Larry Hagman as J.R.: A TV villain for all ages
This 1981 file photo provided by CBS shows Larry Hagman in character as J.R. Ewing in the television series "Dallas." Actor Larry Hagman, who for more than a decade played villainous patriarch JR Ewing in the TV soap Dallas, has died at the age of 81, his family said Saturday Nov. 24, 2012. (AP Photo/CBS, file)
NEW YORK (AP) — One reason "Dallas" became a cultural phenomenon like none other is that Larry Hagman never took its magnitude for granted.
During an interview last June, he spoke of returning to Dallas and the real-life Southfork Ranch some months earlier to resume his role of J.R. Ewing for the TNT network's revival of the series. There at Southfork, now a major tourist attraction, he came upon a wall-size family tree diagramming the entanglement of "Dallas" characters.
"I looked at it and said 'I didn't know I was related to HER!'" Hagman marveled. "And I didn't know THAT!"
In its own way, the original "Dallas" — which aired on CBS from 1978 to 1991 — was unfathomably bigger than anything on TV before or since, while J.R. Ewing remains unrivaled not just as a video villain but as a towering mythical figure.
All this is largely thanks to Hagman and his epic portrayal of J.R., a Texas oilman and patriarch who, in Hagman's hands, was in equal measures loathsome and lovable.
Hagman, who died Friday at 81, certainly had nothing more to prove a quarter-century ago when "Dallas" ended after 14 seasons.
But in the series revival, whose first season aired this summer, J.R. was even more evil and deliciously conniving than ever. Though visibly frail, Hagman knew how to leverage J.R.'s vulnerabilities as a new form of strength to wield against his rivals. Hagman knew how to double-down on J.R. as a force the audience could hiss and cheer with equal delight.
Of course, in his long career, Hagman did more than star in "Dallas" and tackled more roles than J.R. Ewing. Had "Dallas" never come along with its operatic sprawl of power, corruption and family feuds, Hagman would likely be remembered for an earlier series, "I Dream of Jeannie," the 1960s sitcom about an astronaut and the genie who loved him.
Even so, during Hagman's five seasons co-starring with Barbara Eden as the sexy genie-in-a-bottle, he was inevitably upstaged.
That would never be a problem on "Dallas," especially after the final hour of the series' second season, when J.R. was gunned down by an unknown assailant and left for dead on his office floor.
All that summer and late into the fall, the nation was seized and teased by the mystery of Who Shot J.R.? Nearly every fellow character had sufficient motive to want J.R. killed, and which of them had done the deed was a question everyone was asking. Finally, the answer was delivered on the episode that aired 32 years ago almost to the day — on Nov. 21, 1980 — when the shooter was revealed to be J.R.'s scheming sister-in-law and mistress, Kristin.
And oh, by the way, J.R. survived.
As J.R., Hagman could marshal piercing glances with his hawk-like eyes, and chill any onlooker with his wicked grin. There was no depth to which J.R. couldn't sink, especially with the outrageous story lines the series blessed him with.
But his popularity exceeded that for even a notable bad guy. This, too, is a credit to Hagman's portrayal. By all indications, the glorious rascalness that made J.R. such fun to watch was lifted intact from Hagman's own lively personality.
During last June's lunch interview with Hagman and Linda Gray (J.R.'s long-suffering onetime wife, Sue Ellen), Gray recalled the day the "Dallas" cast first met.