The love-to-hate-him (her) character is by now a staple of TV. But rarely has there been an actor who so palpably enjoyed being love-to-hated as Larry Hagman. Hagman died of throat cancer Friday at age 81, in the place where he spent much of his childhood and working life, and the place where Americans came to hiss-applaud him as oil tycoon J.R. Ewing—Dallas.
Hagman was born near Fort Worth in 1931, into a part-showbiz family—his mother was a Broadway actress—and spent his childhood in Texas, California and New York. He kicked off his showbiz career in Dallas, working in local theater until his career took him to the stage in New York City and movies through the 1950s and early 1960s. He first became a national stars playing, of all things, a sweetheart: astronaut Tony Nelson, the put-upon “master” of Barbara Eden’s title character in I Dream of Jeannie, which rolled up the ’60s vogue for the space program, fantasy sitcoms and pre-women’s-lib gender relations all in one.
But Hagman’s career, and TV history, would be changed by his casting in Dallas, one of those incidents that shows how much television magic comes from happy accidents and unintended consequences. J.R., the conniving scion of a Texas oil family, was not meant to be the star of Dallas. But as Hagman played him, it became clear that he couldn’t not be.
Soap-star villains are common as Texas dirt, but Hagman tapped a once-in-a-lifetime gusher of gleeful villainy. J.R. was written as a callous, cocky bastard, the evilest mind ever to lease space in a ten-gallon hat. But what made him a TV icon—the thing people remember of Dallas even if they never watched it—was the swaggering, lusty, funky delight that Hagman brought to his schemes. He embarked on deceptions as happily as if he were digging into a plate of barbecue, and it was that infectious delight that made audience want to see him brought down—and also, to never, ever stop.
J.R. and Hagman very nearly obliged them. Dallas ran from 1978 to 1991, bracketing the flush Reagan ’80s on either side. But its pop-cultural peak was the third-season cliffhanger, when J.R. took a bullet and “Who Shot J.R.?” became a national obsession all summer. The shooter turned out to be his sister-in-law Kristin, pregnant with his child, but who couldn’t it have been? That America was so rapt with vengeance-worry over the fate of a rat-bastard millionaire shows how well Hagman physically embodied what storytellers since Milton, with his Lucifer, have known: nothing beats a charming villain.
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This year, Hagman had a chance to reprise the role in TNT’s Dallas, which continued the same story two decades later. I’ll freely admit I was skeptical about bringing back Hagman (and Patrick Duffy and company) to tap a well that had already been worked for 14 seasons. But it turned out that Hagman’s curtain call was by far the best thing of the adaptation: as I wrote in my review, “seeing him reinflate into his calculating, venomous role is a treat, like watching Darth Vader rise again in his helmet.”
In their first response to Hagman’s death, producers of the new series praised his “legacy of entertainment, generosity and grace”; Hagman had already shot part of the second season, which as of this writing is still expected to premiere on schedule next year. Whether or not the Dallas revival can long survive Hagman, though, his legacy in today’s more-ambitious serial dramas lives on, carried on through Tony Soprano to the charismatic antiheroes of Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad and more.
Larry Hagman could not be with us forever. But evil never dies. RIP.