star on TV shows throughout the ’60s and ’70s and created another iconic TV character, Major Tony Nelson, on the sitcom I Dream of Jeannie, which ran from 1965 to 1970 co-starring the ageless Barbara Eden. As Major Nelson, Larry was just as lovable and sweet as he was evil playing J.R. Eden, who reunited with Larry on Dallas for a five-episode stint as the scheming Lee Ann De La Vega (1990-1991), posted a statement to her Facebook page in loving tribute to her co-star.

 Larry Hagman and Barbara Eden in “I Dream of Jeannie.”

Larry Hagman and Linda Gray as the iconic J.R. and Sue Ellen Ewing.

Women loved Larry, who was known for being a prankster on set and an eccentric member of the celebrity beach-house community in Malibu, CA. His long list of onscreen paramours, including Mary Crosby, Lois Chiles, Morgan Brittany and Audrey Landers, among many others, have often commented on Larry’s penchant for off-color jokes and quirky ad libs. They also praised him for being a generous actor who used humor and pranks, often pulled off with his accomplice Patrick, to break the ice with newcomers to the cast. Larry also brought his J.R. magic to the Dallas spin-off Knots Landing occasionally to bedevil his brother Gary (Ted Shackelford) and Gary’s saintly wife Valene (Joan Van Ark), who, ironically, will be making guest appearances on the new season of Dallas next year. J.R.’s visits to Knots were most enjoyable, however, for his scenes plotting with the show’s female J.R., Abby, played by Donna Mills, who co-starred with Larry in The Good Life (1971-1972), a short-lived sitcom about a married couple posing as servants working for a rich man. How ironic that a few years later, these two would embody the power-mongering, money-hungry 1980s. Larry’s emergence as the “black heart” of Dallas as J.R. is well-known. When the show premiered as a miniseries in 1978 it was centered around the love story of Bobby and Pam as a modern Romeo and Juliet fighting against all odds but there was no stopping Larry’s charisma and skill with a wicked line. He quickly became the show’s engine and was one of the highest-paid actors on TV during the 1980s. Dallas spawned a legion of imitators, both successful and short-lived, and each show had its own version of J.R. Jane Wyman ruled the roost as Angela Channing on Falcon Crest, Joan Collins revived her career by joining Dynasty in its second season as the vengeful Alexis Carrington, and Morgan Fairchild, the original Jenna Wade on Dallas, took her signature brand of blonde ice queen to a series of primetime soaps, including Flamingo Road, Paper Dolls and Falcon Crest. To borrow from Carly Simon’s James Bond movie theme song, however, nobody did it better. Larry ruled as J.R. How TNT and Dallas executive producer Cynthia Cidre will handle his passing on the show will be interesting to see. No one can replace him, for sure. Still, Larry left the show in a good place. The franchise is reborn with fresh energy and will surely flourish under the stewardship of Patrick and Linda as Bobby and Sue Ellen. In closing, I want to share this wonderful montage of Larry’s classic J.R. lines that was posted to YouTube in 2011. It’s a fitting tribute to the king of Dallas. R.I.P., Larry, and thanks for the memories.

Click on this photo to see Larry Hagman in his prime through the years on Dallas.