Larry Hagman’s “J.R.,” Pop Culture Icon

WASHINGTON – No one represented the good old excess of the 1980s better than “J.R. Ewing” in the soap opera mega hit Dallas. And no character actor made the the marauding oil tycoon come alive with the beating heart and soulless guile more thoroughly than Larry Hagman. Today, he’s being remembered across social media, which of course begins with Twitter.

In his memoir, Hello Darlin’, Mr. Hagman said, “Ronald Reagan was campaigning against Jimmy Carter, American hostages were being held in Iran, Polish shipyard workers were on strike, and all anyone wanted to know was, who shot J.R.?” [Dallas News]

When the famous prime time soap reinvented itself on TNT this year, Hagman was once again present, because Dallas wouldn’t be Dallas without him, even if it was just a cameo. Who knows if the show will make it, the attention span of TV viewers different today than in decades past. But true to the original, the new Dallas did its best to deliver human treachery and even succeeded, with Patrick Duffy delivering the lead patriarchal force this time ’round, which in the business of the oil rich and TV infamous wouldn’t have been possible without Hagman’s presence, too, however small.

Throughout the summer of 1980, the world hung on the question “Who shot J.R.?” The ultimate TV cliffhanger aired on March 21, 1980, when an unseen assailant shot J.R. Ewing twice.

As everyone waited to find out who the shooter was, Mr. Hagman had an epiphany that would pave the way for TV giants such as Jerry Seinfeld and the cast of Friends to get a larger share of the profits from their shows.

[...] The world was filled with J.R. T-shirts, coffee mugs and bumper stickers.

“Everyone was making a windfall from J.R. except me,” he said.

He threatened to leave the show if his contract were not renegotiated.

After months of tense negotiations, he was finally given his $100,000 per episode asking price.

Hagman rocketed to TV stardom in I Dream of Jeannie, but also appeared in Otto Preminger’s In Harm’s Way, which happens to be on my favorite film list.

One of the guilty pleasures in life is great TV dramas, especially for those of us raised on the medium of television. It is the most democratic form of entertainment, the great leveler that connects us all to the American cultural scene in the comforts of our home. Cable, Direct TV and the internet has altered the means by which we tap in, but prime time soap operas remain a great American pastime. Even though today the web and social media, including aps and iTunes, change the way we watch our favorite indulgences, we still tune in, whether it’s the drama and music of Nashville, the political intrigue of Scandal, or the pay cable offering of Homeland, which mixes international terrorism and drama with old fashioned forbidden sex, love and betrayal.

There will always be people who can’t live on reality TV alone, preferring commentary on the country in which we live and the times we’re traversing, even if it’s not all that pretty to accept the characters that depict who we are.

I was one of the millions who loved to hate “J.R.” Sometimes cultural phenomenons like Dallas strike a note that represents something beyond the cultural landscape, to include something deeper in the American psyche that’s being recreated as a mirror image of real life drama being played out across the country. No one made the depiction of the greedy oil man possible more than Larry Hagman, because without his portrayal of “J.R. Ewing” Dallas would never have been what it became. That he managed to also represent the 1980s “greed is good” mentality of the rich and the famous became the gateway of a larger story that played out throughout that decade.

Godspeed, sir. For what it’s worth, you made your mark.

Taylor Marsh, is a veteran political analyst, a former Huffington Post contributor, Broadway babe and talk radio dabbler, and is the author of The Hillary Effect, available at Barnes and Noble and on Amazon. Her new-media magazine www.taylormarsh.com covers national politics, women, foreign policy, and the politics of sex.

Submit a Comment