Star of 'Dallas' and 'I Dream of Jeannie' dies in Texas hospital after battling cancer
Actor Larry Hagman, who for more than a decade ruled as the despotic J.R. Ewing on the nighttime soap opera “Dallas” and earlier starred in “I Dream of Jeannie,” has died. He was 81
The actor, who returned as J.R. in a new edition of “Dallas” this year, had a long history of health problems and died Friday in a Dallas hospital due to complications from his battle with cancer, his family said.
“Dallas” came to define nighttime television after its CBS debut in 1978 spawning a series of other rich-people-with-problems series, only one of which, “Dynasty,” competed in popularity. But none came close to matching the high water mark “Dallas” achieved in 1980 when 40 million viewers (and many more around the world) viewed the cliffhanger final episode of the show’s second season, in which J.R. was shot by an unknown assailant. Audiences spent the summer trying to guess “who killed J.R?” Hagman said he was offered $250,000 by a British tabloid to reveal the murderer’s identity — but not even the cast members were told. And J.R. might never have returned, or the actor playing him replaced, possibly by Robert Culp, since Hagman held up the solution of the murder with contract demands, finally compromising for $75,000 per episode.
Problems with alcohol plagued the actor for much of his adult life. Hagman had cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer in the late ’80s in the mid-1990s. And he was known for his volatility, especially in the 1960s, when he co-starred for five years with Barbara Eden in the hit sitcom “I Dream of Jeannie.” Though some blame his later problems on a latchkey childhood (he was the son of actress Mary Martin), Hagman said that being shuffled between his divorced parents and other relatives did not mean he was neglected; more likely, the actor said, he was spoiled because he had been the center of attention.
Regardless, it was through his mother’s intercession that he was first employed as an actor in the London production of “South Pacific,” in which his mother starred. (In 1950 he and Martin recorded a song together, “Get Out Those Old Records,” which was not a hit; during his “Dallas” years, he recorded “Ballad of a Good Luck Charm.”)
Larry Martin Hagman was born in Weatherford, Texas.
His father Benjamin Hagman was a lawyer, and his parents divorced when Hagman was a child. Martin remarried producer-agent Richard Halliday and had a daughter, Heather. Hagman lived for a time with his father in Fort Worth, then with Martin and Halliday, and at other times with his grandmother in Los Angeles. His education came via a number of private schools, where he had disciplinary problems. He flunked out of Bard College after a year and went to work as an apprentice in the theater, doing backstage work for St. John Terrell’s Florida stock companies and the Margo Jones Theater in Dallas.
Hagman was cast in the small role of Herman Quayle at his mother’s request in the London production of “South Pacific” in 1951. He remained with a show for the year and then spent four years in the Air Force, directing USO shows in Europe.
When he returned to the U.S., he worked Off Broadway and finally got his Broadway break in “Comes a Day” in 1958 and “God and Kate Murphy” and “The Nervous Set,” both in 1959. Over the next few years he appeared in “The Warm Peninsula” and “The Beauty Part.”
During the same period he was already working in TV, appearing regularly on “Studio One,” “Hallmark Hall of Fame” and “The U.S. Steel Hour” and guesting on “The Defenders” and “Sea Hunt.”
Hagman was a regular on soap opera “The Edge of Night” from 1961-63.
In 1964 he moved to Los Angeles to read for several pilots and secured small roles in such films as “Fail-Safe” (he was president Henry Fonda’s Russian translator) and “Ensign Pulver.” One of his pilots, “I Dream of Jeannie,” created by Sidney Sheldon for Screen Gems, was picked up. Debuting in fall 1965, the show ran for five years and, thereafter, essentially forever in syndication. Hagman became legendary for his interference, which he claimed, led to several breakdowns. He pulled through thanks to psychotherapy.
In 1973 he appeared he starred with Lauren Bacall in a CBS production of the Comden and Green musical comedy “Applause,” based on the film “All About Eve.”
Other films roles in “The Group,” “The Cavern” and “In Harm’s Way” were squeezed in before he devoted himself completely to “Jeannie.” In 1970 he returned to the screen in “Up in the Cellar” and then directed “Beware! The Blob,” a 1972 low-budget thriller.
Subsequent films included “Stardust,” “The Big Bus,” “The Eagle Has Landed,” “Superman” and “S.O.B.,” but he turned in his best bigscreen performances in 1974’s “Harry and Tonto,” as Art Carney’s Hollywood-loser son, and in 1998’s “Primary Colors,” in which he played a former Southern governor brought low by drug abuse. In 1995 he appeared in Oliver Stone’s “Nixon” in a broader role as a Texas millionaire in the mood for conspiracy.
He tried other TV series, including NBC’s “The Good Life,” which lasted only one season in 1971, and “Here We Go Again,” for ABC, which had no chance against “All in the Family” in 1973. Hagman then worked regularly in telepics such as “Vanished,” “Howling in the Woods,” “No Place to Run” and “The Return of the World’s Greatest Detective.” “Sidekicks” in 1974 was actually a backdoor pilot for a series that never materialized.
In 1979 he passed up a series called “The Waverly Wonders” to star in a nighttime soap called “Dallas.” Time magazine described J.R. Ewing as “an overstuffed Iago in a Stetson hat” and said that Hagman played him with “obvious zest and charm” when it wrote about the new series. By 1980, “Dallas” had climbed to the top of the ratings and by then Hagman was demanding and getting $75,000 an episode, three times his first season’s salary (he had been holding out for perks such as movie commitments to merchandise participation). He recurred as J.R. on the “Dallas” spinoff “Knots Landing,” and “Dallas” ended in 1991.
He was an exec producer of “Dallas” in its last three seasons and also directed 32 episodes of “Dallas” and later helmed seven episodes of “In the Heat of the Night.” He also starred in and exec produced the “Dallas” follow-up telepics “Dallas: J.R. Returns” (1996) and “Dallas: War of the Ewings” (1998).
There were two “I Dream of Jeannie” reunion telepics, “I Dream of Jeannie: 15 Years Later” (1985) and “I Still Dream of Jeannie” (1991), but Hagman did not appear in either one, though he did appear with “Jeannie” co-stars Barbara Eden and Bill Daily and creator Sidney Sheldon on “The Donny and Marie Show” in November 1999 and in other reunions; a feature adaptation was in the works as of May 2011.
Hagman was a series regular on CBS’ brief 1997 series “Orleans,” playing a judge; the same year he appeared in a telepic adaptation of Ken Follett thriller “The Third Twin.”
Later he recurred on “Nip/Tuck” and “Desperate Housewives.”
A bigscreen adaptation of “Dallas” that was to star John Travolta (as J.R.) and Jennifer Lopez fell apart in the mid-2000s, but cable network TNT eventually commissioned a new “Dallas” series that reunited many of the stars of the original. The drama, featuring Hagman, Linda Gray, Patrick Duffy, Steve Kanaly and Charlene Tilton, as well as a host of younger actors, bowed on the network last summer.
Hagman’s life was saved in 1995 thanks to a liver transplant. After he quit smoking, he worked for the American Cancer Society as well as the National Kidney Foundation.
In June 2011, an auction of Hollywood memorabilia belonging to Hagman and attended by the actor generated more than $500,000.
He is survived by his wife, Maj Axelsson, whom he married in 1954; a daughter Heidi and a son Preston, both of whom worked in showbiz sporadically.