Larry Hagman, actor and icon, dies at age 81

Before J.R. Ewing there was Major Tony Nelson.  Larry Hagman dies at age 81.

BERKELEY SPRINGS, WV, November 22, 2012 — Larry Hagman (September 21, 1931 – November 23, 2012), American film and television star, producer and director, passed away Friday at the age of 81. He was surrounded by friends and family at his Dallas home. 

“Larry was back in his beloved Dallas, re-enacting the iconic role he loved most,” the family said in a statement to the Dallas News. “Larry’s family and close friends had joined him in Dallas for the Thanksgiving holiday. When he passed, loved ones surrounded him. It was a peaceful passing, just as he had wished for.”

Long before Mr. Hagman donned the wide brim, wider grin and boots of J.R. Ewing, he was Major Tony Nelson, or “Master,” to Barbara Eden’s Jeannie in the television rom-com “I Dream of Jeannie.”

Ms. Eden posted to her Facebook account (in part): “I can honestly say that we’ve lost not just a great actor, not just a television icon, but an element of pure Americana.

Goodbye Larry, there was no one like you before and there will never be anyone like you again. - Barbara”

Mr. Hagman was born Larry Martin Hagman in Fort Worth, Texas, to actress Mary Martin and district attorney Larry Hagman. Following his mother into acting, Hagman attended New York’s Bard College, appearing in regional theater before joining his mother, who was appearing in England in the touring show of “South Pacific.”

Hagman returned to acting after a tour of duty with the U.S. Air Force, during which time he met his wife, Maj Axelsson. He first performed on Broadway before making the transition to television.

His rugged good looks, dark hair and healthy physique quickly made Hagman a fan favorite when he appeared on “The ALCOA Hour” and “The Edge of Night,” a New York based daytime soap opera. However, he landed his big breakout role in 1965, when he was cast as Captain Tony Nelson in the NBC sitcom “I Dream of Jeannie” (1965-1970). Hagman played an astronaut who falls in love with the ferociously devoted genie who lives in a bottle he finds on a deserted island after a splashdown that went off course.

The show was ground breaking for many reasons. It was the first that allowed an unmarried couple to cohabitate, and it generated controversy due to Eden’s scanty (for the time) outfit. Network bosses demanded that it be fitted to cover her navel.

Hagman became a household name once again when he joined the cast of the CBS show “Dallas” (1978), a prime-time soap opera set on the mythical Southfork Ranch near Dallas. Hagman was cast as J.R. Ewing, the ruthless son of oil tycoon Jock Ewing and brother to good son Bobby (Patrick Duffy). The show was meant to focus on Bobby and his wife, Pam Barnes, in a sort of Texas “Romeo and Juliet,” but Hagman’s J.R. quickly dominated the show. His scene-stealing, irreppressibly cheerful villainy captured the fans’ imagination and never let it go.

Hagman was surrounded on “Dallas” by some of the small screen’s leading ladies, including Barbara Bel Geddes, Linda Gray, Donna Reed and Charlene Tilton. The show combined family dysfunction with the oil industry, greed and sex, energized by the brash and dynamic city of Dallas as the backdrop. 

The show was a huge international success (children in the rainforests of Brazil knew the names “J.R.” and “Dallas”), and it made Larry Hagman the biggest star on television. The November 21, 1980 season opener resolving the previous season’s cliffhanger episode, “Who Shot J.R.?” remains the second-highest rated TV show in history. Because every other character on the show had reason to want J.R. dead (including his own mother), the mystery dominated summer TV talk. In order to maintain secrecy, the revelatory scene was shot with almost every character shooting J.R., including, in a humorous turn, Hagman himself.

It is interesting to note that Barbara Eden made a guest appearance on Dallas, as Lee Ann De La Vega, on five episodes of the series (1990-1991).

Hagman was known to ask his fans to sing a song or do a bit of soft shoe before he’d sign his autograph. It was his way to “connect” with them.

Hagman’s life was not without its own drama, including a life-threatening battle with alcoholism that came to a head in 1995, when doctors told him he had to have a liver transplant or die. 

Hagman shared his battle on the pages of “People Magazine,” saying “In the heyday of Dallas, it got to the point where I showed up for work about 6:30 in the morning, and by around 9, I might have opened a bottle of champagne, which I would nurse until about noon. By lunch, I might start on another half-bottle of champagne. I would go through about three bottles a day, sometimes with people who would drop by the set, but mostly by myself. I just kept that steady drip going. The drinking sometimes made it harder to remember lines, but I liked that constant feeling of being mildly loaded.”

Following his life-saving operation, Hagman became spokesman for the 1996 U.S. Transplant Games, serving as an advocate of organ donation and transplantation until his death. 

After “Dallas” and his transplant operation, Hagman left the limelight and entered semi-retirement. Then in the summer of 2011, the cable network TNT brought Dallas back to the television screen, thrusting the actor back into the limelight. Hagman was joined by other original cast members, and a new generation of the Ewing family began its bitter internal warfare.

Previously a heavy smoker, Hagman began his final battle last fall, this time with throat cancer. He said that he hoped to continue in his roll, but the toll his illness was taking on him was clear.

“As J.R. I could get away with anything — bribery, blackmail and adultery,” Hagman said at the time in a statement. “But I got caught by cancer. I do want everyone to know that it is a very common and treatable form of cancer. I will be receiving treatment while working on the new Dallas series. I could not think of a better place to be than working on a show I love, with people I love. Besides, as we all know, you can’t keep J.R. down!”

In addition to his two most iconic roles, Hagman also appeared in “Dallas” spinoff “Knots Landing” as J.R. Ewing (1980-82). He made frequent guest appearance on popular shows such as “Desperate Housewives,” “Nip/Tuck,” and “The Rockford Files,” among many others. His filmography includes “JFK,” “Nixon,” “Primary Colors,” “Fail-Safe,” and a cameo, along with Rex Reed, in “Superman, the Movie.”

Mr. Hagman is survived by his wife Maj, his daughter, Kristina Hagman, his son, Preston Hagman, and five granddaughters.

The condolences of the Communities staff are sent to Mr. Hagman’s family and loved ones.


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Jacquie Kubin

Jacquie Kubin is an award winning journalist that began writing in 1993 following a successful career in marketing and advertising in Chicago.  She started Communities Digital News in 2009 as a way to adapt to the changing online journalism marketing place.  Jacquie is President and Managing Editor of Communities Digital News, LLC and a frequent contributor to The Washington Times Communities as well as a member of the National Association of Professional Woman, New American Foundation and the Society of Professional Journalist.  Email Jacquie here

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