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Showbiz Beat: Larry Hagman Passes, Made “J.R.” an ’80s Icon

In his memoir, Hello Darlin’, Mr. Hagman said, “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.?” [Dallas News]

NO ONE represented the good old excess of the 1980s better than “J.R. Ewing” in the soap opera mega hit Dallas. And no character actor made the the marauding oil tycoon come alive with the beating heart and soulless guile more thoroughly than Larry Hagman. Today, he’s being remembered across social media, which of course begins with Twitter.

When the famous prime time soap reinvented itself on TNT this year, Hagman was once again present, because Dallas wouldn’t be Dallas without him, even if it was just a cameo. Who knows if the show will make it, the attention span of TV viewers different today than in decades past. But true to the original, the new Dallas did its best to deliver human treachery and even succeeded, with Patrick Duffy delivering the lead patriarchal force this time ’round, which in the business of the oil rich and TV infamous wouldn’t have been possible without Hagman’s presence, too, however small.

Throughout the summer of 1980, the world hung on the question “Who shot J.R.?” The ultimate TV cliffhanger aired on March 21, 1980, when an unseen assailant shot J.R. Ewing twice.

As everyone waited to find out who the shooter was, Mr. Hagman had an epiphany that would pave the way for TV giants such as Jerry Seinfeld and the cast of Friends to get a larger share of the profits from their shows.

[...] The world was filled with J.R. T-shirts, coffee mugs and bumper stickers.

“Everyone was making a windfall from J.R. except me,” he said.

He threatened to leave the show if his contract were not renegotiated.

After months of tense negotiations, he was finally given his $100,000 per episode asking price.

Hagman rocketed to TV stardom in I Dream of Jeannie, but also appeared in Otto Preminger’s In Harm’s Way, which happens to be on my favorite film list.

One of the guilty pleasures in life is great TV dramas, especially for those of us raised on the medium of television. It is the most democratic form of entertainment, the great leveler that connects us all to the American cultural scene in the comforts of our home. Cable, Direct TV and the internet has altered the means by which we tap in, but prime time soap operas remain a great American pastime. Even though today the web and social media, including aps and iTunes, change the way we watch our favorite indulgences, we still tune in, whether it’s the drama and music of Nashville, the political intrigue of Scandal, or the pay cable offering of Homeland, which mixes international terrorism and drama with old fashioned forbidden sex, love and betrayal.

There will always be people who can’t live on reality TV alone, preferring commentary on the country in which we live and the times we’re traversing, even if it’s not all that pretty to accept the characters that depict who we are.

I was one of the millions who loved to hate “J.R.” Sometimes cultural phenomenons like Dallas strike a note that represents something beyond the cultural landscape, to include something deeper in the American psyche that’s being recreated as a mirror image of real life drama being played out across the country. No one made the depiction of the greedy oil man possible more than Larry Hagman, because without his portrayal of “J.R. Ewing” Dallas would never have been what it became. That he managed to also represent the 1980s “greed is good” mentality of the rich and the famous became the gateway of a larger story that played out throughout that decade.

Godspeed, sir. For what it’s worth, you made your mark.

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12 Responses to Showbiz Beat: Larry Hagman Passes, Made “J.R.” an ’80s Icon

  1. secularhumanizinevoluter November 24, 2012 at 10:28 am #

    “One of the guilty pleasures in life is great TV dramas, ”
    OMGawd what don’t even EXIST?!!!! Dallas…GREAT TV DRAMA?!!!!!!
    More like a reinforcement of the old adage “no one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public”!!!!!!
    I have all the respect in the world for Larry Hagman and his body of work…after all an actor is supposed to act and they can’t all be great or even good roles.
    James mason immediately comes to mind. But even Mr. Mason was the first to admit he acted in a bunch of turkeys as well as some astoundingly good projects.
    I hope and would be pretty sure Mr. Hagman had the integrity to be able to make the same call on his career.

    • mjsmith November 24, 2012 at 10:14 pm #

      “no one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public”!!!!!!

      I love “Dallas” and I am looking forward to season 2 of the new series.

  2. lynnette November 24, 2012 at 12:52 pm #

    I remember Larry Hagman on “I Dream of Jeannie”. I loved and watched that show every week when I was a kid. And then, “Dallas”, of course. He was a very good actor and I will miss him.

    • Taylor Marsh November 25, 2012 at 8:39 am #

      Hagman made his mark, that’s for sure.

    • whitepaw November 25, 2012 at 11:47 am #

      Loved ” I Dream of Jeannie ” … my brother and I watched the reruns they played in the afternoon always after school. I watched some Dallas but never really got into it (I did, however get into the spinoff, “Knots Landing”. RIP Larry.

  3. TPAZ November 24, 2012 at 8:32 pm #

    No one dared missing Dallas on Friday nights in the 1980s. It was truly the end of an era in media and broadcasting. It was well before the Internet and even before a robust cable industry. There was only NBC, CBS, and ABC, delivering all the entertainment that movie theaters could not to American homes.

    Larry Hagman, J.R. Ewing, was one-of-a-kind television character. J.R. evolved with the mythological morning in America meme created by the Reagan administration. It was America’s way of leaving the 70s, inflation, gas shortages, Jimmy Carter, and embrace something that was shiny and new on television – the end justifying the means.

    • secularhumanizinevoluter November 24, 2012 at 10:20 pm #

      I don’t think JR was any more well known the Luke and Laura on General Hospital another execrable soap…which is exactly what Dallas was…a prime time soap.

    • Taylor Marsh November 25, 2012 at 8:35 am #

      TPAZ November 24, 2012 at 8:32 pm

      Very well said.

      It’s absurd and a little silly to talk about “Luke” and “Laura” in the same breath as “JR,” whether you appreciate the pop culture phenomenon Dallas was or not.

      • secularhumanizinevoluter November 25, 2012 at 11:44 am #

        I suppose that’s why their wedding(which when you think about it was a GREAT example of America think for the time…He RAPES her and they fall in love and get married?!!!)was one of the most watched events in TV history? I DO acknowledge his impact…I just thought the entire story line and character were Dreck.

        “The couple wed at the end of the hour-long show on November 17, 1981; the event was watched by 30 million viewers and remains the highest-rated hour in American soap opera history”
        From Wikipedia.

        “The “Who Done it?” revelation installment of “Dallas” drew 83 million viewers in the U.S., now an unthinkable audience for an episode of any TV show”
        From NBC

        I think when you factor in the available audience for the times they were both showing they were both boffo ratings cash cows and both equally vile.

        • Taylor Marsh November 26, 2012 at 8:24 am #

          That you don’t understand the difference between ratings and cultural impact isn’t all that important in the scheme of things.

  4. TPAZ November 25, 2012 at 12:11 am #

    Luke and Laura was daytime fictional characters. J.R. was prime time. You don’t have to like Hagman’s character but you must acknowledge his impact on TV and pop culture.

    • Taylor Marsh November 25, 2012 at 8:40 am #

      Absolutely right. The impact of Hagman’s “JR’” on pop culture is inarguable.

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