Actor Larry Hagman, best known for his role as Dallas’s Machiavellian oil baron J.R. Ewing, died Friday at age 81, after complications from cancer.
Hagman’s career spanned over 60 years, and included not only Dallas and its revival series, which launched earlier this year on TNT, but also the seminal 1960s comedy series I Dream of Jeannie, where he played Maj. Anthony “Tony” Nelson opposite Barbara Eden’s titular character. Hagman had, according to The Hollywood Reporter, filmed six of 15 of the new Dallas episodes at the time of his death, with the second season scheduled to start on January 28. How the show will incorporate Hagman’s death remains to be seen.
“All of us at TNT are deeply saddened at the news of Larry Hagman’s passing,” the cable network said in a prepared statement. “He was a wonderful human being and an extremely gifted actor. We will be forever thankful that a whole new generation of people got to know and appreciate Larry through his performance as J.R. Ewing. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family at this very difficult time.”
Hagman was born in Ft. Worth, Texas, in 1931. His mother, Mary Martin, would go on to become a renowned Broadway actress and his father was an accountant and a district attorney; the two divorced when Hagman was 5 years old. Hagman served in the United States Air Force during the Korean War, entertaining troops in the U.K. and Europe during the conflict, and opted to follow in his mother’s footsteps with a career in acting once he returned to the U.S.
Roles on the stage segued into television work, with his first on-screen appearance coming in 1956 with syndicated cop drama Decoy; he later joined the cast of the CBS mystery soap opera The Edge of Night, where he stayed for two seasons. But it was his role nine years later on I Dream of Jeannie that established his meteoric career trajectory, with CBS primetime soap Dallas arriving in 1977. And with that role—as manipulative oil scion J.R. Ewing—Hagman further entered the cultural lexicon. He also appeared in such films as Primary Colors,Nixon, and JFK.
Hagman leaves a lasting legacy, not just among Dallas’s devoted viewers in the 1980s, but among a younger generation that discovered J.R. and the Ewings thanks to TNT’s revival series, which picked up with the Ewing clan 20 years after the end of the series. A schemer and a dreamer, Hagman’s J.R. was known for his devilish eyebrows and for his manipulative streak, as well as for amassing both wealth and enemies in equal measure.
In fact, one of Hagman’s most indelible moments came in 1980 in a third-season episode of Dallas entitled “A House Divided,” a bona fide zeitgeist-seizing moment as Hagman’s J.R. was gunned down by an unseen assailant in a season finale cliffhanger. Eighty-three million viewers tuned in that fall to discover “who shot J.R.” in an episode that remains the second-highest-rated television episode of all time, cementing the "cliffhanger" as a vital and beloved trope in serialized television. The pivotal episode would go on to be spoofed by The Simpsons, and remains one of the most unforgettable moments in television history.
In 1995, Hagman underwent a liver transplant that saved his life; he admitted to being a heavy drinker and was a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. “They save lives and they save families too,” he told BBC News in 2001. “It’s just a great brotherhood and I suppose a sisterhood.”
Hagman is survived by his wife, Maj Axelsson, to whom he had been married nearly 60 years.
“It was a peaceful passing, just as he had wished for,” said Hagman’s family in a statement.
According to unconfirmed reports, Dallas co-stars Patrick Duffy and Linda Gray were at Hagman’s deathbed on Friday. The three were said to be extremely close, with a friendship that went back 35 years—to the first read-through of the Dallas miniseries. (According to Gray, speaking to The Daily Beast earlier this year, Hagman greeted Gray that day with Champagne bottles and “Hello, darlin’.”)
Watch this classic clip of Larry Hagman as J.R. Ewing (with Linda Grey).
In a statement to The Daily Beast, Gray said this of her co-star: “Larry Hagman was my best friend for 35 years. He was the Pied Piper of life and brought joy to everyone he knew. He was creative, generous, funny, loving and talented, and I will miss him enormously. He was an original and lived life to the full. The world was a brighter place because of Larry.”
Erroneous press reports during the 30-plus years since Dallas’s “A House Divided” and “Who Done It?” indicated that Hagman was opposed to J.R. being shot. Hagman denied any opposition to the plot twist in an interview with The Daily Beast earlier this year.
“That’s what gave me the initiative to ask for more money,” he said. “People write everything and that’s bullshit. They picked it up for another three or four shows and didn’t have a bible for that. So they thought, ‘Let’s just shoot the son of a bitch and figure it out later.’ They figured out during the hiatus who shot me. I loved it.”
“About 30 people got to shoot me,” he continued. “They filmed so many folks. We had the cameraman, the girl who keeps the script. Everybody got to shoot J.R. They just kept lining up. Pow, pow, pow. While we were lit, everybody was like, ‘I wanna shoot him! Call craft service! Tell them to get up here right away.’”