Larry Hagman Tribute

Tavis pays tribute to the iconic Dallas star with a look back at his memorable appearance on the show in 2008.

In a long TV and movie career, Larry Hagman is best remembered for his roles on the sitcom I Dream of Jeannie and the primetime soap Dallas—his signature role and one that he recently reprised in the reboot of the series. After undergoing a life-saving transplant following his diagnosis of chronic liver disease, Hagman became an advocate of organ donation and hosted the National Kidney Foundation's U.S. Transplant Games. The adamant former smoker also chaired the American Cancer Society's Great American Smokeout. In 2008, during his appearance on our show, he had fun with his trademark Stetson, described how he made the J.R. Ewing character so memorable and talked about his focus on health and well-being. This past weekend, Hagman lost his battle with cancer.


Tavis: For those of us old enough to remember, it’s hard to over-state the popularity of the TV series “Dallas” and its iconic star, Larry Hagman. When the Queen of England met Hagman back in 1980, her first question was one that millions also wanted to know – who shot J.R.?

But success on “Dallas” and “I Dream of Jeannie” also led Hagman to a life of drinking, a subject talked candidly about here during a visit we will never forget back in July of 2008.

[Begin previously recorded interview]

Tavis: Honor to have you on this program.

Larry Hagman: Tavis.

Tavis: You brought your hat with you?

Hagman: Yeah, I did.

Tavis: Can I put this on?

Hagman: Absolutely.

Tavis: Which was is the front?

Hagman: That horseshoe is in the front.

Tavis: This is the front right here? All right, Jonathan, here we go.

Hagman: All right.

Tavis: How’s that look?

Hagman: You got a big head, that’s for sure. (Laughter)

Tavis: And I thought the hat was big when I picked it up. I’m honored to have you here, man.

Hagman: Well, thank you.

Tavis: How you been?

Hagman: I’ve been well.

Tavis: You look well.

Hagman: I feel well.

Tavis: It’s always amazing for me to see persons who have had these kinds of major, life-changing transplants, and not that you’re supposed to be able to, but to look at them, you can never tell.

Hagman: Yeah, yeah. Well, I can show you some scars if you like scars. (Laughter)

Tavis: No, that’s okay, that’s okay, yeah, yeah, yeah. Tell me about your transplant.

Hagman: Well, I had it in 1995. It’ll be 14 years come August the 23rd. That’s a long time – a long time to have a little extra life – and I’ve got to thank my donator, a great guy. He was in an accident in the Mojave Desert and they went up to harvest all his organs, and I got one, and here I am.

Tavis: How does that rate, how does that compare, your 11 years, to what these liver transplants normally mean for people?

Hagman: Oh, I don’t know. I met a girl who’s 22 years. She had hers when she was, like, 14. Of course, she was younger; I was 65 when I had mine.

Tavis: The cause of your liver transplant, the cause for the need of it was what?

Hagman: Alcohol.

Tavis: Alcohol.

Hagman: Yeah. I drank my liver out.

Tavis: I want to be respectful about this, but how do you process the fact that you had to get your liver replaced because you brought that on yourself by such heavy drinking?

Hagman: Well, it happens. Five hundred thousand Americans die from tobacco poisoning every year, and it’s legal. I don’t know, it just that’s the – you can’t stop giving people organs because of bad behavior. If you keep on having bad behavior, then of course they’ll deny you a liver, or whatever you need.

Tavis: You obviously though have had to change your lifestyle dramatically.

Hagman: Oh, boy, did I, yeah. Well, I changed it a couple of years – the doctor said “Hey, you’ve got chronic cirrhosis of the liver, got to stop drinking,” and I did, and successfully, too, with help, of course.

Tavis: How did, for you, drinking become such a (unintelligible)?

Hagman: A habit? I don’t know. All my heroes, I guess, like John Wayne and all those guys, they drank and they smoked and did all the manly things. It was expected of you. And now abstinence in all kinds of forms is a part of living. It’s a pretty – I don’t smoke anymore, I quit that 42 years ago.

Tavis: And at one point, you were a spokesperson for the cancer society.

Hagman: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, for 11 years.

Tavis: The Great Smoke-Out, yeah.

Hagman: That’s right.

Tavis: So you’re like Mr. Good Guy.

Hagman: Pretty much.

Tavis: No smoking, no drinking.

Hagman: Yeah, yeah. But I have a lot of fun anyhow.

Tavis: Tell me about these games that you’ve been involved in now for some years.

Hagman: The National Kidney Foundation games, yeah. Well, they’re Olympic-style games that we have every two years around the United States to show that people can live normal lives after transplantation and to make awareness that 18 people die every day waiting for organs.

I often ask people if they would like to give their organs when they pass on, and they say “Well, I’m not so sure, I don’t know.” And I said, “Well, would you accept one if you needed one?” “Well, yeah, sure.” And I say “Well, there you go – where do you get them from?”

Tavis: What is it about so many of us who have a problem with the notion of donating our organs?

Hagman: A lot of times I talk to people, they say they don’t trust the doctors, they don’t trust the hospitals and that kind of stuff. Well, if you go to the hospital, you’ve got to trust somebody. And it’s a wonderful thing to meet these people, especially the families of people who’ve donated their loved ones’ organs. They’re wonderful, wonderful, thinking people.

And also people who are living donors who give kidneys. You can’t give a heart and you can’t give a liver, but you can sure give a lung – well, kidneys, anyhow. And that’s where the main part of this whole thing is – one out of every eight people, I believe, is going to have some kind of kidney problem during their lifetime.

Tavis: These 18 people – I was struck by that number a moment ago and I want to come back to that – these 18 persons a day who die waiting for some sort of transplant, tell me more about these people; who these people are, what they’re waiting for, why they can’t find what they need. Tell me about these 18.

Hagman: Well, the majority, I think, are waiting for kidneys. A lot of people have kidney damage during their lives, and a lot of people are waiting for heart, lung, bone marrow, skin. Skin is an organ, did you know that?

Tavis: I did not know that.

Hagman: I didn’t know it either till a couple of days ago.

Tavis: I want to ask beyond changing your lifestyle and beyond, I would expect, the obvious of just being grateful for some additional years of living, did this experience for you, this successful experience for you, bring about any kind of spiritual –

Hagman: Oh, yeah, absolutely.

Tavis: Talk to me about that.

Hagman: Well, I had a real epiphany. I guess it was during and after the operation. I did what’s a common thing; I kind of raised above the table and could look at me and listen to all the people talking and understand what they were saying and so forth.

And I also got to a point where kind of a oneness with everything and a great compassion. It teaches you compassion. It was a great, enlightening experience, a spiritual experience. Not particularly religious, but spiritual. It was great. I can still go there.

Tavis: To that same place?

Hagman: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: This may be an impossible question; let me ask anyway. Have you pondered, have you figured out why it is, or why you think it is, at least, that you found the liver that you needed, that you have been given these extra years of life. Do you know why that is?

Hagman: Luck, good doctors. The miracle of this is the technology it takes to do this sort of thing. I think the liver is the most difficult of the operations, even more difficult than heart. It’s just a culmination of technical ability and the times we’re living in, where we can afford to do that and have the technology.

Tavis: Beyond the science and the technology, what I’m trying to get at is whether or not you think there is some inner reason why you are still living, why you’re still here, because you didn’t have to be. Is there some purpose behind that?

Hagman: I don’t know – luck, maybe. The right time, the right moment, the right team. I don’t know – luck is a lot. I’m a very lucky man in a lot of ways – in my career, in my life, in my transplant, my marriage.

Tavis: Let me switch gears now. Great segue – thank you, by the way, I appreciate that. When you say lucky in your career, you mean by what?

Hagman: Well, I’ve had tremendous luck. I had “I Dream of Jeannie” for five years and 13 years with “Dallas,” and a couple of other series that didn’t go for various reasons. Not many people get that kind of chance.

Tavis: With so many cable channels now that are doing reruns of everything every day, do you ever get a chance to see some old episodes of either “Jeannie” or “Dallas?”

Hagman: Oh, sure. Yeah, both of them, they’re on every day. Yeah.

Tavis: And let me just take them one at a time. When you see these episodes, these reruns of “Jeannie,” you think what? Take me back to those days.

Hagman: (Laughs.) Oh, they were great days. Comedy’s not funny – it’s hard work. “Dallas,” I always thought, was a comedy anyhow. (Laughter) A cartoon kind of thing.

Tavis: Yeah, in many ways it was.

Hagman: It was. And there’s Barbara. Yeah, it was just a combination of good luck and timing, being in the right place at the right time, and prepared for it.

Tavis: So “Jeannie” was really your first big break. What did that do for your career at that time?

Hagman: Oh, well, it got it going. I’d been on Broadway and in regional theater and daytime soap opera for a couple of years in New York, too, so I had a lot of training. Ready for it, I was ready for it. Being ready is a big deal.

Tavis: So “Dallas -” I mentioned earlier, at the top, of course, who doesn’t – that episode, “Who Shot J.R.?” How many times a week do you hear that reference? Somebody walks up to you or you – that must, like, be – that is one question that you must hear consistently, who shot J.R.?

Hagman: Oh, yeah. I was recently with Linda Gray in Ireland, and “Dallas” is still a big deal over there, and they just go nuts over it. They’re just – it was one of the biggest things in television history over there, and England, too. Yeah, it’s very strange. Somebody offered an idea that “Dallas” helped topple the Soviet Union.

A guy used to come over here, a director I knew in Russia, and he would bring beluga caviar and I’d give him about 50 tapes of Dallas. And he’d go back there and they’d clone them and they’d pass them around, and people would watch them and say, “Well, why don’t we have the cars and the clothes and things like that that those Americans have over there?”

And somebody invents the idea that perhaps “Dallas” helped collapse the Soviet empire, because they had information about what was going on.

Tavis: As you look back on it now, what do you think made that show such a hit on American television? Shows come and go, but that thing was revolutionary.

Hagman: Well, a lot of things, but recession helped a lot. We had a recession during that period of time and people couldn’t afford to get a babysitter and go out and see a movie and have dinner or something like that. People stayed in – they just had to stay in. We’re entering that period of time right now, too, I have a feeling.

Tavis: And the acting thing, you still like doing it? You’re still interested?

Hagman: Oh, sure, sure, but I just don’t want to do eight shows a week, that’s all.

Tavis: What’s, like, a perfect gig for you right now?

Hagman: Gosh –

Tavis: Something that you can do –

Hagman: Well, I go out with Linda Gray and we do “Love Letters,” and I’ve gone out with Barbara Eden, too, and we do “Love Letters.” Sometimes we’ll go on those cruise ships and so forth and do a couple of shows, and that’s a lot of fun.

Tavis: So life is good.

Hagman: Oh, couldn’t be better.

Tavis: (Laughs.) That sounded like J.R. Ewing right there, didn’t it? Couldn’t be better. Nice to have you on the program.

Hagman: Thank you.

Tavis: It’s an honor to meet you, and thank you for all the work you’re doing with the kidney transplant; we appreciate that.

Hagman: Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: What a great conversation.

[End previously recorded interview]

Tavis: A great conversation indeed. Larry Hagman passed away on Friday in Dallas at the age of 81. That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, good night from Los Angeles, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: December 3, 2012 at 11:29 am