Appreciation: Larry Hagman, the man who played the man we loved to hate

Larry Hagman in front of the Southfork Ranch mansion in Parker, Texas, made famous in the television show Dallas, in 2008. © AP photo by Tony Gutierrez.

Had Kristin Shepard been a better shot, few characters on the 1980s prime-time soap opera Dallas would have mourned the death of J.R. EwingIndeed, many of us spent the summer of 1980 trying to figure out who hated J.R. enough to pull the trigger.

There were a lot of options.

But the derision certainly never extended to the man who played him, Larry Hagman, who died Friday from complications of throat cancer.

Hagman himself was celebrated as a best friend by two of the people he tormented most on Dallas: Linda Gray, who played his long-suffering wife, Sue Ellen, and Patrick Duffy, who played his brother Bobby. Both were at Hagman’s bedside when he died, and both released lovely statements about their friend. Gray called him her “best friend for 35 years,” and said, “He was an original and lived life to the fullest.”

We could see that in his jovial, honest demeanor in interviews and at events, and the sheer joy he took in creating a character who made the show what it was.

Indeed, Dallas was supposed to be an ensemble drama focused on the rivalry between the Ewings and the Barneses, brought to a boil when Bobby married Pamela Barnes (Victoria Principal). But Hagman’s J.R. soon stole the show, doing dirty deeds with a wink and a tip of his cowboy hat, confident that his wealth would shield him from any real consequences. He popularized the notion that “greed is good,” well before Michael Douglas won an Oscar saying it.

You can sum up in two letters —  J.R. — the reason Dallas was one of the longest running prime time dramas in television history in two letters.

When TNT brought Dallas back this summer, it was supposed to focus on J.R. and Bobby’s sons, John Ross and Christopher, and their rivalry. But as the season went along, J.R. came more into focus, and again, his schemes were an integral part of the season-ending cliffhanger.

Now the cliffhanger will be how the show handles Hagman’s and J.R.’s passing — we presume no one would be stupid enough to try to re-cast J.R. Ewing — when it starts its second season in January. The show was in production, and Hagman had shot several episodes before his death.

When J.R. dies, we are not sure which characters will shed tears, if any. But for fans of great TV and wonderful personalities, Hagman’s passing is a sad event.

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