Larry Hagman’s Curtain Call

The world knows him as J. R. Ewing, the star who made Dallas into a global hit and changed television history. But for thirty years I have known him as a good friend, a spiritual mentor, and one hell of a partier. Inside the epic life of Weatherford, Texas’s most famous son.
Larry Hagmans Curtain Call
Photographs by Van Ditthavong

There’s nothing like watching the real J.R. Ewing in action. It’s an early November Friday night, and Larry Hagman is shuffling across the hardwood floor of a rented Dallas loft furnished with steer-hide throw rugs, a flat-screen TV, and a leather case full of shotgun barrels he took on a recent quail-
hunting trip. Decked out in a blue terry-cloth bathrobe and a Santa Claus cap, he looks more like a carefree flower child celebrating an early Christmas than an eighty-year-old granddaddy suffering from potentially terminal cancer.

Hagman peers through a window, scanning the neon-lit obelisks of the downtown skyline, his bushy gray brows angling sharply upward, his green eyes twinkling with flecks of gold. “Once upon a time, this was all mine,” he says, flashing J.R.’s greedy, lascivious grin. Then he hastens to add, “It will be again.”

That’s not just bravura—it’s grace under extreme pressure. The way Hagman sees it, he’s enjoying two new leases on life. One is the chance to reprise the role that turned him into an international star. This month Dallas, a $54 million sequel to the pioneering prime-time soap opera, will debut on TNT, and Hagman will appear as the show’s iconic archvillain in ten new episodes.

Lease number two offers Hagman a chance to cheat death. In September, just as the new Dallas began filming, his doctors discovered a malignant tumor in his throat. On this otherwise inauspicious night, Hagman is preparing to undergo six weeks of radiation and chemotherapy treatments. A personal chef is cooking a vegan dinner the color and texture of cardboard. She enforces the ban on her boss’s once ubiquitous champagne—for years he drank an average of five bottles a day, and although he gave it up, he’s been known, even to this day, to backslide—
because some nutritionists believe cancers feed on sugar.

On one end of the loft, a humidifier is steaming up a miniature cloud storm. Hagman confides that he bought it on the advice of his pal Michael Douglas. “Michael said that when you undergo radiation and chemotherapy, your saliva dries up and you can’t spit. He must know what he’s talking about. He had stage-four throat cancer. I only have stage two.”

Only stage two? That would be enough to occupy most people’s attention. Not Hagman, who seems more concerned with the fact that he’ll be filming the fourth episode of the new Dallas before he reports to the hospital on Monday afternoon. He learned long ago that the early days of a project are pivotal. Unbeknownst to most of the viewing public, J. R. was written as a supporting role in the original Dallas. It was Hagman who almost single-handedly turned J.R. into the larger-than-life character that the world came to love and hate. And he did it, through a combination of guile and charm, by the show’s fourth episode.

I ask Hagman if he’s planning to do the same this time around. He pauses to wash down a mouthful of spinach with a cup of tea. Then he flashes that J.R. grin again and says, “Of course.”

I see why he’s so sure of himself two days later when we arrive at Cowboys Stadium, in Arlington, for a quick B-roll shoot prior to the game between Dallas and the visiting Buffalo Bills. He’s toting two cowboy hats: a gray beaver skin and a straw. In a characteristically inclusive gesture, he dons the beaver skin and hands me the straw so I can more fully share in the festivities ahead. “Never leave the house without a hat,” he reminds me.

Three security men in silver blazers escort us to a luxury suite on the Ring of Honor level. With two camera crews filming, Hagman peels off from me and leads the rakishly handsome thirty-year-old actor Josh Henderson, who plays J.R.’s son John Ross, to a pair of premium seats. A shot of Hagman and Henderson appears on the 159-by-72-foot double-sided Diamond Vision screen suspended over the football field. A deafening roar erupts from the 85,000 fans in the stadium. “J.R.! J.R.!” they start chanting.

The security men whisk us down to the Cowboys sideline for the National Anthem and then up to Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’s luxury suite, where a bevy of billionaires are waiting. As we pass by the grandstands, the fans pick up the chant again. “J.R.! J.R.!”

Hagman beams, waving to the crowd even as he maintains his forced-march forward pace. I holler over the din that he seems to be having more fun than a Brahman bull at a semen-sampling rodeo. “If you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it,” he hollers back. “A lot of people can’t stand to be in crowds because they feel they don’t have any control. I love being the center of attention. Why else be an actor?”

That combination of self-confidence and shameless self-interest might as well have come out of the mouth of J. R., which makes you wonder, Is this art imitating life? Or life imitating art? In Hagman’s case, the answer to both questions is almost always yes. I know because, over the course of the thirty years we’ve been friends, Hagman has proved himself to be a shrewder and more tough-minded businessman than J.R. and perhaps twice as charismatic. At the same time, he’s got a big heart that’s made him a devoted husband, a loving if sometimes preoccupied father, and the most loyal of friends.

This month, as millions of viewers tune in to Dallas, they won’t merely be curious about how the show has been updated to reflect our era of economic anxiety and widespread resentment of the one percent. They’ll be celebrating the return of J.R., the brash, fun-loving oil baron at the core of the show. And in so doing, they’ll also celebrate the return of Larry Hagman, the brash, fun-loving actor who forged J.R. from the highs and lows of his own epic life.

Weatherford, Texas (population 25,250), commemorates one of its greatest claims to fame with a life-size bronze statue of the actress Mary Martin,

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