Larry Hagman 1931-2012
Born in Fort Worth, Texas, the son of Ben Hagman an attorney and future Broadway icon Mary Martin, Larry Hagman’s parents divorced in 1936 when he was 5. His mother took off for New York to pursue her dream of acting, leaving Larry behind to live with his grandmother in California. He was 12 when his grandmother died and Larry joined his mother in New York, who had established herself on the Broadway stage.
After a year at Bard College in New York, Hagman decided to follow in his mothers footsteps and his first professional stage appearance was with the Margo Jones Theatre-In-The-Round in Dallas. He then appeared in the New York City Center production of Taming of the Shrew followed by a year of regional theatre. He then moved to the U.K. as a member of the cast of his mother’s hit musical show South Pacific and stayed for 5 years. During that time he joined the U.S. Air Force where he entertained U.S. troops in the U.K. and at bases all over Europe. After his discharge he returned to the U.S. with his new wife Maj (pronounced “my”) and continued his acting career on Broadway and Off-Broadway.
Hagman decided to pack up his family (by then he had 2 children, Heidi and Preston) and move to California where he appeared in many television shows, most produced live, in the latter half of the 1950s. In 1961 he joined the cast of the popular daytime drama Edge of Night as Ed Gibson, a role that would continue for 2 years. In 1965 he became known to prime time audiences by playing the role of Major Anthony Nelson an astronaut and befuddled master of a genie in the comedy I Dream of Jeannie on NBC, with the gorgeous Barbara Eden. Jeannie was created to compete with other “magical” TV series of the era like Bewitched on ABC and My Favorite Martian on CBS. The series was successful and continued for 5 seasons.
In 1977 Hagman signed on to play the role of J.R. Ewing, a conniving, womanizing, blackmailing very rich Texas oilman and cattle baron who would stop at nothing to get what he wanted on the night time soap Dallas. With the role of J.R., Hagman became one of the best known stars on television as well as a counter-culture hero and a figure everyone else loved to hate. In the 1980 cliff hanger season finale, J.R. was shot by an unknown assailant and the question “Who shot J.R.?” was on everyone’s lips and it was during this hysteria that Hagman decided to re-negotiate his contract. After much deliberation networks caved into his demands and with that, Hagman became the one of the highest paid actors on television. He loved playing J.R. saying that playing a villain was infinitely more interesting that playing a nice guy and he was the only cast member to appear in all 357 episodes. Never content to be just an actor, Hagman directed several Dallas episodes as well as some of I Dream of Jeannie. Dallas lasted 13 seasons.
Larry Hagman’s directorial debut for a feature film happened with Beware, the Blob 1972, a comedic low budget homage to the classic horror film The Blob 1958. Beware, the Blob was re-released in 1982 with the tag-line “The film that J.R. shot” in a effort to capitalize on his success in Dallas. In the 70s between I Dream of Jeannie and Dallas, Hagman appeared on the big screen working in films with some of Hollywood’s top talent; Harry and Tonto 1974 with the great Art Carney, Mother Jugs and Speed 1976 with Raquel Welch and Harvey Keitel and Superman 1978 with Marlon Brando and Christopher Reeve. In the 90s he appeared in Nixon 1995 with Anthony Hopkins and Primary Colors 1998 with John Travolta.
Never shy about talking politics, Hagman, since the 1960s was a member of the radical Peace and Freedom Party that grew out of the extreme Left Wing and has strong support in California. This year they nominated Rosanne Barr and Cindy Sheehan on its Presidential ticket. He is quoted saying “My definition of redundancy is an air bag in a politicians car.”
Hagman was a heavy drinker and his friend Jack Nicholson introduced him to marijuana as a safer alternative to consuming so much booze. He became an advocate for legalization. Following a liver transplant in 1995, Hagman worked on behalf of the National Kidney Foundation and as a reformed smoker, worked tirelessly as chairman of the American Cancer Society’s Great American Smoke Out for many years. Hagman also was an advocate for alternative energy sources and lived a green lifestyle, installing a $750,000 solar panel system at his Ojai estate.
With a career that spanned more than 60 years and covered stage, television and film, Larry Hagman died from complications of throat cancer at Medical City Dallas Hospital at 4:20pm, surrounded by family and friends including Linda Gray and Patrick Duffy from the original Dallas. He was 81.