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Larry Hagman, 1931-2012 | reviews, news & interviews

Larry Hagman, 1931-2012

Larry Hagman, 1931-2012

Veteran of stage and screen who found immortality in supersoap 'Dallas'

Larry Hagman as JR Ewing, the charming yet fiendish oil tycoon from Southfork Ranch

It was the Seventies/Eighties supersoap Dallas which made Larry Hagman a household name, and his portrayal of the amoral, unscrupulous oil baron JR Ewing became a benchmark character in TV history. Hagman's performance also helped to make Dallas one of the highest-rated shows of all time, and the question "Who shot JR?" (which somebody did at the end of series three) became the focus of intense global speculation.

An updated version of Dallas was recently launched by the TNT network in the States, and Hagman stoically returned to the set despite his steadily worsening health.

Though he'll always be remembered as JR, Hagman - born in Fort Worth, Texas in 1931 - had pursued a career on stage and screen since the 1950s. His mother, Mary Martin, became a film and Broadway actress (she was divorced from Larry's father Ben, an attorney, in 1936, when the boy was five), and sometimes took her son on to movie sets with her when she became a contracted player with Paramount. 

Having shown acting promise in his teens, Hagman began to pick up stage roles in Dallas, New York and other cities during the early Fifties. During the Korean war, he was drafted into the US Air Force and stationed in England, and spent most of his service entertaining US troops in Britain and Europe as a director of USO shows. Returning to New York, he married Swedish designer Maj Axelsson while they were both working on a production of South Pacific, and they had two children, Preston and Heidi.

The new world of television beckoned, and Hagman found work in series such as The Defenders, The US Steel Hour and Sea Hunt. His first regular role was as lawyer Ed Gibson in the daytime serial The Edge of Night (1961-63). Stardom arrived along with his role in I Dream of Jeannie, which kicked off in 1965 and found Hagman playing astronaut Anthony Nelson, who found a bottle containing a genie called Jeannie (Barbara Eden, pictured above with Hagman).

After Jeannie ended in 1970, Hagman appeared in a couple of undistinguished TV series (Here We Go Again and The Good Life) and scored several movie roles, including appearances in The Eagle Has Landed and Christopher Reeve's first Superman adventure. But the arrival of Dallas was Hagman's defining moment, and JR's wolfish leer and stetson hat became on-screen symbols as indelible as Batman's cape or Groucho's moustache. Originally intended to be a five-episode miniseries, the show ended up lasting 13 years and turned Hagman and his fellow cast-members (not least Linda Gray, who played JR's long-suffering dipsomaniac wife Sue Ellen) into global celebrities.

Off screen, Hagman enjoyed a colourful lifestyle. He became friendly with rock musician David Crosby, who turned him onto LSD, an epiphany which Hagman claimed "changed my pattern of life and way of thinking". Actor Jack Nicholson persuaded Hagman to try marijuana as an alternative to the alcohol he was absorbing in alarming quantities, though apparently Hagman ended up consuming both. He confessed that he would drink four bottles of champagne a day during his Dallas years, and it was only a 1992 diagnosis of cirrhosis of the liver and a warning that he had months to live that finally forced him to quit.

In 1995 he was diagnosed with liver cancer and underwent a transplant. He became a keen advocate of organ transplants and, now an ex-smoker, campaigned against the habit. In addition, the world's most notorious oil tycoon became an ardent advocate of solar power. He finally succumbed to complications arising from throat cancer, and died in a Dallas hospital aged 81.

  • Larry Martin Hagman, 21 September 1931 - 23 November 2012
JR's wolfish leer and stetson hat became symbols as indelible as Batman's cape or Groucho's moustache

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