AT HEART, Larry Hagman was a Texan – as Texan as General Custer viewing the movie Paris, Texas while enjoying the latest album by the group… well, you get the idea.
He had a ten-gallon soul and, very probably, an SUV swathed in bumper stickers making intemperate claims about Jesus and handguns.
Even so, his most consequential role was played here, in contemporary Britain. No doubt his inner Texan thought us all effete communists.
Yet Larry Hagman lingers in our atmosphere, like carbon emissions.
At this distance it’s difficult to evoke the hoopla that in the late 1970s surrounded Dallas, the series with which Hagman will forever be associated. Honestly, it stopped the traffic; ironic considering the series dealt with the petroleum industry and the high-octane boudoir manoeuvres of those who ran it.
The show’s real importance lay beyond the television screen, however. It resided on the front pages of tabloid newspapers, on radio phone-ins, in the considered judgments of taxi drivers.
The series marked a transition, of mere entertainment becoming a kind of celebrity lifestyle soft porn. Before Dallas, continuing drama came in two flavours: the living comic books of Starsky & Hutch
and Charlie’s Angels; or the adultery-in-Hampstead kind that got made in Britain.
Dallas pestled them all
together to produce a new kind of show, one that was florid and hysterical, peopled by villains, hustlers and sex-pots. There was no naturalism or verisimilitude in Dallas, only huge hair and trembling lips: “You should go to bed, Sue Ellen,” as Hagman’s character JR once told his wife. “You know how haggard you look if you don’t get your full eight hours.”
Hagman couldn’t have
done it without some amigos. They came in the shapes of Terry Wogan, the twinkly Irish disc jockey, and Clive James, then television critic of the
Wogan handled the cheerful mockery on Radio 2, making fond fun of Sue Ellen’s shoulder-pads, of JR’s pantomime villainy, of Lucy Ewing, sex thimble and poison dwarf. James took the brainy approach, skewering the show with literary allusion and
sarcasm: “You will remember,” he wrote of one episode “that JR bought all the oil wells ‘off South-East Asia’ just before they were nationalised, presumably by the South-East Asian government”.
And Hagman was happy to play along, appearing on British television more frequently than the test card, revelling
in the show’s popularity, its
appeal to high and low alike.
All of it paled, however, beside the great cliffhanger of 1980, when JR was shot by
assailant unknown. For some while, the identity of the gunman (gunwoman, as it transpired) was a matter of public obsession. The arrival at Heathrow of the reel of film revealing the attacker was reported by the television news.
It proved to be an epochal moment. Entertainment would henceforth be considered hard news. Big Brother, The X Factor, Strictly Come Dancing et al – each owes its prominence to the moment Hagman bit the carpet, and the collective ongoing suspension of disbelief it entailed.
He was an old hand, of course, and perhaps something of an opportunist. A showbiz scion, son of the Broadway star Mary Martin, Hagman had mixed in exalted company in the 1960s, becoming a huge television star in the sublimely daft I Dream Of Jeannie before going native in California with the tyros of the new American cinema, Jack Nicholson particularly.
He was, perhaps surprisingly, an advocate of marijuana and acid: “LSD was such a profound experience in my life. It changed the pattern of my life and my way of thinking and I could not exclude it,” he said.
It was a predilection conditioned, no doubt, by the pressing need to avoid alcohol:
Hagman was for many years
a titanic bibber, reputedly
consuming four bottles of champagne a day on the set of Dallas.
In 1995 he had to have a
liver transplant. He also had an idea that cancer would get him in the end, as indeed it did. “I decided to stop, and
I did,” he said. “I stopped smoking and I stopped speed at the same time.”
Prior to Dallas, his career was respectable rather than earth-shattering, a succession of wheedling, aggressive Texan chancers.
He appeared, memorably, as the manager of a rock star played by David Essex in
Stardust in 1974. The role was something of a dry run for JR Ewing, with Hagman honing the schtick he was later to develop more fully and famously as JR: the queasy smile
when thwarted, the placid distraction of a man habitually calculating profit and loss, a shiver always seeking a spine to run down.
Hagman was television’s greatest pantomime baddy. He was also the man who ushered us through the looking glass, into the world we occupy today, where reality and fantasy slide together, like oil and
water never could: “I think they broke the mould when they made me,” he once said. “And being humble is one of my greatest assets.”
Tributes to a man who ‘lived life to the full’
FRIENDS, colleagues and fans of Larry Hagman lined up yesterday to pay tribute to the star.
Hagman’s long-time friend Linda Gray, who played his on-screen wife Sue Ellen
Ewing, was reportedly by his bedside when he died, and later described him as her “best friend for 35 years”.
In a statement, she said: “He was the Pied Piper of life and brought joy to everyone he knew. He was creative, generous, funny, loving and talented and I will miss him enormously. He was an original and lived life to the full.”
Other associates of Hagman took to Twitter and
Facebook to express their sadness following his death.
Barbara Eden, who starred alongside Hagman in the 1960s sitcom I Dream Of Jeannie, said the entertainment world had lost not only a great actor and television icon but “an element of pure Americana”.
She added: “Goodbye Larry, there was no-one like you before and there will never be anyone like you again.”
Actor William Shatner also paid tribute, saying: “My thoughts and prayers go out to the family of Larry Hagman. My best, Bill.”
Dallas co-star Ken Kercheval tweeted: “A friend and long time partner… the other half… RIP Larry Hagman… your spirit will live long.”
Hagman, who had suffered from cancer and liver disease, had been filming the next series of Dallas following the show’s relaunch earlier this year. His death will be written into the soap’s storyline, Channel 5 said.
A joint statement from the producers, cast and crew of Dallas said: “Larry Hagman was a giant, a larger-than-life personality whose iconic performance as JR Ewing will endure as one of the most indelible in entertainment history.
“He truly loved portraying this globally recognised character, and he leaves a legacy of entertainment, generosity and grace. Everyone at Warner Bros and in the Dallas family is deeply saddened by Larry’s passing, and our thoughts are with his family and dear friends during this difficult time.”