Hagman is best known for the 14 seasons he spent playing the nefarious (and infamous) Texas oilman J.R. Ewing on the television show “Dallas,” a role he has since reprised via the series’ recent revival. Hagman was the only cast member to appear in all 357 episodes of the show’s original run.
In fact, the bulk of his career is built on the back of television longevity, as Hagman also starred for 139 episodes as Maj. Tony Nelson in “I Dream of Jeannie,” a show that remains in syndication nearly 50 years after it first aired.
Being the son of famed Broadway actress Mary Martin, some might guess that Hagman simply has acting in his blood. But it took a little while before Hagman realized that he’d like to give the thespian life a shot.
“I Didn’t know my dad very well and I moved down (to Texas) with him from New York when I was 15. I went down there and wanted to be a cowboy,” Hagman said.
However, it didn’t take long to figure that the cowboy life isn’t all Stetson hats and cattle roping.
“I found out that cowboy work was usually digging ditches and bailing hay. I found out that the harder you work in manual labor, the less money you make. So I called up my mother and said, ‘I think I want to be an actor,’” Hagman said.
Stage acting became his predominant focus, as in the ’50s television hadn’t yet become a viable option for most actors. His first notable gig was with famed and influential stage director Margo Jones in Dallas, with whom he worked as an apprentice. From there he began doing regional work at theaters across the country with gigs in Florida and New Jersey that had him singing, dancing, acting, serving as prop manager and assistant stage manager.
While performing in “South Pacific” at London’s famed Drury Lane Theatre, Hagman was drafted to serve in the Korean War. So he enlisted in the Air Force and managed to keep the same apartment he’d been living in as a civilian.
Hagman began dabbling in television with a daytime soap opera in New York City called “Edge of Night,” which paved the way for his first major starring role in “I Dream of Jeannie.” But it was with “Dallas” that Hagman’s life was irrevocably changed, becoming an international sensation playing a character that everyone loved to hate.
But even as infamous as the character of J.R. became, Hagman said he always loved playing the part.
“They loved this guy. They hate him, too. I don’t know. The men want to be like him and women want to get him. I don’t know what it is about that character,” he said.
The character’s appeal, Hagman said, stems from the idea that viewers feel like they know someone like him.
“I think everybody has a jerk like that in the family, a father an uncle or cousin or someone like that and they could all relate to him. ‘Oh, that’s Uncle Fred, he’s such (a jerk),’” he said.
“Dallas” became a massive hit, in large part Hagman said, because it hit at the right time in history.
“It was the times, for one thing. There was a recession going on. It was the Reagan Recession, which everyone forgets about, but it was quite serious at the time. And people couldn’t afford to go out and get a babysitter and go out for dinner and a movie, they just couldn’t afford it. So they’d stay home on a Friday night and watch ‘Dallas,’” he said.
But it wasn’t just in the United States that people loved following the drama of “Dallas,” the show became a hit internationally, too.
And even though the television industry has changed dramatically over the course of his career, Hagman remains grateful for the opportunities he’s had to play such iconic characters.
“It’s been a wonderful ride,” he said.
“Larry Hagman: Confessions!” will be a one-night-only event at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 10. For more information or for tickets, call 903-566-7424 or visit www.cowancenter.org.