Larry Hagman will always be identified with the indelible roles he played on “I Dream Of Jeannie” and both iterations of the series “Dallas,” but as we mark the occasion of his passing tonight, let’s remember that he was a gifted comic and dramatic actor who had a long and robust career on both the big and small screens. Born into a show business family (his mother was Mary Martin, a huge star in her day), he endured in a way that few performers ever do.
For my money, his finest work ever was in the Blake Edwards comedy “S.O.B.,” and that’s the film I’ll be throwing on later tonight in honor of him. It’s a blistering Hollywood satire, and Hagman plays a disgusting version of a Hollywood executive, the type of person I’m guessing he had plenty of experience with over the years. Hagman seemed to be most at home in his work when playing people whose personal moral compasses were somehow poorly calibrated, and maybe that’s why he became a pop culture sensation starring as J.R. Ewing on “Dallas.” He enjoyed the work so much that it spilled over to the way audiences would watch him.
He made his first TV appearance in 1957. That seems like an entirely different age of media, and there aren’t many people who were working then who could honestly be said to still be active and popular today, but he managed it. He made a ton of guest appearances on shows over the years, working in films like “Ensign Pulver” and “In Harm’s Way” and “The Group” and “Fail-Safe” as well, but it was his work as Major Anthony Nelson, the astronaut who discovered a bottle containing the preposterously sexy Barbra Eden, that finally made him a household name.
After that show ended its five-year run, he kicked around for a while, appearing in movies like “Beware The Blob” and in failed attempts at series like “Here We Go Again” and “The Good Life.” And for many actors, if they get one hit TV show, that would be considered a major victory. Hagman kept plugging away, though, and he appeared in the excellent “Harry and Tonto” and “Mother, Jugs & Speed” during the mid-’70s, along with guest shots on shows like “The Rockford Files,” “Barnaby Jones,” “The Streets of San Francisco,” and “Ellery Queen.” By the time he showed up in “Superman,” it was a quick walk-on, and I’m sure he was probably wondering about the shape of his career.
Then 1978 rolled around and lightning struck for the second time. “Dallas” was a big hit to begin with, but when they reached the cliffhanger season finale in which he was shot, it turned into a full-blown pop culture hurricane. The show was everywhere, and people invested a stunning amount of energy into trying to sort out the mystery before the next season began.
Since that point, Hagman’s been one of those guys whose place in our collective memories was assured, and he didn’t work often. I loved seeing him in Oliver Stone’s “Nixon,” and it’s a short but wildly effective appearance. “Primary Colors” also made good use of his larger-than-life persona. In the last few years, he was able to return to “Dallas” when the show was resurrected, and he once again seemed to be enjoying himself greatly.
The Dallas Morning News broke the sad word today of his passing, and I am sure there are generations of fans who will be sorry to hear of it. But I would imagine that Hagman’s work will endure and be enjoyed for many years to come, and for any actor, that’s the closest thing there is to immortality.
Larry Hagman was 81 years old.