Larry Hagman (1931–2012) got the show business bug from his mother, Broadway star Mary Martin. “Always hang up your costumes, know your lines and stay reasonably sober,” was her advice to him. “Well, I did two of them,” laughed Hagman. For his career-defining role on “Dallas,” what came in handy wasn’t any insider professional advice, but his experience working for a Texas farmer, digging ditches. His tough boss became the inspiration for J.R. Ewing.
Hagman’s television debut showcased his comedic talents. From 1965 to 1970 he played the husband of a magic genie in the sitcom “I Dream of Jeannie.” “I loved working with Larry,” said his co-star Barbra Eden. Hagman later turned to more dramatic roles, including one in a film called “Stardust,” which he credits as helping him hone characteristics that would one day become J.R.
A Texan himself, Hagman was ready to play J.R. when he landed “Dallas” in 1977. Co-star Linda Gray recalled the big impression Hagman made when they first met. “Larry walked in, in a cowboy hat. Slung over his shoulder he had carved leather saddlebags with a case of champagne,” says Gray. “And I said to him, ‘ah, I’m your wife, Sue Ellen.’ And he looked at me and he said. ‘hello darling.’”
J.R. Ewing became the man that everyone loved to hate and made Hagman one of the best-known television villains in the world. J.R. remains the perfect symbol of 1980s excesses – an oil man who liked money and didn’t care who he stepped on to get it.
Larry Hagman as Best-Loved Villain
Larry Hagman’s character didn’t start out as the star villain of “Dallas.” “Everybody was a scoundrel,” Hagman recalled, “even Mamma, in her own way.” His co-stars had much appreciation for what Hagman brought to the show. Patrick Duffy, who played Bobby Ewing, J.R. Ewing’s upstanding brother, said that “Larry rose to the fore, which was not intended in the original premise of the show, but he found something that fit him like a glove.” The cast loved his take on J.R., because as Duffy put it, “we rode his [Hagman’s] coattails for 13 years.” Joan Van Ark added about J.R., “He was so delicious at screwing it up for everybody else.” He was “so evil, and yet so vulnerable at times, so sexy and you hated him,” is how Charlene Tilton described the mixed emotions J.R. evoked.