To Larry Hagman, Life was always Good
Sometimes it’s not enough to simply say a few words about someone who spent a life time making sure everyone around them was having fun. From my best vantage point, Larry Hagman was that kind of guy; lively personality, irresistible, high-spirited, always forgivable, someone that took the idea of being someone’s best friend seriously. It reminded me of that 1978 movie, ‘Last Of The Good Guys.’ You know it’s kind of an oxymoron when you juxtapose the J.R. character besides the phrase. But there you have it, my impression. I wonder what impression you have of the man who was called J.R. more than he was called Larry. It’s possible you’ve already given the question amble consideration. But if you haven’t, take my advice, with Hagman as the subject, it’s certain to be a fairly gleeful and “GOOD” experience.
In September, just as the new Dallas began filming, Hagman’s doctors discovered a malignant tumor in his throat. On this otherwise inauspicious night, Hagman is preparing to undergo six weeks of radiation and chemotherapy treatments. A personal chef is cooking a vegan dinner the color and texture of cardboard. The chef enforces the ban on her boss’s once ubiquitous champagne—for years he drank an average of five bottles a day, and although he gave it up, he’s been known, even to this day, to backslide.
In a recent interview, Hagman shared a moment he had with his good friend, Michael Douglas. “Michael said that when you undergo radiation and chemotherapy, your saliva dries up and you can’t spit.” Hagman’s rebutt, “He must know what he’s talking about. He had stage-four throat cancer. I only have stage two.” Kinda says it all doesn’t it. Only stage two? That would be enough to occupy most people’s attention. Not Hagman, who seemed more concerned with the fact that he’ll be filming the fourth episode of the new Dallas before he reports to the hospital on a Monday afternoon.
David Zurawik, T.V. critic for the Baltimore Sun, fashion an article recently that gave an account of his impression of Hagman. I’m reminded of it as I pen this tribute to the tireless actor that Hagman was; not interested in anything other than seeing things in their positive light.
Certainly, he had his vices, and I’ll cover some here before I’m through. But isn’t it delightfully interesting that when he was forced to abstain from alcohol, it didn’t diminish his zestfully enthusiastic personality and love of life.
So as I set out to paint a portrait, like Zurawik, of the “Hagman” I remember; a sense of obligation to his very real and indelible image, I felt must be told. Moreover, my portrait would not be complete unless it could be integrated with some of the more public historical elements that my help readers make up their own mind as to why so many loved and admired the man.
Larry Hagman was perhaps, historically, one of the first actors who could credit a television career as having spring boarded an actor’s career to a Beatles like pinnacle. But unless your were their, living through that time period, I’m afraid that the significance of his accomplishment, is hopelessly lost in the translation.
That’s right, I said translation because that’s the only way I can describe a communication process that seeks to capture a palpable sense of what witnesses of the late 70s and 80s experienced. The fact that Hagman professionally triumphed, misses the magic of the moments he publicly shared. I guess “Beatles like” will have to suffice. But on the other hand, it was much much more.
Almost overnight, Hagman had become a international global star by simply portraying a villain in our living rooms.
Nobody, that is to say, not one person or group that was intimately associated with “Dallas” ever saw the coming of J.R. Ewing, arguably, not even Hagman.
According to the New York Times, David Jacobs, the writer who invented “Dallas,” admitted that the J. R. Ewing who became the centerpiece of the show, was neither hero nor villain but rather a combination, and was not the character he created in the draft he presented to CBS.
In fact, Jacobs explains, that J.R. was more like the conventional bad guy in his original creation. To his liking, his original treatment emphasized Bobby’s character, which was initially likable but immature; and would become, as he imagined, more responsible and mature after marrying Pamela Barnes.
However, CBS wanted Bobby to be more conventionally heroic from the onset. To that extent, Jacobs is convinced, that the T.V. network’s influence was what actually left the void for the talented Hagman to fill, enabling the actor to portray J.R. with the righteousness, charm, and confidence of a hero.
Moreover, and chiefly specific to my point, when you consider the quality of his artistic gifts, Hagman proved beyond a shadow of doubt, that a television actor could offer as much star power as coveted big screen actors were once thought to exclusively possess. Fundamentally speaking, all Hagman did was interpret J.R. Ewing, like a singer or jazz musician interprets a song, its just that his interpretation was extremely compelling.
In other words, right from the show’s start, Hagman’s J.R., was so seductive, so watchable, that the producers and writers were forced to pivot his character into a role that made things happen. J. R. might not have been ethical or even decent, but dramatically, he functioned as protagonist rather than antagonist – the hero. To audiences, the result was so magnetically compelling, that in a period two decades before “YouTube,” J.R. Ewing took “Dallas” viral.
Clothed in intercontinental celebrity, which was directly acquired from his role as the quintessential villain, the Hagman in person was a far cry from the covetous, egocentric, manipulative and amoral oil baron with psychopathic tendencies, who was constantly plotting subterfuges to plunder his foes and their wealth.
Hagman’s J.R. portrait, stood in stark contract to his personal reality, which was immersed in charitable causes. He supported the South Dallas Cultural Center from its opening in 1986, a fact that for some unknown reason has eluded his Wikipedia Bio.
Additionally, Hagman has supported the American Cancer Society, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, the Solar Electric Light Fund and the National Kidney Foundation.
In October of 2012, Hagman launched the Larry Hagman Foundation as a component of the Dallas Foundation, which he was quite an active participant.
However, besides writing checks for his favorite charities, he and his wife would frequently visit their participants, according to the Dallas News.
Now, there was another side of Hagman the constant boozer, it was a side he never denied, and in fact, most people rarely saw his abuse of alcohol, especially since his drink of choice happen to be champagne; 5 bottles a day according to the Huffington Post.
But it’s important to include in this portrait, experiences, that may have led the actor to an early use of alcohol.
Mary Martin was only 17 when she gave birth to Hagman, as a result, he was raised by his maternal grandmother, Juanita Martin until she died in 1944. At the time of her death, Hagman’s father, Ben was serving in World War II, so he was sent to New York to live with his mother.
Mary was preoccupied with a career that was on its way up. By the time Hagman arrived to New York, his mother had already taken a second husband, Richard Halliday, and found little time if any to spend with her young impressionable 12-year-old. Reportedly her new husband treated Hagman as an outsider, and thus from 12 to 14, Larry’s life during those years has been described as miserable.
At 14, Hagman was sent to the Woodstock Country Boarding school. That’s when he first started drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes.
In 1947, as Hagman was just about to turn 16, he moved to Weatherford, Texas to live with his father. Mr. Hagman had also remarried.
Hagman’s dad seemed to finally embrace his duty as a responsible father. He took his son along with him on hunting trips, and encouraged Larry to take on a variety of summer jobs, including baling hay and digging ditches. On other other hand, the two shared the same bad habit of drinking lots and lots of booze.
Hagman attended high school in Texas, and it was their that he became enamored with acting.
Upon returning home to live with his mother in 1951, Hagman continued to frequently use alcohol, so much so, that one day he became extremely ill from a drinking binge, that his mother became so upset, she kicked him out of the house..
In a story published by the website news.bbc.co.uk, Hagman revealed, that on the set of Dallas, he would drink steadily from nine in the morning until he went to bed. He was even quoted as having said:
“I was loaded all the time, all the time, all during Jeannie, all during Dallas I was loaded… I never got sober.” He added, “Do the first scene, get it into the can, hopefully by nine o’clock and so I’d reward myself, I’d open a bottle of Champagne and start to imbibe.”
To Hagman it was all part of living the Hollywood dream. Nonetheless, he was force to stop altogether when the consequences served their request, and unapologetically took his liver.
So far, I have described the man responsible for creating one of television’s most famous villains while yet including a measure of the personal reality of the beloved human being that died on Friday.
Hagman was pronounced dead at a Dallas, hospital from complications with cancer; that’s what the statement read, which was posted on his official website early Saturday morning.
“Larry was back in his beloved Dallas, re-enacting the iconic role he loved most,” the statement said.
“Larry’s family and close friends had joined him in Dallas for the Thanksgiving holiday. When he passed, he was surrounded by loved ones.
It was a peaceful passing, just as he had wished for.
His meteoric rise to television superstardom in the 1978 television Drama, never reflected his off-screen persona.
When the show became a mega-hit with the “Who Shot J.R.?” episode in 1980, the enormous attention and celebrity it brought didn’t change Hagman’s guiding principles, basic good nature, and life of the party attitude.
When CBS delivered the answer on November 21, 1980, in an episode dubbed “Who Done It?,” more than 350 million viewers tuned in around the world to find out Kristen Shepherd, the sister of J.R.’s wife, shot him. It was not only one of the most watched television episodes in history, but it also cemented Hagman’s iconic place in television history.
Ewing survived that shooting, and Hagman and the rest of the cast thrived for 14 seasons total before bowing out in 1991.
In his memoir, “Hello Darlin,” the only book he would ever write, Hagman said, “Ronald Reagan was campaigning against Jimmy Carter, American hostages were being held in Iran, Polish shipyard workers were on strike, and all anyone wanted to know was, who shot J.R.?”
The world was filled with J.R. T-shirts, coffee mugs and bumper stickers. “Everyone was making a windfall from J.R. except me,” he said.
In fact, he threatened to leave the show if his contract were not renegotiated. After months of tense negotiations, he was finally given his $100,000 per episode asking price. It has been said that Hagman’s contract persistence paved the way for television giants like Jerry Seinfeld and the cast of Friends to get a larger share of the profits from their shows.
Over the course of the last year, He reprized the role for TNT’s reboot of the series “Dallas” in June 2012. Hagman filmed appearances for the show’s second season, which is set to air in January.
It was a role he clearly reveled, even developing a trademark laugh for the character. At one point, Hagman made up fake $100 bills emblazoned with his face and the words “In Hagman We Trust” to hand out to fans.
In one of his final interviews on CNN, Hagman appeared alongside original “Dallas” cast members Linda Gray (Sue Ellen) and Patrick Duffy (Bobby) on “Piers Morgan Tonight.”
During the interview, Morgan described the character of J.R. Ewing as “the dark dealer of evil scheming.”
“Moi?” Hagman said, breaking into a wide smile.
In a statement released Friday by Hagman’s “Dallas” co-star Linda Gray to NBC Los Angeles via her publicist: “Larry Hagman was my best friend for 35 years. He was the pied piper of life and brought joy to everyone he knew. He was creative, generous, funny, loving and talented and I will miss him enormously. He was an original and lived life to the full and the world was a brighter place because of him,” the statement said.
Though he may be best known as a villain, Hagman used his fame to try to give back.
Hagman told Morgan when he was first approached about doing the “Dallas” remake, the first question he asked: “Are my friends going to be on the show?”
“I wouldn’t be doing it without them,” he said. It was typical Hagman, who relished the company of his friends.
Word of Hagman’s passing spread quickly late Friday and early Saturday, with everybody from celebrities to fans mourning his death. You could almost hear the sighs on Twitter, as the tweets demonstrated the impact Hagman’s career had on people everywhere and the many lives he was able to touched.
Actor William Shatner took to Twitter: “My thoughts and prayers go out to the family of Larry Hagman. My best, Bill.”
“He was a wonderful human being and an extremely gifted actor. We will be forever thankful that a whole new generation of people got to know and appreciate Larry through his performance as J.R. Ewing,” TNT said in a statement. “Our thoughts and prayers are with his family at this very difficult time.”
Hagman was born in Fort Worth, Texas, on the cusp of the Great Depression.
He inherited the acting gene from his mother, who was a Broadway musical legend.
He spent a year at Bard College in New York and then embarked on a life in theater in Dallas and New York, according to his official website.
He appeared onstage with his mother in “South Pacific” in England and even produced and directed several shows while in the U.S. Air Force. After getting married and leaving the service, Hagman returned to the United States and starred in a number of Broadway plays.
His family then headed to Hollywood, where Hagman earned roles in such television shows as “The Edge of Night” and “The Defenders.”
Hagman’s breakthrough role came in 1965, when he played astronaut Maj. Tony Nelson, or “Master,” as he was known to the scantily clad, 2,000-year-old genie played by Barbara Eden in the hit comedy, “I Dream of Jeannie.”
Through the series’ five-year run, Jeannie found new ways to make Hagman’s life difficult, as she tried to serve her “master.”
“I can still remember, that first day on Zuma Beach with him, in the frigid cold. From that day for five more years, Larry was the center of so many fun, wild, shocking and, in retrospect, memorable moments that will remain in my heart forever,” Eden said in a Facebook post on Friday, shortly after hearing of Hagman’s death.
“…I, like many others, believed he had beat cancer and yet we are reminded that life is never guaranteed.”
Eden signed off, with simply: “Goodbye Larry. There was no one like you before and there will never be anyone like you again.”
Hagman kept busy after the show went off the air in 1970, appearing in guest roles in “The Streets of San Francisco,” “The Rockford Files” and “Barnaby Jones.”
In the 1990s, he starred in the television show “Orleans.”
So though Hagman continued to work regularly after “I Dream of Jeannie” ended in 1970, it wasn’t until “Dallas” hit the air in 1978, that he again struck a chord with audiences.
Unlike many TV stars, who find themselves playing variations of the same character over and over, Hagman viewers saw in J.R. Ewing, a character that was worlds away from Major Nelson.
While the astronaut was always at wits end, trying to keep Jeannie a secret and trying to prove to the base psychiatrist that he was sane, Ewing was a man who seemed completely in control of his world, wheeling and dealing, backstabbing and cheating on his wife.
Though off screen, his drinking earned him unwanted attention from the tabloids, which chronicled his battle with alcoholism, he always managed to maintain an honorable measure of integrity and strong connection with family.
In recent years, he went public with his wife’s battle with Alzheimer’s.
He also suffered several health scares, including a bout with cirrhosis and a 16-hour liver transplant in 1995 that helped save his life.
Last year, he revealed, that he had been diagnosed with cancer; but at the time, Hagman called it “a very common and treatable form.”
Hagman made his home in California with his wife of 59 years, the former Maj Axelsson. Despite obvious physical frailty, he gamely returned to Dallas to film season one and part of season two of TNT’s Dallas reboot.
Friends were in shock Friday, especially those who saw him only days ago. But those close to him say he knew the end was coming and he was glad to have his family in town for Thanksgiving.
“Hagman in his role as J.R. was mythic, and as a human [being,] he was a hard-working ambassador for Dallas and the underdog,” Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings said Thursday night. “I had spent a couple of evenings with him recently … and he always pitched in to help the city.”
Warner Brothers “Dallas” executive producers Cynthia Cidre and Michael M. Robin, and the show’s cast and crew released the following statement: “Larry Hagman was a giant, a larger-than-life personality whose iconic performance as J.R. Ewing will endure as one of the most indelible in entertainment history. He truly loved portraying this globally recognized character, and he leaves a legacy of entertainment, generosity and grace. Everyone at Warner Bros. and in the “Dallas” family is deeply saddened by Larry’s passing, and our thoughts are with his family and dear friends during this difficult time.”
As I reflect back at Hagman’s history, a man survived by his wife, a son, a daughter and five grandchildren, I can’t help but to reflect upon David Zurawik’s portrait of a hardworking actor, that never seemed to complain. I was struck, seemingly caught by surprise, the way in which Barbara Eden closed her remarks: Goodbye Larry, there was no one like you before and there will never be anyone like you again.
And I thought Eden said it quite well, her impression is easy to remember and not so easy to forget; but that of course was her impression Larry Hagman.
For me, I can’t stop thinking about the Larry Hagman, or rather the plot content in that 1978 film he co-stared in; ‘Last Of The Good Guys.’ Perhaps it sounds a little corny, a bit clichéd, but it just does it for me. And I would imagine it would have done it for Hagman. Not that he would simply take my side over all the other distinctly different impression that people honestly hold; no, that’s not why the Hagman I envision, would have given me a that-a-boy. Larry would have embraced all memories and impression other’s felt about him, with a charming smile. Because to him, all individual impressions would have been valid, as they certainly are.
But then, I imagine him moving forward with the conversation; displaying that old, familiar J.R. grin. It’s as if I could hear him saying, even now, in the most charming of ways, toting a white cowboy hat snug to top of his head, with zestful enthusiasm; “I’m happy to be here. I’m happy to be anywhere. I’m not kidding.” That for me says it all. If you can’t see my Larry Hagman, let me help you out.
It didn’t matter if he had Stage 2 cancer, in his mind, it could have been worst. If he had Stage 4 cancer, he wouldn’t have acted any differently. His world view was always one that saw the cup as being half-full never half-empty, that’s my impression, the guy who wore that white cowboy hat; the last of the good guys. Life to Hagman, no matter what the circumstances; life was GOOD! He was happy to be here, he was happy to be anywhere, and he wasn’t kidding.
D. Chandler contributed to this report