Remembering J.R. Ewing, Television's Greatest Villain: A Tribute to Larry Hagman
A THR editor and "Dallas" devotee tries to reconcile the man with the despicable character he played.
J.R. Ewing was the baddest bad guy of his time and Larry Hagman, who died Thursday at the age of 81, played the entitled sex- and power-hungry son of a Texas oil baron like he was put on this earth to do nothing else. He was conniving and hurtful, greedy and selfish, vengeful and bitter, and even in times of vulnerability, J.R. would manage to turn appreciation into competitive resentment on a dime.
In short, he was the definition of evil. I would even venture to say, the greatest villain in TV history -- meaner than Simon Cowell, more vindictive than Tony Soprano and savvier in business than even The Simpsons’ resident billionaire Montgomery Burns. J.R. Ewing would spew lines that stung without flinching -- J.R. to niece Lucy Ewing (Charlene Tilton): "Say, why don't you have that junior plastic surgeon you married design you a new face: one without a mouth" -- and one-liners like they were going out of style (J.R. to a lawyer: “A conscience is like a boat or a car. If you feel you need one, rent it"). My personal favorite J.R.-ism: "Never tell the truth when a good lie will do." So true, if only in his world of chandeliers and 10-gallon cowboy hats.
J.R. used words like “slut,” “tramp” and “whore” with abandon. Family loyalty? No such thing unless it involved his precious “daddy” Jock Ewing (Jim Davis) -- gone too soon, but then again, always there, looming over the clan like some kind of wrinkled, cigarette-smoking sky god. J.R. cheated on his wife Sue Ellen (Linda Gray) with her sister; blackmailed a business partner for sexual favors, screwed over everyone from his brother Bobby Ewing (Patrick Duffy) to sister-in-law Pamela Barnes (Victoria Principal); and befriended terrorists while cursing them behind their backs. Some might say -- and many did -- that, in a way, J.R.’s reckless business tactics and seemingly insatiable appetite for money was exactly the sort of behavior that led to Wall Street’s real-life implosion in 2008.
If there was any doubt, let’s put it to rest right here: J.R. was a despicable character with few, if any, redeeming qualities. Yet people tuned in because they loved him -- billions of them.
That’s no exaggeration. The CBS primetime soap was seen all over the world, dubbed in 67 different languages and syndicated to 90 countries where it had some of its most loyal audiences. I first saw Dallas in Israel and was instantly hooked. A decade or so later when the series was aired from start-to-finish on SoapNet, two post-college roommates and I watched it in its entirety, recording five episodes per week on a VHS tape that had so many lines running through it by the end of the 357-episode run, you could practically snort it. A few years after that, my then-boyfriend also settled in for the year-plus commitment and loved almost every minute of it -- those last couple seasons in the early 1990s were tough to get through. Still, we bonded over Dallas. The proof was at our wedding, which featured a family table named “Southfork Ranch” and a special bar menu that included such self-concocted cocktails as the “Pamela-politan” and the “Jock and Coke.”
In 2010, I had the opportunity to interview Larry Hagman for The Hollywood Reporter’s Legends issue. Like the magazine itself, he'd just turned 80 years old and with dozens of credits to his name in film and TV (everything from 1964’s Henry Fonda starrer Fail Safe to I Dream of Jeannie to 1998’s Primary Colors), had long ago secured membership in the elite club of Hollywood icons, several of whom were -- amazingly -- still active and honing their craft.
I didn’t divulge my fandom -- at least not right away -- but was immediately struck by how much Hagman was not like J.R. Ewing. In fact, other than the hat he walked in with, you could say he was the polar opposite of his character: humble, sweet, funny, charming -- a testament to his talent as an actor. He was also loyal. Infidelity? Hardly. Hagman was married to the same woman, the former Maj Axelsson, for 59 years.
Hagman seemed open to discussing just about anything -- from his time on Dallas (including memories of a young Brad Pitt in one of his first roles; Said Hagman: “I remember he had great stomach muscles”) -- to his liver transplant in 1995 to psychedelic drugs. He was particularly animated when it came to talking about the latter, endorsing such substances as marijuana, LSD and mescaline as mind-opening, out-of-body experiences that everyone should have. Six months later, he would announce being diagnosed with stage 2 throat cancer.
Admittedly, I haven’t yet watched the new 2012 version of Dallas, which features the original trifecta of Hagman, Duffy and the age-defying Gray in a continuation of the roles they took on in 1978. I’ve heard the reboot is actually great, and for that reason, its 10 episodes sit in purgatory on my DVR. THR reports that six of season two’s 15 episodes have been shot. Indeed, they were in the midst of filming when Hagman died of complications stemming from the cancer. He passed at Dallas’ Medical City Hospital, some 15 miles from Southfork.
So what becomes of the family patriarch now? Speculation as to how the series will write out Hagman’s role is already foremost on Dallas fans’ minds, which, of course, is just the way J.R. Ewing would have wanted to go out: with all the attention on him. Hagman, however, was a classier act -- slipping away into the Thanksgiving night quietly.
See a "best of" collection of J.R. Ewing's classic lines in the video below:
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