Larry Hagman’s two signature roles couldn’t have been more different. He rose to fame on the campy I Dream of Jeannie as Major Tony Nelson, a lovably goofy astronaut. Barbara Eden’s genie called Nelson “master,” but the moment she entered the room it was obvious who was in charge.
The role that made him a TV legend was J.R. Ewing, a charming but evil oil baron. Unlike Nelson, J.R. was the consummate chessmaster. He also had no problem using family members as pawns.
The actor behind these characters, Larry Hagman, died Nov.23 due to complications from cancer. He was filming the second season of a brand new Dallas, introducing J.R. to a whole new generation.
Hagman was born in Ft. Worth to attorney Ben Hagman and his wife, actress Mary Martin. After a successful stint on Broadway, Larry headed to Hollywood to pursue his acting dreams. One of his first big roles was as Ben Gibson on the Edge of Night, a precursor to his soap superstardom.
His career changed forever in 1965 when he landed the role of Jeannie’s Major Nelson. On paper, the show was incredibly provocative for the 60s. Two young sexy people, unmarried, were sharing a living space. Jeannie was barely clothed, especially by standards of the era. And she called the guy she lived with “Master.” It worked because Barbara Eden played Jeannie as naive, while Hagman’s Nelson was delightfully dim. He seemed to be the only man in the world without a clue what to wish for where Jeannie was concerned.
The actor left the sitcom after five years, wanting to do more dramatic material. Also, he admitted that the show had nowhere to go after Nelson and Jeannie got married. This would prove true on countless other shows as well. Hagman appeared in other TV shows such as Barnaby Jones and had starring roles in other sitcoms. For a while, it seemed as if his career had peaked with Maj. Nelson. Then came the Dallas script. The characters in it were people the Texas native knew and grew up with. He had to take it.
Hagman brought his first hand knowledge of people like the Ewings to the role. He played the villain with a smile instead of a sneer, becoming a character the world loved and hated at the same time. In 1980, more than 350 million viewers tuned in to find out “Who Shot J.R.?” in TV’s most infamous cliffhanger.
Writers and producers originally intended J.R. Ewing to be a supporting character, with the relationship between Bobby Ewing and Pam Barnes as Dallas‘ focal point. Larry Hagman’s performance stole the show, the first of many crimes J.R. would commit and get away with. The role wasn’t just revolutionary from a creative standpoint, but a financial one. Hagman saw numerous people involved with his hit sitcom get rich, he and Eden not among them. He discussed his realization in his autobiography Hello Darlin.’
“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.?” he said. The negotiations got so heated producers contemplated killing J.R. off the show. There were rumors they’d even lined up a replacement actor. They realized there was only was one actor who could fill J.R.’s ten gallon hat. Hagman got his $100,000 per episode demand in a business deal J.R. himself couldn’t have handled any better.