The Last Days of J.R. Ewing

The executive producer of Dallas talks about Larry Hagman's final working weeks.
Thu February 21, 2013 5:15 pm
AP Photo

When Fort Worth native Larry Hagman died the day after Thanksgiving, following treatment for cancer, he was in the midst of shooting the second season of the revived version of Dallas. His untimely passing forced the show’s writers to quickly rejigger the arc of the rest of the season, which will now include a “Who killed J.R.”-style mystery. An item about how Hagman’s death affected the show runs in the Lookout column in the March issue of Texas Monthly . Below is a lightly edited and abridged transcript of the interview with Dallas executive producer Cynthia Cidre that was the basis of that item.

Jeff Salamon: When you first approached Larry Hagman about reprising the role of J.R., what did you think he’d say?

Cynthia Cidre: I thought he’d want to do it, frankly. I thought that he had always enjoyed playing that part. Dallas is the show that J.R. made. I had talked to Patrick [Duffy, who played Bobby Ewing] first, and then Linda [Gray, who played Sue Ellen], and they both wanted to do it, and I didn’t realize at the time that the three of them had been friends for over thirty years. So once I learned that I just thought, “What, he’s going to let his two friends do it and not him?”

JS: So the story I’ve heard is that in the original Dallas, the J.R. role was originally written as a supporting character but Hagman was so charismatic that he basically turned J.R. into the focus of the show. Did you see that sort of power at work when he was on the new version?

CC: Some people have a je ne sais quoi, you know, whatever it is, that charisma that makes a star, and Larry definitely had it. It was just a twinkle in the eye—even if you play a villain, you kind of love the villain. It’s indefinable, and he had it. He was very, very aware of what he was doing, of what to do, of how the camera would go to him. And when he was 81 he had as much of it as he did when he was thirty.

JS: So you didn’t know that he was ill—and I don’t think he knew that he was ill—when you hired him for the gig, is that correct?

CC: Correct.

JS: And when did you learn that he was sick?

CC: About three weeks before we started shooting Season One. It was quite a while ago, it was a year and a half ago, and he called me right away—he’s a very direct and honest person—and told me that he’d been diagnosed with cancer and was going to have to have surgery. And I said okay. And he called back a couple days later and said he changed his mind about the surgery and that he was going to go to Dallas and do chemo while he was working. And he worked with treatment all of last season, and he was cancer-free by the end of the year. He had gained some weight, but he did have some side effects from the treatment and that’s ultimately what put him in the hospital the week of Thanksgiving.

JS: So did he pass away from side effects rather than from the cancer itself?

CC: Yes. I think some of the cancer had returned, but you best ask a medical person about that. He had definitely gone into the hospital because he had some platelet issues from the chemo.

JS: How did his illness affect the first season’s production?

CC: Well, we had to give him time off, of course, to recover; I think it was a six-week treatment. But he worked during chemo and radiation, and then there was, like, a month recovery, and so we tried to shoot some scenes early, and we also shot some scenes after he

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