Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Remembering a TV Legend: Larry Hagman

I was watching DALLAS last night.  In-between wondering if Elena's cheekbones will eventually rip through her drum tight skin and how I never noticed that odd facial scar above the bridge of Pamela's nose last season, I felt dueling emotions of sadness and joy every time Larry Hagman appeared on screen.  Happiness due to how he elevated every scene with his very presence -- that mischievous smile, that still commanding voice and even those demonically tweaked eyebrows. Sadness knowing that in just a couple weeks, I will see the truly final moments of J.R. Ewing.

When I was a kid, my friends all had fairly early supper times.  Maybe it was an Italian thing, I was never sure.  But typically, everyone would take a break from wiffle ball, playing flipsy games with baseball cards and pretending to be Star Wars characters at five o'clock -- and we would resume our playtime around seven. I usually didn't eat until closer to 6:30, so I'd park myself in front of the television to watch reruns of BATMAN, STAR TREK and...I DREAM OF JEANNIE.

Even as a seven-year-old, I had enough sense to know that I DREAM OF JEANNIE was silly, and not in the same ballpark of quality as shows like ALL IN THE FAMILY, THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW or M*A*S*H.  Still, I couldn't get enough of it it -- especially that classic opening theme with the nifty cartoon.  Even today, it's one of my favorite tunes to whistle and bug the ever-loving fuck out of anybody near me.

Larry Hagman played Major Tony Nelson, an astronaut who found a genie bottle upon his return from orbiting the Earth.  When you were a kid in the 70's, you wanted to be three things: a superhero, a dinosaur or an astronaut. Taking the concept of the wish-granting genie (something a child hears all about in numerous stories, and in dirty jokes just a few years later) and making it a blonde bombshell was just the sort of thing that appealed to boys who had Farrah on their walls and kept the fact that they watched the Wonder Woman TV series a secret.  Hormones aside, it was Major Nelson that I dug the most on that show.

In the spring of 1978, DALLAS began airing on CBS, and much like Bill on FREAKS AND GEEKS, I was an addict from episode 1 on.  The intrigue, the back-stabbing, the clear-cut forces of good and evil, Victoria Principal's two bouncy friends -- how could I NOT love DALLAS?  But more than anyone or anything else, it was J.R. Ewing I adored the most.  As a child, I always found the allure of villainy far more fun to watch, from Doyle Lonnegan to Darth Vader to J.R. Ewing. And this was the guy I had spent my afternoons chuckling at on I DREAM OF JEANNIE!  How was this even possible?  But what really blew my mind came about eight months later.

There are few things I ever looked forward to more than the release of the original SUPERMAN movie.  I actually made my mother take me to see it FOUR TIMES in its opening week alone.  So based on the last couple paragraphs, how do you think I reacted when I saw this?

Over the next dozen or more years, I followed DALLAS religiously.  As an adolescent, I probably spent more time learning about the Neilsen rating system than how to talk to girls (brilliant decision on my part).  I clipped articles from supermarket tabloids for scrapbooks and even chose to quote J.R. Ewing in my high school yearbook.

But the series -- which had been on the skids for a few years -- finally ended in a most bizarre fashion (even weirder than the infamous "it was all a dream").  Joel Grey appeared as the Devil, and essentially tried to convince J.R. to kill himself.   The finale ended on the cliffhanger: Did J.R. just blow his brains out?  I kid you not; that was the last scene of the original series.

Over the next twenty years, Hagman would pop up from time to time in small parts in political movies like NIXON and PRIMARY COLORS, a few episodes of DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES and a season long stint on NIP/TUCK.  Sure, I would smile every time I saw him, but it was never the same.  But when TNT decided to do a reboot of DALLAS featuring some of the major original cast members -- I knew I had to tune in.  Even with less hair and more lines in his face, Hagman stole the show once more.  A TV icon had returned to doing what he did best, and a new generation of viewers would get to witness the work of prime time soap opera legend.

But almost 32 years after the mystery of "Who Shot J.R.?" was solved, Larry Hagman passed away. In 2011 & 2012, I bid farewell to some of my most beloved TV actors: Peter Falk (Lt. Columbo) the previous year...and Jack Klugman (Oscar Madison) a month later.  But I think the death of Larry Hagman hit me the hardest. I'm glad he was working right up to the end, showing so many others how it's done.  I'm sure I'll shed a few tears in a couple weeks, but I'll be smiling as I do so.  

Mischievously, I hope.

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