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updated: 11/24/2012 12:31 PM

Larry Hagman, J.R. Ewing on 'Dallas,' dies at 81

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  • Larry Hagman responds to a question regarding his experience on the television show, "Dallas", at the Southfork Ranch in Parker, Texas.

      Larry Hagman responds to a question regarding his experience on the television show, "Dallas", at the Southfork Ranch in Parker, Texas.
    Associated Press/Oct. 9, 2008

  • Video: 'Dallas' Star Larry Hagman Dies in Texas

 
Bloomberg News

Larry Hagman, whose portrayal of a rapacious, roguishly charming Texas oilman on the nighttime soap opera "Dallas" left a worldwide television audience wondering, "Who shot J.R.?", has died, the New York Times said. He was 81.

Hagman died in a Dallas hospital Friday of complications from cancer, the paper reported, citing a statement from the family.

The son of Mary Martin, the musical-theater star indelibly linked to the role of Peter Pan, Hagman also had a knack for creating memorable characters. One of them was Major Anthony Nelson, the U.S. astronaut who meets and marries a 2,000-year- old genie-in-a-bottle on "I Dream of Jeannie," which aired on NBC from 1965 to 1970.

The long-running CBS series "Dallas" enshrined Hagman in popular culture as J.R. Ewing, the ruthless, hard-drinking heir to his father's oil business who pursued riches and women with an impish grin and without regard for family, friends or scruples.

"My concern was just how bad could I make this bad boy and still keep him lovable," Hagman wrote in "Hello Darlin'," his 2001 memoir, written with Todd Gold.

He said the show "made greed, treachery and blackmail seem like good, sexy, all-American fun. As J.R. said, 'Once you get rid of integrity, the rest is a piece of cake.'"

It was at the end of the second full season, in an episode that aired on March 21, 1980, that J.R. received comeuppance, in the form of two bullets fired by an unseen assailant who entered his office as he worked late.

The cliffhanger episode left viewers debating a list of prospective assailants, all with the requisite resentment to pull the trigger. Was it J.R.'s put-upon, alcoholic wife, Sue Ellen? Her onetime lover, Dusty Farlow? J.R.'s business rival, Vaughn Leland? J.R.'s own brother, Bobby?

For six months, the question "Who shot J.R.?" fueled conversation around the TV-watching world. President Jimmy Carter, visiting Dallas, told supporters he came "to find out confidentially who shot J.R." Bookmakers in England and Las Vegas took bets on the shooter's identity. There were "I Shot J.R." T-shirts. Time magazine put Hagman on its cover, under the word, "Whodunit?" Besieged by autograph requests, Hagman began handing out fake $100 bills engraved with, "In Hagman We Trust."

"I won't ask you," the Queen Mother, Elizabeth, told Hagman after a charity gala in London, according to a United Press International account. "I couldn't tell you anyway," Hagman replied, "not even you, ma'am."

The answer -- Kristin Shepard, J.R.'s scorned former mistress and sister of his wife, played by actress Mary Crosby, daughter of Bing -- was revealed in the fourth episode of the following season.

That broadcast on Nov. 21, 1980, set a record for viewership, with 53.3 percent of U.S. households with televisions tuning in, according to A.C. Nielsen Co. That translated to about 41.4 million homes, or 83 million people. The previous record-holder was the final episode of the ABC miniseries "Roots" on Jan. 30, 1977. (The "Dallas" viewership mark would last until the finale of "M A S H" in February 1983.)

Hagman said he began drinking heavily as a teenager and kept up the habit right through the 14-year run of "Dallas," which went off the air in 1991. Diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver, he underwent a transplant in 1995 and became an activist for organ donation.

In his memoir, he described with wonder, not regret, his experiences with drugs ranging from marijuana to peyote and LSD. Once a two-pack-a-day cigarette smoker, he quit that habit and became a spokesman for the American Cancer Society.

In a real-life battle over money, Hagman and his wife challenged how the Smith Barney brokerage, when it was part of Citigroup Inc., had run some of their investment accounts. In 2010, three arbitrators ordered Citigroup to pay $1.1 million in compensatory damages and, as a punitive award, $10 million to charities chosen by Hagman. After a federal judge dismissed the arbitration ruling, the two sides reached a settlement on confidential terms.

"Dallas" returned to television in 2012 on the TNT network, with Hagman, Patrick Duffy and Linda Gray reprising their roles alongside a new generation of Ewings. "Evil Never Dies," Entertainment Weekly declared on its cover, alongside a photo of Hagman as cowboy-hatted J.R.

"Look at the money I'm making," Hagman told the magazine. "Look at the fame I have. I love every moment."

Larry Martin Hagman was born on Sept. 21, 1931, in Fort Worth, Texas, the only child of then-17-year-old Mary Martin and Benjamin Hagman, a criminal-defense attorney. He grew up in Weatherford, Texas, his mother's hometown. Hagman was raised by his maternal grandmother as his mother pursued her career, first by opening the Mary Hagman School of Dance in Weatherford, then moving to Hollywood to perform and audition.

His parents divorced when he was about 4, and Hagman split time between them. After his mother married Richard Halliday, a story editor at Paramount Pictures Corp. -- the two had a daughter, Heller -- Hagman moved with them to New York and enrolled in the Trinity School. In his book, he portrayed Halliday as a heavy drinker who tormented him and his stepsister "with ridiculous head games."

At 13, his mother sent him to Vermont to attend the Woodstock Country School. He finished high school back in Texas, where, one summer, he hit the road with his father, who was running for state senator.

Texas Characters

"I met all the dudes down there," he told Time in 1980. "Oil, cattle, politics, everything. Let me tell you, my character is milquetoast compared with some of those people. Fratricide, patricide, brothers and sisters shooting each other -- it was unbelievable."

Hagman spent a year at Bard College studying drama and dance. After making his professional acting debut in a 1951 New York production of "The Taming of the Shrew," he joined his mother in a London staging of "South Pacific."

He served in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War, landing a London-based post arranging entertainment for troops and for visiting military brass. On Christmas Day, 1954, he married Maj (pronounced "My") Irene Axelsson, a Swedish clothing designer. They would have two children, Heidi and Preston.

Back in New York, Hagman landed a two-year recurring role as a police officer on the daytime soap opera "The Edge of Night." He appeared in "Fail-Safe" (1964), with Henry Fonda and Walter Matthau.

"I Dream of Jeannie," co-starring Barbara Eden, premiered in September 1965 and lasted 139 episodes, through 1970.

In 1977, reviewing scripts sent by Lorimar Inc., Hagman was drawn to a proposal by writer and producer Leonard Katzman for "Dallas." As Hagman recalled, it "was Romeo and Juliet set among the oil fields, except there wasn't one likable character in the entire episode. Not one nice person. For television at the time, that was a real breakthrough."

Hagman said he shaped J.R. Ewing based on his memories of working after high school for Jess Hall Jr., whose Weatherford- based company made equipment used in oil drilling.

Of Hall, who died in 2011, Hagman wrote: "He was a respected pillar of the community. But he also once drove his Jeep up the front steps of my dad's house at 2 a.m. and left it on the porch for a week."

--Editors: Charles W. Stevens

To contact the reporter on this story: Laurence Arnold in Washington at larnold4bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Charles W. Stevens at cstevensbloomberg.net

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