Sep. 23, 2013 at 10:11 AM ET
You would be hard-pressed to find a more influential TV legend and larger-than-life actor than Larry Hagman, which is why many Emmy viewers on Sunday were left shaking their heads about the decision to not give the late “Dallas” icon his own memorial segment. That the series that made Hagman a global star and earned him two Emmy nominations (ahem) in the ‘80s aired on CBS, the same network that singled out five other notable figures during Sunday’s telecast and showed his smiling face for only two seconds on the screen, only makes it sting more.
But the optimistic and joyous Hagman, who died in November, wouldn’t dwell on such things. In that spirit, TODAY is giving the well-deserving actor his tribute here.
If J.R. Ewing, Hagman’s legendary role on “Dallas,” wasn’t memorable enough for the Academy, consider that it was the “Who Shot J.R.?” cliffhanger’s worldwide popularity that forever changed episodic television, inspired a spin-off and led to a wave of other primetime soaps.
It also landed Hagman on the cover of Time magazine, as reporters around the world competed to solve the mystery, and even offered the actor hundreds of thousands of dollars to spill the beans, Hagman said in an interview before he died. The joke, Hagman said, was that he had no idea who shot J.R. because the producers filmed as many people as possible shooting the wicked oil tycoon.
“I loved it,” Hagman said. “Are you kidding me? About 30 people got to shoot me. They filmed so many folks. We had the cameraman, the girl who keeps the script. Everybody got to shoot J.R. They just kept lining up. Pow, pow, pow.”
When the answer was finally revealed in a November 1980 episode, an average 41 million viewers tuned in, making it one of the most-watched episodes of television of all time, second only to the “M*A*S*H” finale in 1983.
Before “Dallas” catapulted Hagman to international fame, he was the sweet and reliable astronaut Major Nelson on “I Dream of Jeannie” from 1965 to 1970. Barbara Eden, his-costar and friend, referred to Hagman as a “Texas Tornado” and remarked on what made him special in a statement after his death: “I can honestly say that we've lost not just a great actor, not just a television icon, but an element of pure Americana. Goodbye, Larry, there was no one like you before and there will never be anyone like you again."
For that reason, TNT knew better than to mess with gold. When the network decided to reboot “Dallas,” it knew America’s favorite primetime soap could not be revived without Hagman, Linda Gray and Patrick Duffy as the characters that made them all superstars. Despite being in treatment for cancer, Hagman jumped at the chance to reprise the role of his career—on the condition that his two best friends join him, he said in interviews at the time.
“He passed doing what he absolutely loved to do,” said Gray, who, along with Duffy, spent time with her friend of three decades in the hospital before his death. “It was as if he and I were married in other lifetimes. We had so much fun. We laughed for 35 years.”
J.R.’s naughty smile, sparkling eyes, and bottomless charm paralleled the personality of the man who played him, Duffy said. So did his broad cowboy hat and boots.
“Larry and I had a very unique relationship in that we didn’t take ourselves very seriously except when the camera rolled,” Duffy said. “And so it was much fun to be the battling Ewing brothers for 30 seconds out of every week because we were so close and we liked to laugh and we liked to have fun. In the back of Larry’s eyes, every time when he’s in scene, especially with the two of us, you see that glimmer.”
When Hagman died, “Dallas” producers created a second “Who Shot J.R.?” storyline that concluded with the only possible answer. J.R. Ewing, who was dying from cancer, ended his own life but took pains to make it look like his archenemy killed him as one final act of love toward the Ewings and one final blow to Cliff Barnes.
J.R. Ewing always lived life on his own terms, just like the man who played him for 14 seasons. In 1988, Hagman said he knew what he wanted on J.R.’s tombstone: “Here lies upright citizen J.R. Ewing. This is the only deal he ever lost.”
But when it came to his own death, Hagman won, Gray said. The beloved actor died surrounded by his entire family who had flown to Dallas for a special Thanksgiving picnic at Southfork when the actor's condition worsened.
"The day before Thanksgiving, he was still laughing and giggling and telling stupid jokes," Gray said after his memorial service. "We’d reminisce. It was this fabulous closure that we had with him. We were all there, the grandchildren, his children. We were all in the hospital room. He spoke to each of the grandchildren individually, told them to study and work hard. It was the most amazingly orchestrated exit I’ve ever witnessed. Larry passed playing J.R. Ewing. I think all of us want to go doing what we love doing."