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'Dallas' Star Larry Hagman Dies at 81

Larry Hagman DALLAS PR Image - P 2012
Mark Seliger/TNT
Larry Hagman

UPDATED: The Fort Worth native, who was diagnosed with cancer 13 months ago, played the conniving J.R. Ewing on the primetime soap.

Larry Hagman, who played the evil oilman J.R. Ewing for 14 seasons on the hit primetime soap Dallas, has died, his family told The Dallas Morning News. He was 81.

Hagman, who starred with Barbara Eden on another TV hit, the 1960s comedy I Dream of Jeannie, died Friday afternoon at Medical City Dallas Hospital. Dallas co-stars Linda Gray and Patrick Duffy were with him on the day before he died.

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In October 2011, the actor said he had a "treatable" form of cancer but that he would work on TNT's Dallas reboot during treatment. He then appeared in 10 episodes of the series, which debuted in June.

"As J.R., I could get away with anything — bribery, blackmail and adultery. But I got caught by cancer," he said then. "I do want everyone to know that it is a very common and treatable form of cancer. I will be receiving treatment while working on the new Dallas series. I could not think of a better place to be than working on a show I love, with people I love. Besides, as we all know, you can't keep J.R. down!"

Hagman, who had a liver transplant in 1995, filmed six of the 15 episodes for season two of Dallas, which is set to return Jan. 28.

“Larry was back in his beloved Dallas re-enacting the iconic role he loved most,” his family said in a written statement. “Larry’s family and close friends had joined him in Dallas for the Thanksgiving holiday. When he passed, he was surrounded by loved ones. It was a peaceful passing, just as he had wished for. The family requests privacy at this time.”

Hagman was at the center of the famous “Who Shot J.R.?” storyline in which his Ewing character is fired upon in the 1979-80 season finale in March and the assailant is not revealed until the following November -- when the series attracted a then-record 53.3 rating and 76 share.

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Hagman made Ewing perversely likable despite the oil magnate's nefarious, conniving ways. His cackle and sparkling Texas-sized grin when bilking, cheating or destroying a rival was a delicious treat that CBS viewers relished from 1978-91. Amazingly, he appeared in every one of the series' 357 episodes, earning two Emmy Award nominations and four Golden Globe noms without a win.

The show was a huge international hit (seen in almost 100 countries), Hagman noted in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter in December 2010.

"All the restaurants in the Arab countries and in Israel used to shut down when Dallas was on, so I was a peacemaker for at least an hour," he recalled with a smile.

The son of Broadway legend Mary Martin and a district attorney, Hagman starred on I Dream of Jeannie as an often-befuddled U.S. astronaut, Major Anthony Nelson, who finds a gorgeous 2,000-year-old genie in a bottle on a beach, becomes her master and eventually falls in love with her. The NBC comedy, created and produced by Sidney Sheldon as an answer to ABC's popular Bewitched, ran from 1965 to 1970.

Although best remembered for these two TV roles, Hagman had a long and varied career in films.

He appeared in such movies as Ensign Pulver (1964), and, in the same year, the Cold War thriller Fail-Safe with Henry Fonda. He co-starred in such diverse fare as Mother, Jugs & Speed (1976), playing with Raquel Welch and Harvey Keitel in a broad comedy about ambulance chasing in L.A., and played Oscar winner Art Carney's son in Harry and Tonto (1974).

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The same year, Hagman co-starred along with Michael Caine, Robert Duvall and Donald Sutherland in the World War II thriller The Eagle Has Landed. In 1978, he had a role in Superman. His other films included the political dramas Nixon (1995) and Primary Colors (1998), limning a good-old-boy, populist politico.

He was born Larry Martin Hageman in Fort Worth, Texas, on Sept. 21, 1931. Following high school, he moved to England as a member of the cast of his mother's stage show, South Pacific, performing in the musical for five years. (Hagman was raised in Texas and Los Angeles by his materal grandmother until she died when he was 12.)

Hagman then enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, where he produced and directed several documentary and how-to series. During his military service, Hagman met Maj Axelsson, a Swedish designer, and they married in December 1954. She survives him.

After his military discharge, Hagman returned to New York, intent on pursuing an acting career. He performed in a number of Broadway and off-Broadway plays, most notably Once Around the Block and Career.

Hagman began his television career in 1961 with a number of guest appearances on such shows as The ALCOA Hour. That led to him being cast as a regular on the daytime soap opera The Edge of Night, on which he appeared from 1961-63. Having spent eight years in New York, the Hagmans then moved to Hollywood.

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With his broad, good-natured performance as the astronaut in Jeannie, he won a national following. Following that show, Hagman went on to star in the sitcoms The Good Life (1971) opposite Donna Mills and Here We Go Again (1973), a farce about divorced couples.

He also returned to his stage roots, albeit on TV: He co-starred with Lauren Bacall in the TV version of the hit Broadway musical Applause (1973).

In 1986, Hagman hosted Lone Star, an eight-part PBS documentary series on the history of Texas, celebrating the state's sesquicentennial. He did a voice-over for The Simpsons, had a recurring part on Nip/Tuck and appeared on Desperate Housewives.

 In July 1995, Hagman needed a liver transplant after years of heavy drinking — up to five bottles of champagne a day — that led to cirrhosis. Undergoing a 16-hour transplant operation at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, he spent seven weeks at the hospital convalescing.

One year later, Hagman became the National Spokesperson for the 1996 U.S. Transplant Games presented by the National Kidney Foundation. The following year, with his health restored -- he also was a heavy smoker who eventually quit -- he went on to star in a CBS one-hour drama, Orleans, playing a judge. 

A garrulous guy, Hagman always asked autograph seekers to sing a song for him or tell him a joke before signing his name.

In addition to his wife, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2005, Hagman is survived by their daughter Kristina, their son Preston and five granddaughters. After years in Malibu, the Hagmans lived on a 42-acre mountaintop ranch outside Ojai, Calif., for some two decades; they put their house up for sale in 2011.