This month we are taking a close-up of five famous television male stars. If you were a television fan in the sixties, you will remember Larry Hagman as Tony on I Dream of Jeannie. If you watched Dallas in the eighties, you will remember him as the cad J.R. Ewing. However, Hagman had more than 100 acting credits and several other television starring roles, as well as credits as a producer and director. We’ll learn more about his career and these forgotten shows in this blog.
Hagman was born in 1931 in Texas. His father was an accountant and lawyer who became a DA. His mother was the famous actress, Mary Martin. His parents divorced when he was five. When his mother received a Paramount contract, he lived with his maternal grandmother in Texas and California.
When Larry was nine, his mother married Richard Halliday. The couple had a baby in 1941, but Larry was sent to an academy, Black Foxe Military Institute and later to Woodstock Country School in Vermont.
His mother resumed her Broadway career in New York City, so Larry lived with his grandmother in California until she passed away when he was sent to live with his mother.
Larry moved to back to Weatherford, his home town, to attend high school, and he graduated from there. Larry’s father wanted him to become a lawyer and join his practice. Larry worked for an oilfield equipment manufacturer for a summer, but was drawn to the acting profession. In the fall of 1949, he enrolled in Bard College in New York to major in drama and dance but he dropped out after his freshman year.
In 1950, Larry took on acting roles at Margaret Webster’s school, The Woodstock Playhouse in New York. The summer after his freshman year, he worked in Dallas as a production assistant and did some acting in Margo Jones’s theater company. He then traveled a bit with the St. John Terrell’s Music Circus. From 1951-1952, he appeared in “South Pacific” with his mother in London.
The following year, Hagman received his draft notice and enlisted in the Air Force. He was stationed in London and spent most of his military service entertaining troops in Europe.
In 1954, Larry married Maj Axelsson. She grew up in Sweden and they met in London. They had two children and were longtime residents of Malibu, California. They were married until his death.
When he left the Air Force in 1956, he returned to New York City, appearing in a couple of off-Broadway plays. His wife made costumes for a variety of productions. In 1957, Hagman received his first television roles, appearing in West Point, Goodyear Playhouse, Studio One, and Omnibus. His Broadway debut was in “Comes a Day” in 1958.
Larry continued his dual Broadway and television careers through the remainder of the fifties. One of his roles was on Decoy, which was the first crime drama to star a female police officer (Beverly Garland) and he portrayed three different characters on Sea Hunt.
In 1960 he had his first recurring role as Cliff Williams on Search for Tomorrow.
In 1964, he made began receiving offers to act on the big screen. He appeared in The Cavern, Ensign Pulver, and Fail Safe that year.
Hagman had been a heavy smoker but quit in 1965. He later became the chairman of both the American Cancer Society and the Great American Smokeout.
The next year, he received the role that made him a household name: Captain Anthony Nelson on I Dream of Jeannie. He rejoined the Air Force, but this time in a fictional service. The show was on the air for five seasons.
Two reunion movies were made later (I Dream of Jeannie: 15 Years Later in 1985 and I Still Dream of Jeannie in 1991), but Hagman was not in the cast. I read that he was busy with Dallas and family vacations during the times the movies were filmed. They did not replace his character; they focused more on Roger, Jeannie, and Tony’s son with Tony being unavailable on assignment. However, Hagman did appear with Bill Daily and Barbara Eden in several reunion-type shows, and he and Eden remained good friends.
When the show ended, Hagman took on various guest spots on shows including Love American Style. A year later, he again tried a sitcom role. He was cast as Albert Miller in The Good Life. He starred with Donna Mills as a couple who pose as servants. The show lasted a season before being canceled.
A year later there was a repeat of the cycle when he starred in Here We Go Again with Diana Baker as a newlywed couple moves into a home located near both their former spouses’ homes. Again, it lasted one season.
I read that his mother was forced to kick him out of the house when he lived with her and his stepfather because of his heavy drinking. After the cancellation of this show, his father passed away and he reconciled with his mother.
For most of the seventies, he continued guest starring in television shows including Marcus Welby, Barnaby Jones, MacMillan and Wife, and The Rockford Files and big-screen movies including Harry and Tonto and Superman.
An entire new group of fans began watching Larry from 1978-1991 when he appeared as one of the major characters on Dallas. Two of the most-watched television episodes were the cliffhanger episode, “A House Divided” from 1980 when JR was shot (but viewers did not know who did it) and “Who Done It” when it was revealed that the shooter was his sister-in-law and mistress, Kristin.
Hagman was nominated for two Emmy Awards for his portrayal of JR in 1980 and 1981. He was beat out by Ed Asner for Lou Grant in 1980 and Daniel J. Travanti for Hill Street Blues in 1981.
Unlike I Dream of Jeannie, when reunion Dallas movies were made in 1996 and 1998, Hagman was part of the cast and listed as producer.
Larry always said Dallas was his favorite show, and he loved being a part of it. Both his children appeared on the show. His old costar Barbara Eden joined the cast for the final season as Lee Ann, fittingly as a character from JR’s past. The show was filmed at Southfork Ranch in Texas and after his death, Larry’s ashes were scattered there.
In an unusual reboot, Hagman reprised his role of Ewing on a new Dallas from 2012-2013.
Between the original and reboot of Dallas, Hagman once again received offers to star in two new series. One was Orleans in 1997 when he played Judge Luther Charbonnet. Unfortunately, the series only lasted for eight episodes, but he received some of the best reviews of his career for the role. In 2006, he took on the role of Burt Landau on Nip and Tuck which lasted one season.
Hagman also wore a directing hat. He began directing three episodes of I Dream of Jeannie in 1967. He would also direct two episodes of The Good Life, 32 episodes of Dallas (he also was listed as producer for 74 episodes), seven episodes of In The Heat of the Night in the early nineties starring one of his best friends Carroll O’Connor, and one feature film: Beware! The Blob which was a sequel to the cult classic 1958 horror film, The Blob. He produced a made-for-tv movie in 1993 called Staying Afloat which he also starred in. The plot was that Alex, a millionaire’s son, has trouble managing money so his father cuts him off. The IRS is pursuing him, and he has a lot of debt when an FBI agent offers to help with his financial issues if Alex becomes a government informant to take down a man who once burned Alex and he happily agrees.
In 1995, Hagman had a liver transplant after being diagnosed with liver cancer. He also had cirrhosis of the liver which was a result of heavy drinking. He had stopped drinking earlier in his life, but the damage was done.
In 2001, Larry added author to his resume after writing Hello Darlin’: Tall (And Absolutely True) Tales About My Life. In 2007, he gave an interview, sharing his passion for alternative energy creation. He and his wife had a solar-powered, energy-efficient home named “Heaven” in Ojai, California, where they promoted a green lifestyle. The couple also owned a home in Sundsvall, Sweden, her hometown and they visited there often.
In 2008, Maj was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Hagman cared for her as long as possible, but she required 24-hour nursing care by 2010.
The following year, Hagman learned he had Stage 2 throat cancer. He had the tumor removed and went into remission. In 2012, he was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome, a preleukemia condition. The actor died in November from acute myeloid leukemia.
His friend Barbara Eden said, “Larry was one of the most intelligent actors I ever worked with.” Later she said that their on-screen chemistry on the set of Jeannie was not just work and their timing was right. She could not explain it; it was wonderful.
Two of his Dallas castmates were at his bedside when he passed away. Linda Gray who played his wife on the show said Larry was “her best friend for 35 years” and that “he brought joy to everyone he knew. He was creative, generous, funny, loving, and talented and I will miss him enormously. He was an original and lived life to the fullest.” His brother on the show was played by Patrick Duffy who said “Friday I lost one of the greatest friends to ever grace my life. The loneliness is only what is difficult, as Larry’s peace and comfort is always what is important to me.”
Fans reported that Hagman often had people who requested his autograph tell him a joke or sing him a song first.
Hagman said his idols were Jack Benny, John Wayne, Dick Powell, and his future Dallas castmates, Barbara Bel Geddes and Jim Davis. He credited his good friend Carrol O’Connor as his acting mentor, saying that, “Carroll is really my mentor. He knows more about show business than any other actor I know.” During his Dallas years, he paid that back by mentoring several coworkers including Charlene Tilton.
Hagman also enjoyed hunting, backpacking, fishing, skiing, sailing, golfing, and collecting canes, hats, flags, and art. I’m so glad that he was not typecast as Tony and was able to continue his career with several other sitcoms and that he truly enjoyed his many years associated with Dallas. When you love what you are doing, people love you for doing it.