Saturday, November 24, 2012
Losing Larry Hagman
Like almost everyone from my generation, I first discovered Larry Hagman via his role as Major Anthony Nelson on I Dream of Jeannie, a charming series which cast Barbara Eden as a genie discovered by a US astronaut. Larry Hagman portrayed Major Nelson as the archetypal 1960s image of the astronaut--resourceful, intrepid, indomitable, and always able to overcome any problem thrown at him. Even better, he portrayed him with a charm that made many young boys like me wish we could be a Major Nelson when we grew up. He avoided the television tendency to present sitcom men as buffoons (remember Darren Stevens from Bewitched?)--and at the same time, he managed to convey his character with humor and compassion. All boys my age wished we possessed the bottle that housed the lovely Jeannie, but we also wished we could be a man like Anthony Nelson--and while that was due in part to the character the writers portrayed, it was even more due to Larry Hagman's ability to make that character sympathetic and admirable in a situation that other actors might have approached very differently.
It's hard to believe that it was just a little more than seven years later that Hagman returned to television in a major way as J.R. Ewing on the prime-time soap opera Dallas. On paper, J.R. was the opposite of Anthony Nelson in every way: conniving, vicious, duplicitous, machiavellian, unscrupulous, disloyal, cruel... a man who was impossible to like. But that's on paper. On the screen, Larry Hagman made J.R. Ewing a schemer who viewers couldn't help but like, regardless of his actions and flaws. And that was all Hagman; television history is filled with forgettable scenery-chewing villains who lacked any redeeming qualities, but Hagman found a way to convey just the right mix of ruthlessness and rogueishness to make the villain a more complex character. And in the process, he made J.R. Ewing and Dallas a landmark in television history and in popular culture. It's rare enough when an actor can become famous for one memorable character, but Hagman made the lightning strike twice.
His drinking, his health problems--they were a part of Hagman's story, too, and he didn't try to hide them. In some ways, it seemed as if he was willing to let himself be seen as the same sort of flawed man as J.R. Ewing; he owned up to his mistakes in a frank and public way, but refused to let them outshine his achievements.
So when TNT announced that they were bringing back Dallas, and that they had signed Larry Hagman and Patrick Duffy and Linda Gray to return in their original roles, I was curious. Were the older cast members going to be relegated to cameos and minor roles? Reportedly, that was the initial plan--use them as transitional figures to familiarize viewers with the next generation of Ewings and Barnes, then gradually push them aside--but as soon as Hagman appeared on screen as J.R. Ewing, it was evident that this new Dallas was as much his series as the old Dallas was. He controlled the screen every time he appeared. Even better, he did so by portraying J.R. Ewing as an older man; he embraced his age, as did his fellow actor and friend Patrick Duffy, and at times the two of them even managed to create an Oedipus at Colonus-like depth of character as these two older men faced life's challenges and looked back on what had gone wrong. I didn't initially expect to enjoy Dallas, but I did because Hagman, along with Duffy and Gray, made it impossible not to like Dallas.
I also saw Hagman and Duffy on the talk show circuit promoting the show, and I was touched by the depth of friendship these two men shared, and by Hagman's frankness in discussing his career, his life, and the importance of Patrick Duffy to both. It was impossible not to appreciate his candor, admire his honesty, and like the man that he was.
Now he's dead from cancer at the age of 81, and I'm sad--not the sort of casual sadness you feel when a famous person has died, but the sort of deeper sorrow you feel when you hear that the world is a little worse because of the passing of someone who made it a little better. Rest well and proudly, Larry Hagman, and know that you will be missed.