i-dream-of-jeannie

Larry Hagman was a character on screen and off

Nov. 24, 2012 at 4:53 PM ET

Image: Laughin' Larry
Hulton Archive
Actor Larry Hagman, famous for his role in 'Dallas' as J.R. Ewing, died at the age of 81 from complications with cancer.

"Dallas" made Larry Hagman a star, and the latest TNT reboot of the classic show brought him back home to the role and the city he loved.

In January, Hagman appeared at the 2012 Television Critics Association's winter press tour to promote "Dallas" 2.0. There, he was doing what he did best – telling a good story. This one was about an old woman coming up to him during his original “Dallas” years, when his character, the villain J.R. Ewing, was one of the most popular personalities on television:

“She was in a walker and she came up and said, ‘You rascal, you. Treating Sue Ellen like that!’ and she hit me with her handbag and she knocked me off my chair,” said Hagman, who then got an apology from the woman. “ 'Oh, my husband died recently and I have his pearl-handled six shooter in my bag.' Only time I was pistol-whipped.”

The Fort Worth native's eyebrows were a bit bushier and his face a little more lined than in his younger days, but he still had that mischievous twinkle in his eyes as he talked to reporters about reprising his role as the most notorious bad guy on television in the new “Dallas.”

He was 80 years old then, and he had just announced he was dealing with throat cancer.

The actor died Nov. 23 at age 81 from complications from his battle with the disease. His family -- including wife Maj Axelsson, whom he married in 1954 -- was by his side in Dallas, where he was working on season two of the revival. Axelsson was the one who convinced him to take on the role of J.R. Ewing because, as she told Hagman, "there isn't one redeeming character in the whole script."

“Even though ‘(I Dream of) Jeannie’ is on everywhere on cable, only the older folks remember me from that,” Hagman said of his character, Maj. Anthony Nelson, at TCA. “But everyone remembers J.R. Ewing and ‘Dallas.’ ” 

He said people love the nasty guy for a very basic reason: “Everybody has a jerk like this in the family. That’s what makes him so appealing. Everybody knows who he is.”

A character in real life

The actor’s eccentric ways were well known. He once appeared as a guest at the annual TCA awards show wearing a suit that looked like something he wore back in the day when shooting “Dallas” during its epic 1978-1991 run.

Turned out it was.

And as he chatted with reporters before the ceremony, he talked about grabbing the old suit out of his closet to wear. He then fished out an elaborate pillbox from his pocket.

“Victoria (Principal) gave this to me for Christmas one year,” Hagman said of his “Dallas” co-star. “I must have put it in my pocket that night and I forgot what I did with it. Now it’s like I have a new present from her.”

Earlier in his career, Hagman started observing a silent day once a week. He would not speak to anyone for 24 hours.

“I did it because I was doing ‘Jeannie’ and I would go out and party on the weekend. I was at a rodeo with all the dust and horse s--- blowing around and I got a sore throat,” Hagman told reporters. “My doctor told me not to talk for the rest of the weekend and I liked it so much, I did it for one day each week for the next 20 years.

“It was a great way to get a lot of attention,” he explained. “People are brought into your bubble and they have to concentrate on you in order to communicate. I loved it.”

Though the actor was diagnosed with liver cancer in 1995 and later underwent a liver transplant after years of heavy drinking, Hagman never expected to live forever, just to live the life he had.

“I’m never bored. I’m back in the role I loved, doing what I love and with the people I love,” Hagman said of resurrecting J.R. for the “Dallas” reboot. “I’m having a great time.”

The actor filmed six of 15 episodes for the second season of TNT's "Dallas" reboot before he passed away. The new season premieres on Jan. 28.

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