DALLAS (Dallas Morning News) -- Larry Hagman, who played the conniving and mischievous J.R. Ewing on the TV show Dallas, died Friday at Medical City in Dallas, of complications from his recent battle with cancer, his family said.
He was 81.
“Larry was back in his beloved Dallas re-enacting the iconic role he loved most,” his family said in a written statement. “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. The family requests privacy at this time.”
The role of J.R. transformed Mr. Hagman’s life. He rocketed from being a merely well-known TV actor on I Dream of Jeannie and the son of Broadway legend Mary Martin, to the kind of international fame known only by the likes the Beatles and Muhammad Ali.
Mr. Hagman made his home in California with his wife of 59 years, the former Maj Axelsson. Despite obvious physical frailty, he gamely returned to Dallas to film season one and part of season two of TNT’s Dallas reboot.
Friends were in shock Friday, especially those who saw him only days ago. But those close to him say he knew the end was coming and he was glad to have his family in town for Thanksgiving.
For Dallasites, Mr. Hagman’s recent return to film the TNT show was a pleasant reminiscence of the days when Dallas was the biggest TV program in the world, seen by an estimated 300 million people in 57 countries.
Mr. Hagman lived part of the year in a penthouse at the Mansion on Turtle Creek, now known as the J.R. Ewing Suite, and the actor became part of the fabric of the city — attending polo matches with restaurateur Norman Brinker, unwinding over cocktails with oilman Jake Hamon and his wife, Nancy, at their Bluffview home or dining with Mansion on Turtle Creek owner Caroline Rose Hunt, whose oil-rich family was the nonfiction version of the Ewings.
“Hagman in his role as J.R. was mythic, and as a human he was a hard-working ambassador for Dallas and the underdog,” Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings said Thursday night. “I had spent a couple of evenings with him recently … and he always pitched in to help the city.”
Mr. Hagman lit the conniving J.R. with his own innate sense of fun and mischief.
“From the moment we met him, he started the entire ball rolling,” said his TV ex-wife Linda Gray (a.k.a. Sue Ellen Ewing) last month at a fund-raiser in Preston Hollow for the Larry Hagman Foundation. “He came into a room in Burbank. He walked in with a saddlebag filled with ice and bottles of champagne. That is how we had our first read-through of the original script. That bonded us to this wonderful man.”
In September, Ms. Gray played host to Mr. Hagman for an 81st birthday lunch at Café Pacific in Highland Park Village.
Throughout the summer of 1980, the world hung on the question “Who shot J.R.?” The ultimate TV cliffhanger aired on March 21, 1980, when an unseen assailant shot J.R. Ewing twice.
As everyone waited to find out who the shooter was, Mr. Hagman had an epiphany that would pave the way for TV giants such as Jerry Seinfeld and the cast of Friends to get a larger share of the profits from their shows.
In his memoir, Hello Darlin’, Mr. Hagman said, “Ronald Reagan was campaigning against Jimmy Carter, American hostages were being held in Iran, Polish shipyard workers were on strike, and all anyone wanted to know was, who shot J.R.?”
The world was filled with J.R. T-shirts, coffee mugs and bumper stickers.
“Everyone was making a windfall from J.R. except me,” he said.
He threatened to leave the show if his contract were not renegotiated.
After months of tense negotiations, he was finally given his $100,000 per episode asking price.
Originally from Weatherford, Mr. Hagman was born to 17-year-old Mary Martin and 21-year-old Benjamin Hagman, an attorney.
“How hillbilly can you get?” Ms. Martin later said.
The marriage lasted five years, and Mr. Hagman was raised largely by his maternal grandmother while his mother became a famous stage actress.
Mr. Hagman also worked as a stage actor before appearing in films such as Ensign Pulver and the Otto Preminger epic In Harm’s Way.
But he first became a star when he was cast as an Air Force officer who falls for a genie in a bottle played by Barbara Eden in I Dream of Jeannie. It was a major hit that fizzled, according to Mr. Hagman, after he and Jeannie were wed on the show.
“Once they got married,” he said, “nobody cared anymore.”
When Dallas debuted as a five-part miniseries in April 1978, J.R. was merely a supporting character. But Mr. Hagman’s dazzling portrayal soon earned him bigger and bigger pieces of the story line until he was the star of the show.
Despite the enormous cultural impact of the J.R. character, Mr. Hagman refused to be defined by the part. He continued to show his acting chops with role such as the H.L. Hunt/Clint Murchison composite character in Oliver Stone’s Nixon and as Gov. Fred Picker in Primary Colors.
Michael Cain, founder of the Dallas International Film Festival, was a close friend of Mr. Hagman’s. The Dallas star appeared at a festival event in 2011, handing out awards to up-and-coming high-school filmmakers.
“I was blessed to … witness his heart that was so full of passion and charity and mischievousness,” Mr. Cain said. “His friendship will be missed by many, including me. Recently on a trip to Santa Monica, I was initiated into a celebration, a ritual that Larry performed with guests as the sun set over the ocean, where we shouted out to the sun as the final sliver passed over the hills. … I know he would want us to stand and shout and celebrate his life and the passion with which he loved and lived it.”
In addition to his wife, Mr. Hagman is survived by a daughter, Kristina Hagman, a son, Preston Hagman, and five granddaughters.
(Staff writer Robert Wilonsky contributed to this report.)