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Updated Saturday, November 24, 2012 at 01:01 AM

Obituary: Role as villainous J.R. Ewing made Larry Hagman famous

By Valerie J. Nelson
Los Angeles Times

Fervor for the television show "Dallas" was intense in 1980, when the Queen Mother met actor Larry Hagman and joined the worldwide chorus asking: "Who shot J.R.?"

"Not even for you, ma'am," replied Mr. Hagman, who portrayed villainous oil baron J.R. Ewing at the center of the popular prime-time soap from 1978 until 1991.

An estimated 300 million viewers in 57 countries had seen J.R. get shot by an unseen assailant, a season-ending plot twist that is credited with popularizing the cliffhanger in television series.

Mr. Hagman, who became a television star in the 1960s starring in the sitcom "I Dream of Jeannie," died Friday at a Dallas hospital of complications from his recent battle with throat cancer, his family said. He was 81.

Former co-stars Linda Gray and Patrick Duffy were among those with him when he died.

"Larry was back in his beloved Dallas re-enacting the iconic role he loved most," his family said in a written statement.

A year ago, Mr. Hagman announced his second bout with cancer. He had spoken candidly about decades of drinking that led to cirrhosis of the liver and, in 1995, a lifesaving liver transplant.

He had returned to Dallas to film season one and part of season two of TNT's "Dallas" reboot.

As an actor, Mr. Hagman came with a serious pedigree. He was the son of Mary Martin, a legendary star of Broadway musicals best-known for originating the role of Peter Pan in the 1950s.

On "Dallas," his J.R. Ewing was "the man viewers loved to hate," according to critics, a scheming Texan in a land of plenty. The role of J.R. transformed his life. He rocketed from being merely well-known from "I Dream of Jeannie" to the kind of international fame known only by the likes of The Beatles and Muhammad Ali.

"Here is a man born to play villainy," former Times TV critic Howard Rosenberg wrote soon after the show's debut. "His performance on 'Dallas' is a salute to slime."

A Texas native, Mr. Hagman often said he played the character as a composite of "all those good old boys" he had known growing up, "who caught more flies with honey instead of vinegar."

By his own admission, Mr. Hagman drank his way through "Dallas." Champagne was "his poison"; he would uncork a bottle by 9 a.m. and keep the bubbly flowing all day. He once poured bourbon on his cornflakes.

"The drinking sometimes made it harder to remember lines, but I liked that constant feeling of being mildly loaded," he said in 1995 in People magazine.

Diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver in 1992, Mr. Hagman said he became an instant teetotaler. After developing a cancerous tumor on his liver, he underwent a liver transplant three years later.

"I'm often asked how my liver-transplant operation changed my life. Aside from saving it, nothing changed," he wrote in his 2001 autobiography, "Hello Darlin'."

Larry Martin Hagman was born Sept. 21, 1931, in Fort Worth. At the age of 16, his mother married lawyer Ben Hagman and had her son at 17. His parents soon divorced, and by 1933 Martin had set off for Hollywood without Larry.

He was largely raised by his maternal grandmother in Texas and Los Angeles until she died when he was 12.

For a year, he lived with his mother but clashed with her husband. Placed in a series of boarding schools, he was often a disciplinary problem and started drinking at 15, he later wrote.

Over more than half a century, he appeared in more than 80 TV productions and about 20 films.

He worked as a stage actor before appearing in films such as "Ensign Pulver" and the Otto Preminger epic "In Harm's Way."

When "Dallas" debuted as a five-part miniseries in April 1978, J.R. was merely a supporting character. But Mr. Hagman's dazzling portrayal soon earned him bigger and bigger pieces of the story line until he was the star of the show.

He refused to be defined by the part, however, and continued to show his acting chops with role such as the H.L. Hunt/Clint Murchison composite character in "Nixon" and as Gov. Fred Picker in "Primary Colors."

In addition to his wife, Maj, Mr. Hagman is survived by a daughter, a son, and five granddaughters.

Material from The Dallas Morning News is included in this report.



Larry Hagman




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