RIP Larry Hagman

Larry Hagman, most famous for playing J.R. Ewing on the hugely influential primetime soap Dallas, has died from complications from throat cancer, according to the Dallas Morning News. He was 81. He is survived by his wife and two children. “Larry was back in his beloved Dallas re-enacting the iconic role he loved most. 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,” said his family in a written statement.

Hagman was in Dallas because he was in the process of filming the second season of TNT’s reboot of Dallas. There was no word yet on how the series would proceed without Hagman’s presence. His portrayal of the villainous J.R. is one of the great TV bad guy performances, and both the original series and the reboot hinged on his ability to play a man willing to do completely despicable things yet make the audience simultaneously want him to succeed and want him to fail spectacularly. Dallas was never so good as when J.R. was scheming, or when he was having to live through the aftermath of one of those schemes, and Hagman played every side of the man with a gusto that gobbled up the screen presence of lesser actors. Fortunately, he was surrounded by a solid ensemble cast, and many became his lifelong friends.

Hagman, who fought in the Korean War after being drafted into the Air Force, got his start in the acting world via the stage. He was active in both the Off Broadway and Broadway scenes in the late ‘50s, making his Broadway debut in the play Comes A Day in 1958. His presence in the New York theatre world also marked him as someone who would appear frequently on the live TV anthology dramas of the period, and he was a frequent presence on the young medium, making him one of the few actors to have worked in all seven decades of the medium’s existence. Hagman would take a role in the soap Edge Of Night in the early ‘60s, but it was his first regular TV sitcom role that would make his name.

TV fans who don’t know Hagman for Dallas—and there must be one or two of them—surely know him for the lead male role in I Dream Of Jeannie. As Tony Nelson, the military man who happens to find a bottle containing Barbara Eden’s genie, Jeannie, Hagman imbued the silly series with conviction. The show was one of the less successful of the gimmick fantasy sitcoms popular in the ‘60s, but Hagman and Eden’s chemistry was strong enough to carry the weak scripts and misogynistic premise. The series offered NBC a hit in the popular genre (to go with ABC’s Bewitched and CBS’ My Favorite Martian), running for five seasons. (Hagman said that the show died because Tony and Jeannie got married, which gave the audience no reason to care about the characters anymore.) Eden’s work was flirtatious and sexy, and Hagman’s solid, rock-ribbed Americanism kept things from getting too threatening for middle America. He balanced out the titillation, making it safe for consumption. Hagman and Eden would remain friends, and the two would do two reunion specials in 1985 and 1991.

Hagman kept active in the post-Jeannie world, popping up in made-for-TV movies like Sarah T.: Portrait Of A Teenage Alcoholic and big-screen films like Harry And Tonto. (Hagman made his film debut in 1964’s Ensign Pulver and also starred in the big-screen version of Fail-Safe that year. His film work was never as high profile as his TV work, but he had several memorable, smaller roles in such films as Superman, Primary Colors, and Nixon.) He also bounced between other prospective TV projects and failed series before his wife, Maj, whom he was married to for nearly 60 years, suggested that he cast his lot in with Dallas. J.R. was a supporting player in the show’s first season, which was originally intended only as a miniseries, but Hagman’s ability to be charming while doing horrible things quickly made him the star of the show.

J.R. was at the center of the show’s most famous story arc as well, when the United States was gripped by “Who Shot J.R.?” fever. The episode in which the answer—J.R.’s sister-in-law Kristen—was revealed is still the second most-watched scripted program in TV history. (Only the M*A*S*H finale was higher.) The arc gained its power from the fact that seemingly everyone on Dallas would want J.R. dead, even if the audience wanted him to keep scheming, that Hagman twinkle in his eye. It was a genuine attempted murder mystery, and when J.R. recovered and recovered his memory of the fateful night, Hagman got to be an indelible part of TV history. (He also got to be part of the story on the show’s business end, as contract negotiations to pay him more money played a big part in J.R. almost dying after being shot, though the network and production company blinked when forced to contemplate the series without its biggest star and selling point.)

Dallas ran for 14 seasons and over 350 episodes, growing long-in-the-tooth, as all series that run that long do. Yet it kicked off the primetime soap boom of the ‘80s and remains the best example of the form. The sorts of storytelling pioneered by the show would evolve into the more sophisticated serialization employed by primetime dramas today, and J.R. made a reasonably early version of the TV antihero, if you squint hard enough. Hagman stayed with the show for its entire run, and the series finale, an It’s A Wonderful Life riff centered on J.R., ended with one final cliffhanger, in which it seemed the old bastard had committed suicide. He hadn’t, of course, and when the series returned for reunion movies and the TNT reboot, Hagman was there, flashing his pearly whites as he screwed over his enemies.

It was that big, bold smile that made Hagman the TV star he was. TV rewards people with magnetic personalities that come across to the viewers at home, the sorts of actors who can transcend the smallness of the screen to project charisma into someone’s living room. By that standard, Hagman was one of the very best the box ever had, the kind of actor who could stab his fictional best friend in the back, then waggle his eyebrows at the camera, as if to ask viewers at home to pass the popcorn.