Larry Hagman was a character, all right.
For most Americans, that character was and always will be J.R. Ewing, the gleefully conniving, iconic Dallas salute to capitalism run amok — and family values gone awry — forever embodied by Hagman, who died Friday at 81. In lesser hands, J.R. could have easily been the stock villain of riverboat melodrama fame, as similar characters have been in so many other television shows since. Hagman lightened J.R. with a flash of pleased-with-himself humor, bordering on camp but never crossing the border — and then lit him from within with star power.
The result was a scene-stealer so popular that when Dallas shot him in a 1980 cliffhanger, millions of people around the world actually did spend the summer asking "Who shot JR?" And to cap it off, 41 million households returned to CBS in November to get the answer (Mary Crosby's Kristin, in case you've forgotten) — the second largest crowd ever to watch a scripted TV episode.
It's no wonder that when Dallas ended its 13-year run in 1991, J.R. lived on — associated forever in the popular imagination with Hagman. Nor is it any wonder that when TNT said it was reviving the series last year, the first question anyone asked is "Will Hagman's J.R. return?" The answer, of course, was yes — and will continue to be yes for those episodes of the second season shot before the 81-year-old actor succumbed to cancer.
If Hagman was a star, and he was, he came to it naturally. His mother was stage legend Mary Martin, beloved for Peter Pan, South Pacific and The Sound of Music, to name just a few of her hits. Hagman spent most of his younger life in her shadow — when he got married in 1954 to his now-widow, Maj Axelsson, the New York Herald Tribune's headline was "Mary Martin's Son a Bridegroom." But for a generation of TV addicts, at least, Dallas turned Martin into "Larry Hagman's Mother.''
Not that the show was his first shot at the spotlight. There was a run in The Edge of Night, and roles in movies like Ensign Pulver — leading to his first big star turn, a five-year stint as Major Nelson on I Dream of Jeannie. But while Jeannie made him a household name, this NBC fantasy is really better remembered for Barbara Eden's navel and Bill Daily's scheming Major Healey than it is for Hagman's put-upon Nelson.
No, his real turn came in 1978 with Dallas, a show that launched the primetime soap as a genre and came to both dominate and define the '80s. He gave Dallas its signature character; Dallas gave him wealth and recognition almost beyond measure.
We often talk about the price of fame, and no doubt it took some toll on Hagman — even beyond the carousing and drinking that led to a late-life liver transplant. But whatever price he paid, as much as anyone in Hollywood, Hagman reveled in fame's rewards and ebulliently shared his joy. Anyone writing about television during the Dallas years remembers Hagman opening up his Malibu home to press parties — not reluctantly, but exuberantly. In fact, sometimes too exuberantly — those were, after all, his drinking years.
It was, perhaps, that joy he took in being a star that allowed him to come to grips with the downside of playing J.R.: the unbreakable link in the public mind between actor and role that seemed to prevent the Texas-born Hagman from ever moving past the Texas-based J.R. Where some actors spend the rest of their lives rebelling against that kind of too-close association, Hagman came to embrace it — he allowed himself to take pleasure in being called "J.R." rather than "Larry," and allowed his fans to take pleasure in making that mistake.
Yes, it was a role that held him fast for more than 30 years, but it was also a role that brought great happiness to millions of people — none, perhaps, more so than Hagman himself. And rather than diminish him, it made him seem equally larger-than-life: louder, happier, more comfortable in his own skin than most other actors.
A character. And one who will be greatly missed.