J.R. Ewing was a business cheat, faithless husband and bottomless well of corruption. Yet with his sparkling grin, Larry Hagman masterfully created the charmingly loathsome oil baron — and coaxed forth a Texas-size gusher of ratings — on television’s long-running and hugely successful nighttime soap, “Dallas.”
Although he first gained fame as nice guy Major Tony Nelson on the fluffy 1965-70 NBC comedy “I Dream of Jeannie,” Hagman earned his greatest stardom with J.R. The CBS serial drama about the Ewing family and those in their orbit aired from April 1978 to May 1991, and broke viewing records with its “Who shot J.R.?” 1980 cliffhanger.
The actor, who returned as J.R. in a new edition of “Dallas” this year, had a long history of health problems and died Friday due to complications from his battle with cancer, his family said.
“Larry was back in his beloved hometown of Dallas, re-enacting the iconic role he loved the most. Larry’s family and closest friends had joined him in Dallas for the Thanksgiving holiday,” the family said in a statement that was provided to The Associated Press by Warner Bros., producer of the show.
The 81-year-old actor was surrounded by friends and family before he passed peacefully, “just as he’d wished for,” the statement said.
Linda Gray, his on-screen wife and later ex-wife in the original series and the sequel, was among those with Hagman in his final moments. “He brought joy to everyone he knew. He was creative, generous, funny, loving and talented, and I will miss him enormously,” Gray said.
Years before “Dallas,” Hagman had gained TV fame on “I Dream of Jeannie” with Barbara Eden.
Eden recalled shooting the series’ pilot “in the frigid cold” on a Malibu beach. “From that day, for five more years, Larry was the center of so many fun, wild and sometimes crazy times. And in retrospect, memorable moments that will remain in my heart forever,” Eden said.
It was Hagman’s masterful portrayal of J.R. that brought him the most fame. And the “Who shot J.R.?” story twist fueled international speculation and millions of dollars in betting-parlor wagers. It also gave the series a place in ratings history.
When the answer was revealed in a November 1980 episode, an average 41 million U.S. viewers tuned in to make “Dallas” one of the most-watched entertainment shows of all time, trailing only the “M*A*S*H” finale in 1983 with 50 million viewers.
On Friday night, Victoria Principal, who co-starred in the original series, recalled Hagman as “bigger than life, on-screen and off. He is unforgettable, and irreplaceable, to millions of fans around the world, and in the hearts of each of us, who was lucky enough to know and love him.”
Ten episodes of the new “Dallas” aired this past summer and proved a hit for TNT. Filming was in progress on the sixth episode of season two, which is set to begin airing Jan. 28, the network said. There was no immediate comment on how the series would deal with Hagman’s loss.