Hello Darlin’: The Career of Larry Hagman

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.

Photo: Idreamoflarry.com

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.

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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.

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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.

Searching for Tomorrow Photo: pinterest.com

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Hagman with Eden Photo: startsat60.com

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.”

Hagman with Gray and Duffy Photo: huffpost.com

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.

Moonlighting: An Unusual Romance

We are in the midst of our series about crime-solving duos. We looked at husband and wife teams on MacMillan and Wife and on Hart to Hart. Today we tackle the wise-cracking David Addison (Bruce Willis) and the sophisticated Maddie Hayes (Cybill Shepherd) on Moonlighting.

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Madelyn Hayes was a successful model who lost all her savings when her investment advisor left the country with her money. Her only assets are her house and a run-down detective agency she used for tax write-offs. Detective Addison convinces her to try something new and run the agency. Addison and Hayes agree on almost nothing except that they both think it’s important to find missing people, foil murder attempts, and spy on unfaithful spouses. Addison is a bit of a ladies’ man, carefree, and easy going; Maddie is not. David is a tap beer in a red cup and Maddie is an exotic champagne in a crystal goblet.

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Maddie renames the agency Blue Moon, which was the name of the shampoo she was best known for promoting.

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Rounding out the cast of characters are Agnes DiPesto (Allyce Beasley), the receptionist/secretary, and Herbert Viola (Curtis Armstrong), another gumshoe. These were both quirky characters but lovable in their own way. Agnes usually answered the phone in rhyme. Herb is well meaning but not the brightest light bulb. Later in the series, these two explore their own romance.

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The role of Maddie Hayes was written for Shepherd.

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Addison’s role was harder to fill. Robert Blake and Rick Dees were both considered for the role. Willis was one of the last people to audition for the spot; he was chosen from about 3000 actors.

Jazz great Al Jarreau cowrote and sang the theme song. The lyrics to the show are:

Some walk by night
Some fly by day
Nothing could change you
Set and sure of the way

There is the sun and moon
They sing their own sweet tune
Watch them when dawn is due
Sharing one space

We’ll walk by night
We’ll fly by day
Moonlighting strangers 
Who just met on the way

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Beginning in 1985 and running until 1989 on ABC in the Tuesday night time slot, the series resulted in only 66 episodes. The show was a new genre. It was a mystery and had drama and romance but was also intentionally funny. It can best be compared to some of the screwball comedies from the 1930s and ‘40s such as It Happened One Night, The Philadelphia Story, or His Girl Friday. The show was also recognized for creating some unusual plots and filming techniques. For example, in one episode, David and Maddie are told about a murder that occurred in a 1940s nightclub. Black and white dream sequences show us how each of them imagined the murder happening. The episode, “Atomic Shakespeare” is an adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew, performed in iambic pentameter. The show begins with a young boy being reprimanded by his mother for watching Moonlighting instead of studying for his Shakespeare test.

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Filming the shows was always expensive due to the specialized lighting and cinematic effects. The estimated cost per episode was a whopping $1.6 million. A typical script for a one-hour length show is about 60 pages. Scripts for Moonlighting tended to be twice as long. An episode from Moonlighting took 14 days rather than the average seven to film. The attention to detail and quality took its toll. Production delays occurred often, and shows weren’t completed in time for airing, resulting in reruns when only 16 of the required 22 episodes were finished each year.

It didn’t help that Shepherd became pregnant during the run of the show, and Willis broke his clavicle skiing. Both of these situations added to the delays. It got so ridiculous that it became a running gag. ABC had an ad campaign showing network executives impatiently waiting for the most recent Moonlighting tape. Television Jeff Jarvis narrated an introduction to one show, telling viewers he wanted to summarize what had been happening on the show that year because it had been so long since a new show had aired.

Despite the problems with filming, both viewers and critics loved the show. Moonlighting received 41 Emmy nominations with 7 wins including one for Willis for Lead Actor in a Drama. In season three, ratings went from 20th place to 9th place.

During the fourth season, Maddie and David finally get together, ending the sexual tension and back-and-forth attraction between the two characters. The ratings then began to decline a bit, but the show still came in at 12th place.

The reason for the ratings drop in the final season, as well as the eventual cancellation of the show, was usually placed on the two stars and their relationship. It’s amazing how much chemistry the characters had because they did not get along well from the start, and it only got worse as the series continued. By the fourth season, they were rarely on the set at the same time. Willis was also developing into a movie star, and after Die Hard, he didn’t want to continue dealing with all the negative issues the show produced.

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The finale includes Agnes and Herb’s wedding and a weird plot where David and Maddie find the Blue Moon sets being dismantled and learn that the show has been cancelled. The two stars try to figure out what is happening, and the show ends with a message that Blue Moon ceased doing business in 1989.

The limited number of shows made it unpopular for syndication. The series was released on DVD, but they are hard to find and very expensive. On ebay.com, the complete series was going for $250. Amazon listed season three for $99 and season four for $149.

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The show was an interesting concept. With actors breaking the fourth wall to talk directly to the audience, the interesting plot themes, cinematic lighting and filming techniques, the quick and witty banter between David and Maddie, and the cultural and literature references, it’s not like any show that has aired before or since. It’s always hard when you have two characters attracted to each other when trying to decide if they get together or not. If they do, the audience is often disenchanted with the show; if they don’t, it can drag on too long, so it’s a hard timing to get right. It’s too bad the DVDs are so pricey, especially since syndication was not an option for the show. The characters hit it off perfectly even if the stars did not. There are a lot of factors that made this show special.

MacMillan and Wife: The Show That Bridged the Generation Gap

Before launching into this week’s topic, I wanted to say thank you to everyone who has been following and reading my blog. This week begins my fourth year writing this blog. I was worried I would find enough topics to fill the first year but next year is already outlined, so another year of classic television is on the way. It has been a lot of fun, and I’ve learned a lot.

This month we are looking at crime-solving duos.  We start our series learning a bit more about McMillan and Wife. McMillan and Wife began as part of The Sunday NBC Mystery Movie which included Columbo and McCloud. The shows rotated each week, so fewer episodes were produced of each than a typical weekly show.

Photo: memorabletv.com

McMillan and Wife debuted in 1971 and was on the air until 1977, yet only forty episodes were produced. Leonard Stern was the creator, writer, and executive producer of the show; he previously produced Get Smart.

Photo: imdb.com

Stewart “Mac” McMillan (Rock Hudson) was an attorney and US Navy veteran who apparently had been involved in some CIA activities. He is now Commissioner of Police in San Francisco. He gets involved in high-profile cases. His wife is Sally (Susan St. James), and her father was a detective for the San Francisco Police Department; she learned a lot from him and helps her husband solve crimes. Sargent Charlie Enright (John Schuck) helps Mac with his cases. Sally and Mac have no children (it’s confusing because Sally was pregnant twice on the show, but the children are never mentioned in the show later). Their housekeeper Mildred (Nancy Walker) also lives with the couple. Mildred’s character resembles the role Thelma Ritter played in Pillow Talk, where Hudson starred with Doris Day. She is a sarcastic, hard-drinking woman and is always ready to offer her opinion, but she is devoted to Mac and Sally.

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Once Hudson was cast as Mac, the show got priority in development. Several actresses were considered for the role of Sally, including Diane Keaton and Jill Clayburgh, but Hudson was most comfortable with St. James.

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Hudson was 21 years older than St. James, but their relationship worked. Mac is supposed to be in his 40s and Sally in her 20s (he was 46 at the time and she was 25). Sally is self-confident and is not afraid to speak her mind. However, she is also a wife who loves her husband, and one of the running gags on the show is that Mac had dated a lot of women in his past, and when Mac and Sally are out and about, they typically run into some gorgeous woman who says, “Hi Mac.” Sally usually responds with a jealous comment or a withering look. The difference in their ages actually worked well for demographics. Hudson appealed to older viewers while St. James attracted younger viewers.

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Often the cases Mac solves happen during events the couple attends. One episode featured a burglary at a charity event they were attending; once they found a skeleton in their house after an earthquake. Another show had Mac abducted by mobsters and replaced with a surgically-made twin replacing him.

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An interesting fact is that the interior of their house in the pilot episode was in fact Hudson’s home. In the first regular episode, the MacMillans bought a new house. In the final season, the setting changed to an apartment.

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Sally and Mac led a glamorous life. The scripts were well written, and the dialogue was witty and clever. The couple was often compared to Nick and Nora Charles in the Thin Man movies. Mac and Sally have a lot of their best conversations after they go to bed at night.

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Sally was known for wearing a football jersey for her nightgown. The jersey was an authentic 49ers Jersey, number 18, George Washington, a wide receiver. Washington was a four-time Pro Bowler. He made a guest appearance on the show in season four, “Guilt by Association.”

Considering that there were only forty episodes produced, this show had an incredible number of guest stars. I apologize for the long list, but it’s the only way to capture how impressive it is. The stars included sport celebrities Dick Butkus, Rosie Grier, Alex Karras, and Bobbie Riggs.

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It also featured a Who’s Who of television sitcom royalty: John Astin, Meredith Baxter, Tom Bosley, Michael Constantine, Bert Convy, Wally Cox, Richard Deacon, William Demarest, Donna Douglas, Barbara Feldon, Norman Fell, Buddy Hackett, Larry Hagman, Alan Hale, Shirley Jones, Stacy Keach, Bernie Kopell, Julie Newmar, Charlotte Rae, Charles Nelson Reilly, Dick Sargent, Natalie Schafer, Susan Sullivan, Karen Valentine, and Dick Van Patten.

The show, like McCloud and Columbo, was quite popular with viewers. The ratings were impressive until the sixth season.

Unfortunately, the last season had too many changes to overcome. St. James decided to leave to concentrate on her movie career. Schuck left to star in the sitcom, Holmes and Yo-Yo, and Walker left for her own sitcom, The Nancy Walker Show. Sadly, Walker and Schuck would have been better off staying because both their shows lasted only 13 episodes. St. James starred in a couple of movies, but they weren’t anything memorable. She would go on to star in Kate and Allie in 1984.

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On the show, Sally was killed in an airplane crash. Mildred was said to leave to open a diner, so her sister Agatha (Martha Raye) took over her job. Schuck made a few appearances but was said to have been given a promotion to lieutenant which kept him too busy to assist Mac much. The show may have been able to overcome one of these changes but not all of them. Much of the strength of the show was the relationship between Mac and Sally. Walker’s funny bantering and actions provided a comedic relief for the show. When Raye took over, she was just scatterbrained and loud; the appeal of Walker was not part of her character.

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It’s wonderful the show lasted five good seasons, but it might have lasted many more if the original cast had been retained. At the other end of the spectrum, Columbo aired off and on until 2003 and is remembered by more viewers.

DVDs were released for all six seasons between 2005 and 2014. With only forty shows in the series, this would be a fun binge-watching week-end show to tackle.