Caught in the Grip of Hagmania!

Born this day, actor Larry Hagman (1931-2012). You have to admit that that is a hell of a screen name, up there with Engelbert Humpedinck and Francis X. Bushman, but he managed to transcend it. His middle name was Martin. You will note that “Larry Martin” rhymes with “Mary Martin”, and that’s not just a coincidence, for the famous Broadway star was his mother. And though “Larry Martin” would have been a much better professional name for him, perhaps he found the idea of their names rhyming prohibitively cutesy. So he used his given surname. His father was a lawyer and accountant who divorced his mother when Larry was five. Larry was raised largely by a grandmother and for a time attended boarding school.

I’ll disappoint many of you by talking about his most famous role J.R. Ewing scarcely at all. Night time soaps are not my thing. To this day, I have never watched an episode of Dallas (1978-1991). Instead I’ll honor Hagman by talking about some of his other work, of which there was plenty. Throughout the 1950s he acted in New York theatre (including the original production of SJ Perelman’s The Beauty Part with Bert Lahr), with one stint lasting a year appearing in London with his mother in South Pacific, and another stint in the entertainment division of the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War, preparing him for his I Dream of Jeannie costume! He would also be cast as military officers in the movies The Cavern (1964), Ensign Pulver (1964), Fail Safe (1964) and In Harm’s Way (1965).

He began getting guest shots in TV in the ’50s, culminating with the big get, the part of the astronaut Captain (later Major) Nelson in I Dream of Jeannie (1965-1970), which show we wrote about here. Hagman always a nervous, shifty energy with an untrustworthy giggle that forever suggested something to hide (such as magic spells cast by his personal genie). His job description was similar to those of the similarly frantic Dick York and Dick Sergeant on Bewitched. And naturally that shifty quality presumably made him an excellent villain on Dallas.

But he was a regular on two more series previous to that, both sitcoms: The Good Life (1971-72) with Donna Mills and David Wayne, and Here We Go Again (1973) with Dick Gautier, Nita Talbot, Diane Baker, and Kim Richards. You could also see him the movies The Group (1966), The Hired Hand (1971) with Peter Fonda, Warren Oates, and Vera Miles; Harry and Tonto (1974); Hurricane (1974), Sarah T.: Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic (1975); Mother Jugs and Speed (1976); The Big Bus (1976); The Eagle Has Landed (1976); Superman (1978); Blake Edwards‘ S.O.B. (1981); et al as well as TV shows like Love American Style, Marcus Welby MD etc etc.

Hagman also directed the wonderful, campy horror film Beware! The Blob (1972), a movie that is both much smarter and dumber than it has any right to be, with a cast that includes Godfrey Cambridge, Carol Lynley, Robert Walker Jr, Dick Van Patten, Richard Stahl, Shelley Berman, Cindy Williams (of Laverne and Shirley), Del Close, and Burgess Meredith!

Then came the huge phenomenon of Dallas (1978-1991), a Texas drama about a rich family that owned a ranch and oil wells, not unlike the set up in movies like Giant. It was an enormous international cultural phenomenon. the “Who Shot J.R.?” episode was a huge television event. Charles Rocket was fired for uttering the F word, during Saturday Night Live’s sketch on it. On my first trip abroad in the early ’90s I recall being baited by a London wag who persisted in querying me as to whether America was really like Dallas. It isn’t, and I told him so. I would guess that most people abroad believe that it is.

Naturally Hagman was very closely identified with J.R. thereafter, but he also managed to do other work. He actually did another series Orleans in 1997, on which he played a Louisiana judge. And he had a recurring part on Nip/Tuck in 2006. And he appeared in movies like Nixon (1996), and Primary Colors (1998). His last work however was on a Dallas reboot in 2012. Cancer took him that year at the age of 81.