Larry Hagman much more than just J.R. Ewing

Posted 2:14am on Sunday, Nov. 25, 2012

If you were a sentient being with electricity -- and maybe even without electricity in 1980 -- chances are you remember the "Who shot J.R.?" phenomenon, even if you never watched an episode of Dallas.

According to the Museum of Broadcast Communications’ entry on the show, 76 percent of U.S. televisions in use were tuned in to Dallas when the mystery was resolved in November 1980. People who didn’t tune in may not have cared about the answer, but they’d certainly heard the question, or seen it on bumper stickers or T-shirts.

The phenomenon wasn’t limited to America. The New York Times reported in a 1980 story that Dallas mania was sweeping Great Britain (where episodes ran slightly later than in the U.S.

Betting on the possible assailant ran rampant, "Sue Ellen is Innocent" T-shirts were hot sellers, and reportedly more than 20 million viewers -- a number greater than all the television sets in the U.K. at the time, according to the Times report -- watched the second-season-ending cliffhanger.

It was a triumph of clever writing and ingenious marketing (Pearl Brewing Co. even began selling "J.R.'s Private Stock" beer), but it couldn't have happened without Larry Hagman.

Hagman had appeared in dozens of movies and TV-series episodes by the time Dallas debuted in 1978, but he was still best-known for playing Maj. Tony Nelson, the astronaut who frees a comely, eager-to-please genie in I Dream of Jeannie.

Tony was a decent man, and by all accounts the real-life Hagman, who was known for being charming and gracious, was closer to Nelson than to the conniving J.R.

But that was part of the appeal: Whenever an actor succesfully re-invents him- or herself (think Bryan Cranston switching from goofy Malcolm in the Middle dad to ruthless Breaking Bad meth-maker), it’s a demonstration of the magic of acting.

The decency even showed through in the villainy. In a recent interview with WFAA/Channel 8's Ron Corning, Linda Gray, who co-starred with Hagman in both the old and new Dallas, said that Hagman's secret was that he knew how to play a mean villain with a twinkle in his eye. I

n the Dallas update that began airing on TNT this year, Hagman stole scenes because it was fun to watch him have fun; while the younger actors seemed mired in earnestness, Hagman looked like he was having the time of his life, as if couldn’t believe he was getting to paid to do something this great again.

But there was more to Hagman than J.R. or Tony Nelson. He was a versatile character actor, one of those guys who seemed to appear in at least one episode of every ’70s TV crime drama between his Jeannie and Dallas fame, as well as making striking appearances in movies including 1964’s nuclear drama Fail Safe, 1981’s Hollywood satire S.O.B. and 1998’s political seriocomedy Primary Colors.

The Internet Movie Database lists more than 100 credits for him, in a career that stretched from 1957 to 2012, and that’s not even counting stage work.

Hagman wasn’t above playing star games – between the time J.R. was shot and the time the resolution episode aired, he was in England, and the trip turned into a contract-renegotiation ploy (Hagman wrote in a 1980 TV Guide cover story that the guys peddling T-shirts with J.R.’s face on them were probably making more money than he was; you can read the whole piece here).

But when he was onscreen, it was the journeyman approach of a character actor that helped him lace J.R. with an ironic touch that made him such a fun villain to watch.

The current Dallas is a huge hit, but as with the original, Hagman was the best thing about it.

It can go on without him. But whether it should is another question.

It’s hard to imagine it being as enjoyable with his absence.

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