AP file photo
Actor Larry Hagman listens to a reporter’s question while visiting Southfork Ranch in Parker, Texas, made famous in the television show “Dallas,” in 2008. Hagman, who for more than a decade played villainous patriarch J.R. Ewing in the TV soap ‘‘Dallas,’’ has died at the age of 81.
Larry Hagman, whose portrayal of one of television’s most beloved villains, J.R. Ewing, led the CBS series “Dallas” to enormous world popularity, died Friday in Dallas. He was 81.
The cause was complications of cancer, his family said in a statement. Hagman had been in Dallas filming an episode of the TNT cable channel’s reboot of that series, which had made him the man audiences loved to hate from 1978 to 1991.
In October 2011, shortly before filming began on the new “Dallas,” Hagman announced that he had a “treatable” form of cancer. It was the latest of several health problems he had experienced since learning that he had cirrhosis in 1992. (Hagman acknowledged at the time that he had been a heavy drinker.) In 1995, he received a liver transplant after doctors discovered a tumor on his liver. “As J.R., I could get away with anything — bribery, blackmail and adultery,” Hagman said after receiving his diagnosis last year. “But I got caught by cancer.” Nonetheless, he said, he relished the opportunity to reprise his best-known role. For a time in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Hagman could lay claim to the title of most famous actor in the world. “Dallas,” a soapy saga of a ranch-owning Texas oil family, was a hit in 57 countries. The rich villainy of J.R. revived Hagman’s career after his co-starring role in the hit 1960s sitcom “I Dream of Jeannie” had typecast him as a lightweight comic actor.
The celebrated signature episode of “Dallas,” which resolved the question “Who shot J.R.?” — a mystery masterfully marketed by the network and the show’s producers — set viewing records, with an estimated 350 million people all over the world tuning in for the answer. (The shooter turned out to be Kristin Shepard, played by Mary Crosby, the scheming adulterous sister of J.R.’s wife, Sue Ellen, played by Linda Gray.)
The episode became the second-highest-rated television program ever (after the final episode of “M*A*S*H”) with a rating of 53.3 percent and an average audience of 41,470,000 households.
Few actors enjoyed their fame as much as Hagman, who portrayed the oilman-robber baron J.R. as, in one critic’s words, “an overstuffed Iago in a Stetson hat.” At the height of the show’s popularity, he liked to hand out fake $100 bills with his face on them.
When TNT decided to remount “Dallas” with a new generation of Ewings, it invited Hagman to return as J.R. He won praise for his performance, with some critics saying that he remained the best thing about “Dallas.” The new version, which made its debut this year, was a success for TNT, which ordered a second season.
Hagman was born in Fort Worth on Sept. 21, 1931. His mother was the actress Mary Martin, who would become famous for her performances in “South Pacific,” “Peter Pan,” “The Sound of Music” and other Broadway shows. His father, Benjamin Hagman, was a lawyer whose clients included a number of wealthy Texas oil men; Larry Hagman’s memory of those tycoons would later help shape his portrayal of J.R. Ewing. (“They had such a nice, sweet smile,” Hagman recalled. “But when you finished the meeting, your socks were missing, and you hadn’t even noticed they’d taken your boots.”)
His parents were divorced when he was 5. He was brought up in Los Angeles by his maternal grandmother, and after she died in 1943, he spent time with his father in Fort Worth and with his mother and his stepfather, Richard Halliday, a producer, manager and agent.
“I never resented her; she was never around,” he said of his famous mother in an interview with Playboy magazine at the height of his fame. “As far as I was concerned, I enjoyed my youth very much.”
Hagman attended a series of private and military schools in several states, leaving most of them, he admitted, with little distinction and occasionally at their request. After returning to Texas to live with his father, he graduated from Weatherford High School and later attended Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., which also proved to be an academically unsuccessful experience.
Hagman came to Hollywood in 1964, and first attracted notice that year with a small but important role as the interpreter for the president (Henry Fonda) during a tense phone call with the Soviet leader in the nuclear-war thriller “Fail-Safe.” Shortly after that, he found his breakthrough role: Tony Nelson, an astronaut whose life is both plagued and enlivened after he finds a beautiful genie (Barbara Eden) in a bottle, on “I Dream of Jeannie.”
After Hagman’s well-publicized health problems in the mid-1990s, he was once again a welcome presence on television, if an infrequent one, with a recurring role on “Nip/Tuck” and appearances on “Desperate Housewives” and other series. He was also seen in “Primary Colors,” “Nixon” and other movies.
Hagman once said that his approach to life was the same as his approach to acting: “Be as outrageous as you possibly can.” In Malibu, where he lived for many years, he was known as an amiable eccentric, given to wearing offbeat costumes and frequently leading impromptu parades down the beach. He was known to ask autograph-seekers to sing him a song or tell him a joke in exchange for his autograph. After he kicked a longtime cigarette habit, he became an outspoken anti-smoking activist and often carried a battery-powered hand fan with which he blew smoke back into the faces of offenders.
One of his strangest habits, which continued for some years, was not speaking on Sundays. His silence had no religious connotation, he said, adding, “You’ve got to try it to appreciate how nice it is.”
Perhaps even more strange, at least by Hollywood standards, was the fact that Hagman had the same wife for more than 50 years: He had been married to the former Maj Axelsson since 1954. She survives him, as do his son, Preston; his daughter, Kristina Hagman; his half sister, Hellar Halliday; five granddaughters; a niece; and three nephews.
“Life is terminal, death is not,” Hagman said in a 1980 interview. “I think death is just another stage of our development. I honestly believe that we don’t just disappear. We don’t go into a void. I think we’re part of a big energy curtain, an energy wave, in which we are like molecules.”
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