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Culture

A Year Later: JR, We Hardly Knew Ye

This article was originally written on November 25, 2012.

Larry Hagman, the son of actress Mary Martin (of Peter Pan fame), who became a star in his own right in the 1960s as Major Anthony Nelson on the hit sitcom I Dream of Jeannie, and later as the world’s most-recognized actor, playing villainous yet endearing oil tycoon JR Ewing on the classic TV drama Dallas, died in that Texas city, his beloved soul home, on November 23, the day after Thanksgiving, at 81.

When one considers the decades of substance abuse to which Hagman subjected himself – not least of which that for several years he used to drink about four bottles of champagne or its equivalent a day – it is a wonder that he made it to 81. On the other hand, taking into account Hagman’s joie de vivre – his boundless energy and relentless zest for life, not to mention his recent reprisal of his iconic JR role – his death, even for an octogenarian, seems like a “too young to die” tragedy. Considering how much more Hagman was willing and able to give, he died in the prime of his life.

Dallas began in 1978 as a show destined to be a midseason replacement, but wound up running for 13 seasons as one of the most successful shows in television history. Originally, the story was to have centered around Bobby and Pam (played by Patrick Duffy and Victoria Principal), who fell in love despite being the offspring of longtime feuding families. But soon after the show debuted, Hagman’s portrayal of JR was so masterful that he quickly became the star of the show, and then the world’s most widely-recognized television actor.

In 1980, JR was shot in Dallas’ final episode, and the cliffhanger, famously referred to as “Who Shot JR?” became the greatest finale in television history, with the episode that revealed JR’s shooter having been the most-watched in history, to that point. By 1991, Dallas, which had far surpassed anyone’s wildest expectations, finally came to an end. A couple of post-series TV movies followed, though neither was received with positive critical or popular acclaim. But this past summer, TNT aired a new Dallas series, which centered around the new generation, but wisely invited Hagman to reprise his role as JR. Hagman, in turn, insisted that his real-life best friends and longtime Dallas costars – Duffy, and Linda Gray – join him. They did, and the series was a smash hit, with a second season in the works, to begin in January.

Hagman, who underwent a liver transplant in 1995, was diagnosed with throat cancer shortly after the new Dallas series was launched. But Hagman always remained in high spirits, continued filming, announced that the cancer had gone into remission, was excited about the series’ critical acclaim, and looked forward to season two. He hoped for another 13-year run, and said: “that means I’ll play JR until I’m 94.” But it was not to be.

Hagman died from complications of throat cancer, his family said, with Duffy and Gray by his bedside. It is yet uncertain what TNT will do regarding its successful show – now that it has lost its larger-than-life driving force. Hagman had already filmed 6 of the new season’s 15 episodes, but what in the world will the show’s producers do? Will they continue the series? Cancel it altogether? It is almost unthinkable that they would recast the role of JR with another actor, so that means they’d probably give JR a proper sendoff.

As for Hagman, he hoped that once he died, people would spread his ashes “over a field and have marijuana and wheat planted and harvest it in a couple of years and then have a big marijuana cake, enough for 200 to 300 people. People would eat a little of Larry.”

Rest in Peace, JR. Even though you reached your ninth decade of life, we hardly knew ye.

Author’s Note: The show did well enough in the 2013 season despite the passing of its beloved founder, that it was renewed for another season, which begins in January.

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