Saturday, November 24, 2012


Larry Hagman as the villainous oilman J.R. Ewing
Larry Hagman, one of the most iconic television personalities in the history of the medium, passed away this Thanksgiving weekend from complications due to his battle with cancer. He was 81 years old. Many will remember Hagman’s role as Major Tony Nelson from the 60s comedy series I Dream Of Jeannie. But it was in the role of the ruthless, charismatic, villainous Oil Baron J.R. Ewing on the television series Dallas that Hagman achieved world wide fame.

The original cast of Dallas
Like many, I was deeply saddened by Hagman’s passing. I was a big fan of Dallas. Night time soaps about the ruthless and wealthy were a huge part of my youth and none more than Dallas. Hagman’s “JR” was a villain for the ages and particularly for the excess filled 80s. I was in junior high when Dallas premiered in 1978 and out of school and firmly established in the work force when it ended in 1991. The only other show to be such a big part of my life for such a long period of time was M.A.S.H. Each week I tuned in to see what shenanigans JR and the Ewing family was up to. This wasn’t just a show about rich people being evil and decadent. At its core, Dallas was a show about family and in a strange way, I identified with the Ewings and to a certain extent, JR. Sure, JR could be downright evil at times. But when the Ewings were in trouble, JR always put his personal conflicts aside and rallied to his family. He could and would be just as ruthless in the defense of his family as he was with the myriad of enemies he confronted over the shows more than decade long run.

Momma's boys.  Larry Hagman, Barbara Bel Geddes and Patrick Duffey
In my own family, I was the one that often struggled in school and acted out while my sister got straight A’s and was the more responsible one. We fought all the time just like JR and his goody two shoes brother Bobby. But at the end of the day, my sister and I always put our differences aside for the sake of our mother. Mom was the “Miss Ellie” to my “JR” and my sisters “Bobby”. I know a lot of kids typically rebel against their parents, but our Mom was just too nice. We actually felt bad almost immediately after giving her any nonsense because she was so great! Just like JR, I tried my mothers patience at times but always came to her defense when she needed it (which she rarely did as she was and still is one tough lady).

JR was one of those characters that, as a nerd, I lived vicariously through. JR had meticulously planned schemes, stratagems and gambits. Just when you thought JR was down for the count, he struck back even stronger than ever. He never let his enemies see him look beat. He always kept that smug smile on at all times even though on the inside he had never felt more defeated. Like JR, I never let the bullies get my goat and never let them see they had me on the ropes. Like JR, I used my wits and at times, just bluffed a whole hell of a lot to get out of any potentially hazardous situation that I often found myself in during my, at times, rather treacherous high school years. Of course I wasn’t always as successful as JR but nor was I as self destructive. Often times being more like Bobby was the smarter way to go.
David Selby as "Richard Channing"
Hagman’s JR Ewing spawned many imitators. My favorite of which was the character “Richard Channing” from Dallas’s competitor for night time ratings Falcon Crest. Played by David Selby, Richard Channing was a slightly nicer version of JR. While JR always had Bobby and other cast members to offset his evil, Channing started out as a villain but when the main good guy “Chase” played by Robert Foxworth left the show, Channing’s evil was toned down and he became the protagonist to the more ruthless antagonist and family matriarch Angela Channing played by Jane Wyman. I delighted each week in the adventures of JR Ewing. The boardroom power struggles, the political and corporate jockeying for power, the stunning defeats and inevitable comebacks, the internal battles with family. Like the other 83 million people who tuned in all over the world, I was on the edge of my seat when the mystery of Who Shot JR was finally revealed. The world of these wealthy, ruthless millionaires took my mind off of other things such as typical high school melodrama, the battle to get my drivers license, graduation and the constant talk of the possibility of nuclear war, driven home by TV movies such as The Day After (the “duck and cover” cautionary tale of it’s time).

The J.R. Ewing of outer space?
Through all of this, JR persevered. Doing whatever he could to keep his company and his family safe and doing all the most reprehensible things possible to achieve that goal at any cost. Even if such actions had a high cost and often ended in JR losing it all. Ultimately, I wasn’t quite as motivated as JR was, nor was I as larcenous. Never the less, for a time he was an inspiration and for an even longer time, he was the source of much entertainment. As the years rolled on and after Dallas finally ended, I continued to see variations of Hagman’s J.R. Ewing. Most notably the legacy of Hagman’s JR was never more apparent to me than in the character “Scorpius” from the science fiction soap opera “Farscape”. Like JR, Scorpius often did many, many evil deeds in the cause of what he perceived to be a greater good. Just as JR struggled to amass a fortune and an empire so big that no one could touch him or his family, so did Scorpius commit all manner of horrible acts in order to get the wormhole technology from innocent astronaut John Crichton in order to use the knowledge as a weapon to fend off the even greater evil of the Scarrans.
R.I.P. Larry Hagman: 1931-2012
I’ll miss Larry Hagman and the character he gave us in J.R. Ewing. I’ll miss the evil twinkle in his eye, the grin and chuckle he would give when his evil schemes came to fruition, the joy he felt when he destroyed an enemy or took over a company. In a television world inhabited by snarky ER doctors, sensitive policmen and whiny sheriffs full of self doubt who battle zombies, it’s easy to forget that an entire generation of night time television was dominated by the classy, tenacious, humorous, joyously ruthless, supremely confident, meticulous and Machiavellian villainy of good old boy J.R. Ewing. Portrayed with heart, charisma, verisimilitude and the slightly mad genius of Larry Hagman. 

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