Sunday, 25 November 2012

Larry Hagman: A Tribute

by Emma Bell

"You're a loser, Barnes. Always have been, always will be."
(source: Daily Mail) 
Larry Hagman has died aged 81. It seems scarcely possible that this larger than life actor is no longer striding across the terrace at Southfork, glowering and sneering in equally majestic proportions. 

Hagman was the son of Broadway legend Mary Martin and joined her in the business as a young man, striking early success with the hugely popular TV series, I Dream of Jeannie. It was a peculiar, and now very dated, show (particularly in terms of its casual sexism), written in response to the huge success of Bewitched on a rival network. Hagman was drafted in to play an astronaut (neatly tapping into the increased public interest in the Space Race). It was broad comedy, and Hagman relished the comedic possibilities of the role.

Hagman worked steadily through the Seventies, although he suffered from being involved with cancelled TV shows, films being of poor quality, and his own ambivalence towards the profession. This all changed with the huge and largely unexpected success of Dallas.

America was used to the soap opera; after all, the genre began on their commercial radio stations in the 1940s and transferred easily to the burgeoning television industry of the 1950s and 60s. America’s soaps were glossy and alluring; doctors in pristine whites arranging tete-a-tetes with glamorous nurses, also pristine (and lipsticked). It was a million miles away from Minnie Caldwell ordering a milk stout in the snug at the Rovers Return, but it was in that hyper-glamourised world that Dallas was conceived. The hair! The shoulder pads! The huge whiskeys poured as JR plotted and schemed! The tears and the dresses and the show downs at the Oil Barons’ Ball! 
JR and Sue Ellen
(source: Daily Mail)
Larry Hagman appeared in every episode of the show’s history and he relished every second on screen. Bright enough to know that he was playing a villain of pantomimic proportions, he nonetheless imbued the role with a believability that was genuinely engaging and at times hysterically funny. Who can ever forget poor Sue Ellen (of the tremblin’ lips) driven to drink, only to be dismissed with the words: "Go to bed Sue Ellen, there's nothing uglier than a woman who can't handle her liquor!"
His long term antagonism with Cliff Barnes ("You're a loser, Barnes. Always have been, always will be!”) provided one of the spines of the labyrinthine plot twists that characterised the show: long lost siblings, takeovers, lovers gained and lost, revenges organised, wives humiliated ( "Sue Ellen, you're a drunk, a tramp, and an unfit mother!") breakfasts taken on the windiest terrace in all of America, back biting and conniving on a Grand Guignol scale.
He played to every preconception of what a duplicitous oil man would be like and then added layer upon layer of bad behaviour, all topped with a wicked glint in his eye and cackling chuckle (see video below). 
Britain LOVED Dallas. When Michael Palin range his mate George Harrison one Wednesday night, the musician was uncharacteristically unwilling to chat, finally muttering, "You're not a a Dallas fan then?" before hanging up. The shooting of JR in Series Three was an international event and Hagman, ever canny, held out renewing his contract with the network before they finally gave in, recognising his huge star power.
Larry Hagman, in the 2012 revival of Dallas
Hagman played in Dallas until its cancellation in 1991 and thereafter he appeared in several TV specials and made several well-regarded cameos in films such as Primary Colors, Nixon and JFK
He was a hugely popular and kind co-worker; he was famed for his long and loyal friendships. An eccentric man (he refused to speak on Sundays), he was also a legendary drinker and often consumed five bottles of champagne a day on the Dallas set; unsurprisingly, he contracted cirrhosis of the liver and had two transplants. He was well enough to take part in the new revival of Dallas which premiered this year, but died at the weekend from complications due to cancer. 
Legend has it that he wished "The only deal I did not win" to be inscribed upon his gravestone. Even JR couldn't scheme his way out of that one. RIP Larry Hagman.

The Best of J.R. Ewing:

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