'Dallas' star Larry Hagman dies at 81

Larry Hagman died of cancer in Dallas. He was 81 years old.
Larry Hagman died of cancer in Dallas. He was 81 years old. (TONY GUTIERREZ / Associated Press, file)
Posted: November 25, 2012

Larry Hagman, 81, an eccentric Good Time Charlie who played the most popular villain in television history, died Friday in Dallas of complications from cancer.

Mr. Hagman, the son of stage star Mary Martin, appeared in many movies - none of them remarkable - and a raft of stage shows. He starred in five series on television, where his first success came in I Dream of Jeannie. He played Capt. Tony Nelson, astronaut and master to a scantily clad genie (Barbara Eden).

But it was on Dallas, as J.R. Ewing, the smiling, conniving Texas oilman who had a tomcat's libido and lower morals than a snake, that Mr. Hagman gained true fame.

The actor returned as J.R. in a new edition of Dallas this year. "Larry was back in his beloved hometown of Dallas, reenacting the iconic role he loved the most. Larry's family and closest friends had joined him in Dallas for the Thanksgiving holiday," the family said in a statement that was provided to the Warner Bros., producer of the show.

Linda Gray, his on-screen wife and later ex-wife in the original series and the sequel, was among those with Hagman in his final moments in a Dallas hospital, said her publicist, Jeffrey Lane.

"He 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 fullest," the actress said.

Viewers trusted J.R. to deliver dirty dealings. He would stop at nothing to grab a few million bucks from his good-hearted brother, Bobby (Patrick Duffy); humiliate his boozy and frequently mean-spirited wife, Sue Ellen (Gray); or seduce any number of sweet young things.

One of them shot J.R. in May 1980, at the end of Dallas' second full season. "Who Shot J. R.?" became an international phenomenon. English betting parlors took wagers; the Turkish parliament recessed on the night the assassin's identity - Kristin Shepard - was to be revealed.

That episode was shown Nov. 21, 1980, in the United States, and it was the highest-rated television show to that time. Dallas, which aired Friday nights on CBS for almost all its run, was the No. 1- or No. 2-rated show for five seasons, 1980-85.

When the series finally closed on May 3, 1991, after 356 episodes, it was the third-longest-running drama in TV history, after Gunsmoke (20 seasons) and Bonanza (14).

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings said Saturday that Hagman's role as J.R. helped the city gain "worldwide recognition."

"Larry is a North Texas jewel that was larger than life and he will be missed by many in Dallas and around the world," Rawlings said.

As an actor, Mr. Hagman was only part J.R. "He has a beautiful sense of the silly," Mr. Hagman's friend Claudio Guzman, who was also the producer of Jeannie, said in the late 1960s, "the sort of thing that only Jack Lemmon does well."

Mr. Hagman grew up in the shadow of his mother, who became one of the most popular stage performers in American history, but who was nothing more than a 16-year-old Texas cutie pie when Mr. Hagman was born on Sept. 21, 1931.

He learned the ways of a rough-and-tumble Texas oilman at his father's side. Mr. Hagman spent his first five years in Weatherford, Texas, 60 miles from Dallas. His father, Ben Hagman, was a lawyer for wildcatters all over Texas, and in his teens, the younger Hagman had ambitions to practice law.

But he was infrequently home in Texas. After Mary Martin's career gained momentum, he was raised primarily by her mother in Los Angeles.

He started scraping around in the theater in 1949, and that began 15 years of hand-to-mouth work as a performer that included stints at St. John Terrell's Music Circus in Lambertville, N.J., in the early 1950s.

He got a small part in South Pacific - his mother was the star - in London in 1951 and followed that with four years in the Air Force, where he put on shows for the boys in Europe and North Africa. His stage career concluded in New York in 1964, when he appeared in four Broadway plays.

He married Maj (pronounced "My") Axelsson, a Swedish seamstress and costume designer, in 1954. The couple had two children, Heidi, 54, and Preston, 50.

Mr. Hagman was a hard bargainer who eventually earned more than $150,000 per episode for playing J.R. He was rarely seen without a glass of champagne in his hand but was also rarely seen to be drunk. He was said to have renounced drinking in 1993, on a doctor's advice, but never admitted that he was an alcoholic.

This article contains information from the Associated Press.

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