So many actors memorize and recite lines for entire careers without meeting the role that would define them. The few who do become as familiar as friends or relatives, crucial elements of our lives for a time or forever.
Still, J.R. Ewing of Dallas lived mostly in TV writers’ imaginations. But Larry Hagman, part-time Dallas resident, was real.
His death Friday at 81 at Medical City Dallas of complications from a recent battle with cancer naturally sparks memories of his signature role: the scheming, womanizing oil baron, equal parts evil and mischief. It’s a reason he’s remembered today across the globe, but it’s far from the only one.
J.R. Ewing neither began nor ended Hagman’s acting career, and his career was only part of his life. Originally from Weatherford, the son of Broadway actress Mary Martin, he followed her into the theater and came to national notice as Barbara Eden’s I Dream of Jeannie straight man, an Air Force officer who found a genie in a bottle.
In April 1978, he was back as a supporting player in a five-part CBS miniseries, Dallas, that proved so popular it became a regular series that survived 13 seasons through May 1991.
Hagman developed the unscrupulous J.R. into such a character that he became the show’s focal point. The “Who Shot J.R.?” episode in March 1980, the quintessential cliffhanger, remains one of the most watched programs of all time.
The way Hagman built the J.R. character, always with a sly twinkle, would have been enough for a dozen acting careers, certainly enough to warrant the weekend outpouring, a deserved sendoff for an icon. Few of us who came of age in North Texas actually knew families like the Ewings, but Hagman’s full-volume portrayal of J.R. would affect the way generations worldwide viewed our city.
To us, though, there’s Larry Hagman the man. He advocated for organ donation after his 1995 liver transplant. He supported from its 1986 inception the South Dallas Cultural Center. He launched the Larry Hagman Foundation and gave thousands to the Dallas Children’s Theater, Big Thought, Artreach, Frazier Revitalization and a program for Dunbar Elementary School, among others.
And, especially, there’s the time and personal attention he devoted to such causes, turning his fame into memorable experiences for others, even if some might not have grasped it.
One Southlake teen had no concept of J.R. Ewing when Larry Hagman spoke to her after she won third place in a photography competition.
“He was very relatable and personable,” Jessica Berry said. “I thought he was super nice, not what I expected after hearing about celebrities.”
And with all due respect to an actor who created an iconic character, that’s how we’ll remember Larry Hagman.
The Dallas Morning News