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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

J.R. Ewing (1931-2012)

It’s not surprising that, for most people, Larry Hagman is first and foremost and always will be the ethically challenged Texas oilman J.R. Ewing. But for me, I still think of him as Jeannie’s master and as the son of Peter Pan.

It’s Hagman’s mother, Mary Martin, that I still always think of as Peter Pan, after seeing her for what seemed like countless times on an annual TV special in which she flew over a stage—with the aid of a wire—playing the boy who refused to grow up. Hagman made his stage debut in London as a Seabee in South Pacific, which starred his mother as Nellie Forbush. Another of the Seabees was a young Scottish actor named Sean Connery.

Jeannie, of course, was the character played by Barbara Eden in a belly dancer outfit (but with her navel discreetly covered) in I Dream of Jeannie, a sitcom that capitalized on the success of the similarly supernaturally themed Bewitched. In sharp contrast to the J.R. character (not to mention the nation’s current crop of military brass), Hagman’s Major Nelson was remarkably self-controlled when he found himself in possession of a magical, beautiful female genie whose only purpose is to fulfill her master’s every wish. The running joke was that Hagman was constantly getting into trouble over the appearance of the situation while steadfastly remaining chaste and gentlemanly. He did eventually make an honest woman of Jeannie by marrying her and, as is almost always the case with sitcoms, it signaled the denouement of the series.

Hagman guest starred on numerous TV shows over the years, but his mark in I Dream of Jeannie and Dallas was so strong that it comes as a surprise to be reminded that he also had starring roles in other series. In 1971 he and Donna Mills (who would later star in the Dallas spinoff Knots Landing) played a married couple posing as servants in a sitcom called The Good Life. No one saw it because it aired opposite All in the Family. Two years later he appeared in another short-lived sitcom about newlyweds living close by their former spouses called Here We Go Again. Post-Dallas he starred as a Louisiana judge in a short-lived drama called Orleans and he had a recurring role in Nip/Tuck.

One has to think that Hagman passed away with a certain degree of contentment because, at the time, he was again employed playing J.R. He had reportedly filmed six episodes of the second season of current TNT edition of Dallas. This series does not strictly qualify for the trendy term “reboot,” since it maintains meticulous continuity with the original 1978-1991 CBS series. I wrote of my sordid history with that seminal TV show seven years ago on the occasion of the death of Barbara Bel Geddes, who played J.R.’s mother, so I won’t go into it again here. (In another bit of trivia, when Bel Geddes left the series because of health reasons, the role of Miss Ellie was reportedly turned down by Mary Martin. It went instead to Donna Reed.) But the J.R. character clearly tapped into the zeitgeist of the time. For many, he embodied what some see as the greed and rampant business climate of Reagan years. If that was the secret of the series’s success, then its creators were truly prescient since the series predated (and outlasted) the Reagan administration.

Hagman was clearly the soul and the spirit of that TV phenomenon. He was the only actor who appeared in all 357 episodes of the original Dallas series, which was a record for consecutive appearances by a leading actor in a one-hour dramatic primetime series.

Whatever you may say about the J.R. Ewing character, Hagman came by him honestly. He was native Texan, if not born right in Dallas then at least close by in Fort Worth.

In addition to playing J.R. on both Dallas series, Hagman also played him in various crossovers on Knots Landing and on the TV movies Dallas: The Early Years, Dallas: J.R. Returns and Dallas: War of the Ewings. Last year, as a sort of warm-up to his return as J.R., he guest-starred on Desperate Housewives as Polly Bergen’s fiancé and Felicity Huffman’s prospective stepfather. In the blackly comic plot, his sudden demise complicated Bergen’s hopes of inheriting his fortune. It may or may not have been a coincidence that the cast of the Dallas revival was filled out with actors who left impressions with roles they had played on Desperate Housewives (Brenda Strong, Josh Henderson, Jesse Metcalfe).

Since this is a movie web site, let’s recall Hagman’s film roles. His big screen debut appears to have been in a 1964 German-Italian-produced World War II movie called Sette contro la morte, along with John Saxon and future Hollywood Squares host Peter Marshall. Over the years, he had supporting roles in such notable movies as Joshua Logan’s Ensign Pulver, Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe and The Group (adapted from the Mary McCarthy novel), Paul Mazursky’s Harry and Tonto, Michael Apted’s Stardust (sequel to That’ll Be the Day, with David Essex and during which Hagman became close friends with Keith Moon), Peter Yates’s Mother, Jugs & Speed (with Bill Cosby, Raquel Welch and Harvey Keitel in the title roles), John Sturges’s The Eagle Has Landed, Richard Donner’s Superman, Blake Edwards’s S.O.B., Oliver Stone’s Nixon and Mike Nichols’s Primary Colors.

Larry Hagman also had something of a directing career. For television he directed episodes of both I Dream of Jeannie and Dallas, as well as The Good Life and In the Heat of the Night. And he directed one feature film, 1972’s Beware! The Blob. (It later got the tagline “The movie that J.R. shot!”) It starred Robert Walker Jr. (son of Robert Walker and Jennifer Jones who had the title role in Ensign Pulver and was memorable in the classic Star Trek episode “Charlie X”), and its sprawling cast included the likes of Shelley Berman, Godfrey Cambridge, Carol Lynley, Dick Van Patten, Cindy Williams and an un-credited Burgess Meredith who, like Hagman, played a hobo.

Whatever you may say about J.R. Ewing, he was not exactly a good role model in terms of business ethics or marital fidelity. Larry Hagman seems to have done better in his personal life. Years before he ever appeared on television or in a movie, he met a Swedish woman while he was stationed in England. (Like Major Nelson, Hagman was in the Air Force.) They were married in 1954 and were still married at Hagman’s death. Maj Hagman, who was a fashion designer, was diagnosed with diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2009.

With six new episodes already in the can, what will happen with the current iteration of Dallas? Can it continue? Will they write around Hagman’s absence? (A similar dilemma arose in 1981 when Jim Davis, who played J.R.’s father, died while Dallas was on the air.) Will they make it a new plot point? It’s not the first time Larry Hagman was involved in a major TV cliffhanger. Sadly, it is the last.

-S.L., 27 November 2012

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