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Larry Hagman, TV Actor And "Dallas" Villain, Dies At 81

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Larry Hagman, whose portrayal of slick oilman J.R. Ewing on the powerhouse 1980s CBS prime time soap, Dallas, defined television evil and turned him into a global TV star, died yesterday at age 81. He had been diagnosed with cancer last year, and died at a Fort Worth Hospital. His family said, "Larry was back in his beloved Dallas re-enacting the iconic role he loved most. Larry’s family and close friends had joined him in Dallas for the Thanksgiving holiday. When he passed, he was surrounded by loved ones. It was a peaceful passing, just as he had wished for. The family requests privacy at this time."

At its height, Dallas was a pop culture phenomenon, about the ups and downs (which were usually dealt by J.R.) of a Dallas oil family. As the LA Times reports, its former critic said, "Here is a man born to play villainy. His performance on ‘Dallas’ is a salute to slime.”

Fervor for the television show “Dallas” was intense in 1980, when the Queen Mother met actor Larry Hagman and joined the worldwide chorus asking: “Who shot J.R.?” “Not even for you, ma’am,” replied Hagman, who portrayed villainous oil baron J.R. Ewing at the center of the popular prime-time soap from 1978 until 1991.

An estimated 300 million viewers in 57 countries had seen J.R. get shot by an unseen assailant, a season-ending plot twist that is credited with popularizing the cliffhanger in television series.

You can watch the cliffhanger here—Hagman told Katie Couric that a producer suggested they "shoot the S.O.B." and figure it out later (if you need to know,
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here's the answer). The show was full of pulpy dialogue like Suellen Ewing saying, "Tell me, J.R., which slut are you staying with tonight?" to which J.R. replied to his wife, "Whoever it is, it's got to be more interesting than the slut I'm looking at right now."

Dallas ended its original run in 1991 (it began in 1978) but this year, TNT has been airing a new continuation of the story, with many original cast members, like Hagman. In fact, his Dallas co-stars Patrick Duffy, who played his brother Bobby, and Linda Gray, who played Suellen, were also present at the hospital. Gray said of Hagman's passing, "He was the pied piper of life and brought joy to everyone he knew. He was creative, generous, funny, loving and talented.... an original and lived life to the full.”

Hagman, the son of Broadway legend Mary Martin and raised by his maternal grandmother, rose to fame in the 1960 TV sitcom, I Dream of Jeannie, where he played an astronaut who meets a genie—they fall in love and later married. His Jeannie co-star Barbara Eden wrote a long tribute on her Facebook page, "Amidst a whirlwind of big laughs, big smiles and unrestrained personality Larry was always, simply Larry. You couldn't fault him for it, it was just who he was. I am so thankful that this past year I was able to spend time with him and experience yet again ‘Larry’ in all his Big Texas bravado."

Hagman battled alcoholism—he drank all day while shooting Dallas ("“The drinking sometimes made it harder to remember lines, but I liked that constant feeling of being mildly loaded")—and was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver in the 1990s, later receiving a liver transplant. He lived in California, maintaining numerous homes (Malibu, Ojai, Santa Monica); the Times says, "In Malibu, he had long been known as an amiable eccentric who routinely pulled his wardrobe from a vast collection of costumes and hats. He shopped for groceries while wearing a yellow chicken suit and played Frisbee in a Robin Hood hat and karate robe."