Why Larry Hagman loved playing the evil JR Ewing on TV’s Dallas

Larry Hagman as J.R. Ewing of Dallas

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Larry Hagman: Hissable heavy loves evil role (1978)

Excerpted from the Pensacola News Journal (Florida) March 25, 1979

If Larry Hagman had a mustache, he’d probably twirl it as he goes about his dirty work. On another show, he’d be a villain. On CBS’ Dallas, he’s the hero.

Hagman is one of TV’s most hissable heavies. All he’s missing is that mustache, a top hat, black cape, and a damsel tied to a railroad track.

Larry Hagman has a juicy, lip-smacking role, and he plays it to campy perfection. His J.R. Ewing is rotten to the core. If he had a redeeming feature, he’d probably swap it for cash, and use the money to swindle somebody.

Linda Gray and Larry Hagman - Dallas TV show

A nighttime soap opera

Dallas is the dark side of all those family series. The oil-rich Ewings are at each other’s throats, scheming to do each other in — or in bed with the wrong mate.

It’s soap opera at its best, with the added attraction of flashy cars, helicopters, pumping oil wells and other assorted toys of the rich. But the oil, the cattle ranch, the rest, are just props. The story is about the family. It is pure trash, and Hagman wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I love it,” he says, a malicious grin on his face. “It’s so much fun. Nice guys don’t have any fun. I get to love all the ladies, stab all the men in the back. I get to rape, steal, and pillage.”

Hagman, who spent five years as the milquetoast astronaut in “I Dream of Jeannie,” says, “I love being a bad guy. I took my son camping at Joshua Tree, and when we went to town, a girl said, ‘Grandma, do you know who that is?’ Her grandma said, ‘Yeah, and I don’t like him.'”

Larry Hagman on TV Guide - Dallas

JR Ewing inspires instant hate. At a recent Hollywood charity dinner, the celebrities hissed Hagman as he walked by. “Isn’t it great to be that rotten — and be so popular?” he asks. “It must strike some familiar chord in people. Something they identify with.”

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Hagman is in a Chinese restaurant with his Swedish-born wife, Maj, and his daughter, Heidi, a fledgling actress who has a small role on the show. Heidi says, “It makes Daddy a nicer man at home. He gets to vent all those things on Dallas.”

He also relishes his private eccentricities. He carries a cane, and wears a feather-topped 10-gallon hat, a buckskin jacket with fringe long enough to trip over, hand-tooled cowboy boots, and drives a bread truck converted into a camper.

He laughs and says, “Sure, I’m flamboyant, ’cause it attracts attention and it’s fun. I live exactly like I want to, and it doesn’t hurt anyone.”

From Texas to California

Hagman, Texas-born son of superstar Mary Martin, lives in a beach-front house in Malibu. His wife designs and builds jacuzzis — “I mean she jumps right in there and builds them with her own hands!”

Dallas, a creation of David Jacobs, premiered last March, and ran for five episodes in a spring tryout. It returned in the fall, and has been doing well in the ratings.

The series is from Lorimar Productions, which otherwise makes such homey shows as “The Waltons,” “Eight Is Enough,” and “Married: The First Year.”

Dallas TV show cast

The Dallas debut

The series opened last year with the marriage of the son and daughter of two warring families, the Ewings and the Barnes.

Jim Davis is “Big Daddy” Jock Ewing, who struck it rich by double-crossing his partner, Digger Barnes, played by David Wayne. His younger son, Bobby (Patrick Duffy), marries Digger’s daughter, Pamela (Victoria Principal). Pamela’s brother, Cliff (Ken Kercheval), has made it his life’s mission to bring down the Ewings.

Rounding out the cast are Barbara Bel Geddes as Jock’s wife, “Miss Ellie”; Linda Gray as J.R.’s wife, Sue Ellen; Steven Kanaly as ranch foreman Ray Krebbs; and Charlene Tilton as Jock’s granddaughter, Lucy. Other characters wander in and out. You really need a chart to keep up with who’s who, and who’s doing what to who.

WATCH DALLAS NOW: Stream the classic TV show, or get it on disc

Hagman says of the show, “People love to see rich people being bad. Bobby and I are always trying to get into a moneymaking position, but every deal we make falls through. J.R.’s really a rotten businessman, and everybody’s on to his swindles.

He arranged for his sister-in-law to have a miscarriage — he pushed her. “My wife is pregnant by my arch enemy, Cliff Barnes. I tell her I don’t give a damn — it’s going to be an Ewing and my heir. An old girlfriend comes back, and has an affair with my father and is murdered.

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“This is television’s equivalent to those supermarket novels. Something’s happening every minute.”

How did he get the role? “They wanted a total (expletive deleted), and mine was the first name on everyone’s lips.”

Hagman, who has a role in the movie “Superman,” says “Compared to the real Texas, this is milquetoast. It’s a nice little fairy story. If you told the real story, you couldn’t get on the air.”

YouTube video

Larry Hagman on top again with “Dallas”

Excerpted from an article by Kathy Huffman – Mason Valley News (Yerington, Nevada) August 3, 1979

These days, Larry Hagman has been sporting a lot of western-style clothing both on and of the set of his surprise hit, “Dallas.” The melodramatic prime-time soap opera has both Hagman and executives at CBS grinning from ear to ear.

After a slow start in the ratings, “Dallas” has found its audience. And Larry Hagman is in the spotlight once again. After three television series prior to “Dallas,” most notably five years starring in “I Dream of Jeannie,” the 48-year-old actor says he can hardly go out in public anymore.

“I’m easily recognized naked… or any other way,” Hagman says laughing in a thick Texas accent. “With ‘Jeannie’ and this show, it’s almost impossible to get out in public.” Born in Fort Worth, Texas, the son of actress Mary Martin, and raised in Weatherford, Texas, it’s easy to understand why much of Hagman’s drawl remains with him.

In “Dallas” Hagman plays a bad-guy oil baron J.R. Ewing, the eldest son of the wealthy Ewing family. The role gives Larry an image which totally contrasts with his other most famous part good-natured astronaut Tony Nelson of “I Dream of Jeannie.”

Larry Hagman and Linda Gray from Dallas TV show

Are the fans confused? “I’ve had an interesting reaction with this whole thing,” Hagman says. “With ‘Jeannie’ there’s that reaction, of course, but with ‘Jeannie’ and ‘Dallas’ there’s this kind of reaction which compounds itself.

“Instead of being twice as much, it’s like eight times as much. You catch the younger people because ‘Jeannie’ is on all over the place now,” he explains. “I don’t know if the resurgence has to do with ‘Dallas’ or what. It seems like it is on now more than it has been in the last five years.”

It’s little wonder that Hagman is. constantly recognized. Even if he weren’t famous, he’s the kind of person who inspires a double-take.

At 6’1″ and 200 pounds, Hagman is no shrinking violet. Add to that a large brown cowboy hat decorated with pheasant feathers, a beige western-style suit, a colorful scarf knotted around his neck, camel-colored cowboy boots with “Big D” in large white letters across the front, and a gold-laden walking stick.

YouTube video

Hagman has been a unique individual since his youth. Rarely seeing his famous mother after his parents were divorced, Larry was raised by his grandparents and spent much of his time in 16 different schools in New York, California, Texas and Vermont.

For much of his life, the friendly actor felt overpowered by his mother’s talents and reputation. Only since the ’70s has he been able to deal with the enormity of his roots and acknowledge his own talents.

“I guess I did pass through a lot of schools,” he says. “my mother traveled a lot and I ran away a lot and I flunked a lot so between those three things I managed to go through 16 schools.

“I had one year of college but like anything else, I guess, they don’t teach you much there. I didn’t see any sense in studying to act when I could do it workin’ and learnin’ so that’s what I decided to do.”

Larry Hagman - Dallas TV show

Hagman sinks back into a plush sofa and stacks his feet upon the coffee table. He folds his arms behind his head and says with satisfaction, “I love playing J.R. It’s dynamite… Good guys finish last,” he says with an impish sparkle in his eyes.

“Yep, isn’t it fun? It’s a license to steal. That’s what I keep tellin’ everybody.”

He doesn’t mind it a bit when people call “Dallas” a soap opera. Hagman says he’s been in the business long enough to know that keeping the audience happy is what is most important. “No, I don’t mind,” he says. “I don’t care. As long as it makes money and has the ratings, they can call it ‘The life of Hitler’ for all I’m concerned.”

When Larry is not at his Malibu house with wife Maj (pronounced My), son Preston, 17, and daughter Heidi, 21, he shares a house in Dallas with series costars Steve Kanaly and Patrick Duffy when the actors are filming on location.

“Steve, Patrick and I are sharin’ a house down there,” he laughs. “We’re havin’ a ball. I just have to keep a chain out in front of the driveway to keep the ladies away. That’s the only problem. They found out where we live. Well, not me so much,” he concedes, “but those two dudes you know…”

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“The other night my daughter came down from California to stay with me. She came down to look at the set and so forth. So, she was down. for a couple of days and we had a huge wind storm and the branch of a huge tree went through the window and shattered it. A big ol’ tree and I thought, ‘My God, they’re trying to break in.’

“We’ve had some strange and exotic things happen with the ladies trying to break in — you know — to see the stars,” he winks. “That’s one problem I don’t have to deal with. I keep my daughter and my wife around all the time. That’s how you stay married for 25 years.”

Larry Hagman magazine covers

Larry Hagman knows JR Ewing like his own brother

Actor Larry Hagman is well-prepared for his role as wealthy J.R. Ewing in CBS’ sexy prime-time soap opera “Dallas.” Hagman says spending part of his childhood in Texas has helped him immeasurably.

The son of actress Mary Martin, he was born in Fort Worth and raised in Weatherford, Texas. His experience with Texas life has enabled him to breathe Dallas-style realism into his role as J.R. Ewing.

Hagman is a commanding character as he walks into a suite at Chicago’s Hyatt Regency hotel. Dressed from head-to-toe in cowboy gear, Hagman looks every inch his television counterpart. Even the southern accent remains, a vestige from his childhood.

“Growing up in Texas helped me a lot with my accent,” Hagman says. “Also, I met a lot of people who are this character (J.R. Ewing) in my hometown. I have to be very careful now because everybody’s sensitive about, who I talk about, where I’m modeling these characters from.”

Larry Hagman and Heidi Hagman on Dallas 1979
Larry Hagman who portrays bad-guy oil baron J.R. Ewing on CBS’ “Dallas,” loves being in the spotlight again. Here he hugs real-life daughter Heidi Hagman, 21, who had a bit part on an episode of “Dallas.”

For Hagman, who has become an accepted member of Dallas society, the truth is that much of what happens there isn’t suitable for television.

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“People say to us, ‘We don’t act that way down here,’ says Hagman imitating a high-pitched southern woman’s voice. “And I say, ‘I know, if I put you on the air like you really act, you’d be off the air really quick.'”

“Of that family, there’s one boy left running the family business. The daddy’s gone, so is one of the brothers. The other two brothers had been aced out. They’re out of the firm,” he says winding up the story.

“The remaining brother’s name isn’t J.R. Ewing, but it’s not far from that, by God, I tell you.”

When the cast of “Dallas” first came down to film, the local people didn’t welcome them.

Dallas - Larry Hagman and Priscilla Presley
Dallas – Larry Hagman and Priscilla Presley

“When we first went down there everyone was pretty reticent about helping us out,” he says. “And now the doors are pretty much more or less open. When we first went down there we were pretty well cold-shouldered among the society of Dallas. There were not many invitations for parties or anything like that. They thought we were making fools of them.

“Now, there’s not enough hours in the day to fill all your social obligations. We went to the Cattle Baron’s Ball which was a big do down there. They were all very cooperative.”

Larry Hagman’s background has come in handy for “Dallas”‘ script and dialogue, too. Though he says he hasn’t changed much of the scripts which were written in Hollywood by writers who haven’t lived in Dallas, he has corrected several errors made by writers who didn’t know the way people really live in the Lone Star state. “I haven’t really changed too many scripts,” he says.

“I’ve changed some dialogue, the vernacular of the countryside but that’s just because whoever writes it has never been to Texas and doesn’t know what he’s talking about. “I have suggested a few ideas,” he says winding up for another story.

“I said, ‘Why don’t we have a rodeo and a dove hunt which is big down in Texas?’ So they wrote this script and they had us stalking these doves with a rifle!” he recalls with astonishment.

“Well, for one thing, you don’t take a rifle, and for another thing, you don’t stalk. You sit on a case of beer and you let them poor b—–ds run back and forth and you try to kill ’em.

“So, they say ‘We don’t have a story without the stalking’ and I say ‘Ok, it could be quail hunting.’

The next day I come in and they say ‘We’ve got shotguns’ and I say ‘Great, where’s Prince?’ They say, ‘Who’s Prince?’ And I say ‘The dog, you can’t hunt quail without a dog!’

“They said, ‘My God, Larry, why didn’t you tell us?’ Flying a dog back and forth would’ve cost $5,000, so when we shot the show, the dog was always out of camera range. Patrick (Duffy) kept going, ‘Here Prince, stay, hold, flush…'”

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