In Larry Hagman's memoir, he remembers the difficulties he had constructing one of the most famous small-screen villains of all time. "My concern was just how bad could I make this bad boy and still keep him lovable," he said of the archetypal anti-hero JR Ewing. As the world mourns his death at 81 from cancer on Friday, it's clear that it was a job well done.
Hagman, as JR Ewing, became a genuine cultural phenomenon. He appears in academic treatises such as The Handbook Of Psychopathy, Christopher J Patrick calling JR "a covetous, egocentric, manipulative and amoral oil baron with psychopathic tendencies". And yet, the same character was so well loved - worldwide - that in Romania there were still massive billboards of Hagman in the streets years after Dallas had left their screens. As the writer Jon Ronson - who knows a thing or two about psychopaths himself - tweeted last night: "[former dictator Nicolae] Ceausescu showed Dallas in Romania to demonstrate how evil capitalism was, but they loved it so much they shot Ceausescu".
All of which was a little nod to Who Shot JR, which, 32 years on, remains the most watched episode of a television drama ever. An incredible 360 million viewers tuned in to see the biggest television baddie of all time finally get his comeuppance - at least half of whom were surely cursing the perpetrator for potentially ruining their fun (in brilliantly typical American soap style, it ended up being his sister-in-law, who just happened to be carrying his love child).
The point was, Hagman had helped to create a character so compelling, it would have been commercial suicide to actually kill him off. But while the world waited with bated breath to find out who did it, the dramatic assassination attempt created something else - the notion of the cliffhanger in television.
It's easy, now, to mock the clothes and the scripts. But at the time, Hagman wasn't an ironic, so-bad-it's-good star. He was the real deal. When Dallas returned this year - after many false starts in the decades since it finally left our screens in 1991 - Hagman had to be cast for the show to have any continuity whatsoever. The sight of an octogenarian oil baron still causing trouble was slightly odd, but Hagman certainly still had it.
Did returning to Dallas mean he was typecast? Yes, but he appeared not to care in the slightest. He would travel the world handing out fake dollar bills with his face on them, in pantomime villain style. He wore a Stetson whenever possible. When the 2012 series was mooted, he told the LA Times that "I said yes before I'd ever even seen a script". There was the slightly worrying sense that he really thought he was JR Ewing.
Perhaps some of this came from the sheer gratitude that he was still working; Hagman was from the old school - a tough, peripatetic childhood meant that he was brought up by his grandmother and hired help while his teenage mother, the actor Mary Martin, tried to cement her career on Broadway. He cut his teeth on touring musicals, was drafted in the United States Air Force during the Korean war and afterwards scratched a living off Broadway. There were incidental parts in television dramas and films of little consequence until he landed a role in the sitcom I Dream of Jeannie (see 3 things you dind't know about Larry Hagman). Post-Dallas, almost nothing came his way, although there was the sense that he didn't chase satisfying roles.
After all, why would he need to? When Dallas ended, he was 60. He spent the rest of his life enjoying the acclaim for the role he made his own. A role in a show that, as he said in his memoir, "made greed, treachery and blackmail seem like good, sexy, all-American fun".
Or, as JR once noted in typically noxious style: "Once you get rid of integrity, the rest is a piece of cake."
3 things you didn’t know about Larry Hagman
- He may have portrayed the archetypal gas-guzzling, Stetson-wearing oil baron, but in real life Hagman owned the largest residential solar-power system in the US and even became the poster boy for SolarWorld... wearing that Stetson. Asked if it was a slightly bizarre career move, his typical reply was “I’m an enigma”.
- He had already been typecast, before Dallas, as a sitcom actor in I Dream of Jeannie, playing the Air Force Captain Anthony Nelson. The chance to play J R actually came as a surprise for this comic actor – but one he felt he couldn’t pass up. There are little hints of comedy in Hagman’s portrayal of J R’s nastiness though.
- He may have played a lascivious womaniser in Dallas and battled his own demons with drink and drug problems, but Hagman remained faithful to his Swedish wife Maj since meeting her in 1954. Not that it had much affect on their children, he once joked – his son has been married three times and his daughter twice. Maybe they watched too much Dallas...
3 best JR moments
Who shot JR
The classic Dallas scene. After an episode where J R has already told his wife: “you’re a drunk and an unfit mother and the sooner you get put away in a sanitarium the better it’s going to be”, he is in his office, alone. JR looks at the picture of Sue Ellen in a rare moment of tenderness and is then shot twice. Cue that famous music...
Showing his vulnerabilities
J R was the classic villain, but as this once-powerful man struggled to walk again after his shooting, he is both pitied and vilified. Hagman plays these scenes in the hospital with impressive subtlety and range – and a nod to the wild character that lies underneath. “You’re just not man enough anymore,” taunts his attempted murderer, Kristin. J R’s response? It may have been suitable for an adult television drama, but not for this newspaper. Catty!
Embodying the scarily calm psychopath
“I’m amazed you’re not a better loser... after all the experience you’ve had,” sneers J R to his nemesis Cliff Barnes. The response from Barnes is swift and predictable. “I just want you to know, J R, I’m going to nail you.” But J R calmly shrugs it off with a frankly scary smile. “But haven’t you noticed?” he shoots back “You’ve got to be a man to play in my league.”