Musing on Larry Hagman, Jim Wright and Stanley Marcus

Posted 8:13am on Tuesday, Dec. 04, 2012

A few days before hearing the news of Larry Hagman's death, I jotted down his name in notes for a possible column that, more likely than not, would mention his impact on Dallas -- the city, not the hit television show.

I may be one of the few people who was alive in the 1980s who never saw a complete episode of the TV program Dallas, not even the one that solved television's most talked-about cliffhanger.

Shortly before Thanksgiving, which coincided with the 49th anniversary of John Kennedy's assassination, I was pulling together thoughts on how the president's death had affected "Big D," which for years afterward bore the unofficial title "the city of hate."

I already had written the names of Jim Wright and the late Stanley Marcus, two men I've admired for years, who where very much part of the story. (Both would later become my friends.)

Then I added the names Hagman and "J.R. Ewing," his TV character, writing next to them a line that I thought signified their role in Dallas' resurrection.

Several times, I talked with Marcus about the dark days after the assassination for which much of the world blamed all of Dallas, not just Lee Harvey Oswald. In a city known at the time for its vocal group of right-wing haters, Marcus stood out as an unabashed liberal who was the epitome of style, culture, intellect and tolerance.

Along with Mayor Earle Cabell, Marcus was the natural choice to represent the city at Kennedy's funeral. Later, with newly elected Mayor J. Erik Jonsson and others, Marcus would help lead Dallas out of its morass, its deep funk, its state of shame.

Shortly after Kennedy's death, Marcus took out full-page newspaper ads to publish his treatise, "What's Right With Dallas?" In it, he pointed out the city's strengths, its challenges and some of its faults. He talked about the problem of extremism and called on newspapers to "lead the way by the presentation of balanced points of view on controversial issues."

Of the many letters he received congratulating him for that powerful message was one from Wright, the Fort Worth congressman, which said, "This is truly an excellent piece of work, Stanley, and I had it incorporated in the Congressional Record. Thought you might like to have the enclosed copy."

That brings me back to Hagman, whom I interviewed in 1986 when I was working on a PBS documentary about Wright as he was about to become Speaker of the House of Representatives. Both Hagman and Wright had been born in Fort Worth and grew up in Weatherford where Wright, a boxer, had coached the future actor in the sport.

When I asked what kind of boxing coach Wright had been, Hagman flashed that big J.R. smile and said, "He was great! He taught you how to do it pro-per-ly, but properly doesn't always win a fight."

Then, with a big laugh, he added, "But I guess he's learned that up in Washington now."

A year later, while interviewing the speaker in his Capitol Hill office for another television show, I led off my questioning with the quote from Hagman, which proved to be a great opener for reflections from the man who was then the top Democrat in Washington.

At the time of his death, Hagman was back in Dallas reprising his role in a new version of the popular television series.

Just what role did he play in helping to revive the spirit of a city that had been stained by an unthinkable tragedy?

The television show, although filled with Texas stereotypes, helped to change the image of Dallas.

It, and Hagman in particular, had more people talking about who shot J.R. than who shot JFK.

Bob Ray Sanders' column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. 817-390-7775

Twitter: @BobRaySanders

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