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.

Photo: hollywoodreporter.com

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.

Photo: tvseriesfinale.com

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.

Photo: nytimes.com

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.

Photo: latimes.com

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.

Honoring National West Virginia Day with Don Knotts

As we continue with our National State Day Celebrations, this week finds us in West Virginia. Who else can we pick but Don Knotts?

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Born in 1924 in Morgantown, WV, Don Knotts was the youngest of four boys. Don had a rough youth. His parents were farmers and his mother was 40 when he was born. His father suffered from mental illness, and Don’s birth led to a nervous breakdown. His father died when he was 13 and his mother made her living running a boarding house after that. At an early age, Don began performing as a ventriloquist and comedian at church and school functions.

After graduation, Knotts began college but then enlisted in the army, serving during WWII from 1943-1946. He toured the Pacific Islands entertaining the GIs as a comedian. In 1948 he graduated from West Virginia University with a major in education, a member of the honor society.

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Photo: pinterest.com

Before graduating, Knotts married Kathryn Metz. They would remain married until 1964 when they divorced. After college, the couple moved to New York to pursue a career in the entertainment industry.

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Steve Allen, Knotts, and Louis Nye–Photo: ebay.com

Believe it or not, his first role was in the soap opera Search for Tomorrow, and he would become part of the cast from 1953-1955. In 1956, he got his big break on the Steve Allen Show, playing a nervous man. He stayed with the show until 1959. The Tonight Show relocated to Hollywood with Jack Paar as host in 1959, and Don went with him. However, during his time on the show, he had a role in the play “No Time for Sergeants” and then in the film version with Andy Griffith.

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Andy Griffith and Knotts-Photo: tvseriesfinales.com

In 1960 Andy Griffith was putting together his own sitcom, The Andy Griffith Show, and he offered Knotts the role of Barney Fife, deputy. During his time as Barney, Knotts received five Emmy awards (three during his first five years).

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Photo: bobshideout.com

The Museum of Broadcast Communications sums up Barney’s character perfectly:

“Self-important, romantic, and nearly always wrong, Barney dreamed of the day he could use the one bullet Andy had issued to him, though he did fire his gun on a few occasions. He always fired his pistol accidentally while still in his holster or in the ceiling of the court house, at which point he would sadly hand his pistol to Andy. This is why Barney kept his one very shiny bullet in his shirt pocket. In episode #196, Andy gave Barney more bullets so that he would have a loaded gun to go after a bad guy that Barney unintentionally helped escape. While Barney was forever frustrated that Mayberry was too small for the delusional ideas that he had of himself, viewers got the sense that he couldn’t have survived anywhere else. Don Knotts played the comic and pathetic sides of the character with equal aplomb.”

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Mayberry Family: Knotts, Ron Howard, Griffith, Frances Bauvier–
Photo: tvtropes.com

Originally, Don was supposed to be the straight man to Andy’s character, but Griffith quickly realized the reverse would make the show more successful. Andy always said he wanted to be done after five years. During that fifth year, Knotts began to search for his next job. He signed a five-film contract with Universal Studios. Then, Andy decided not to quit after season five, but since Knotts was already committed, he left the show in 1965.

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Knotts with Betty Lynn–Photo: mesquitelocalnews.com

From everything I’ve read, it seems like the cast of TAGS got along very well. Although Frances Bavier seemed to take things more personally than others, the actors seemed to enjoy working together. Betty Lynn who played Barney’s girlfriend Thelma Lou described Knotts as “a very quiet man. Very sweet. Nothing like Barney Fife.” Mark Evanier, a television writer, called him “the most beloved person in all of show business.”

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Knotts family-viewable films were very popular including It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World; The Incredible Mr. Limpet; The Ghost and Mr. Chicken; The Reluctant Astronaut; The Shakiest Gun in the West; The Love God?; and How to Frame a Figg.

One of my favorite roles of Don’s was as the shoe salesman in the Doris Day-James Garner movie, Move Over Darling.

He also returned to Mayberry for several episodes. (Two of his Emmys came from these guest spots.)

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Doris Day and Knotts–
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Knotts also kept busy on other television shows including appearances on The Bill Cosby Show, Here’s Lucy, Fantasy Island, The Love Boat, Newhart, and That Seventies Show.

Also, during these years, Knotts tried marriage again wedding Loralee Czuchna in 1974. The couple called it quits in 1983.

He received his second starring role in 1979 as Mr. Furley on Three’s Company. Knotts replaced Stanley and Helen Roper (Norman Fell and Audra Lindley) who left for their own spin-off show.

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Suzanne Somers and Knotts–
Photo: history garage.com

He became the new landlord for the trio upstairs. He would stay with the show until it ended in 1984, racking up 115 episodes. I will admit that I did not enjoy the show, and I felt Knott’s performance was over the top and too stereotyped; I felt that way about the other characters also.

Don and Andy remained close friends throughout their lives. When Andy returned to television as Matlock, Knotts also received a role on the show as Les Calhoun, Matlock’s neighbor from 1988-1992.

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Knotts and Griffith in later years–
Photo: sitcomsonline.com

Don suffered from macular degeneration, and eventually it caused him to become virtually blind. In 2002 Don married a third time when Frances Yarborough became his wife.

Knotts died in 2006 from pulmonary and respiratory complications from pneumonia related to lung cancer.

Off screen, Knotts seemed to be a very funny guy. His daughter Karen said, “Here’s the thing about my dad. He had this funniness that was just completely, insanely natural.”

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Photo: directexpose.com

He told his daughter his high school years were some of his happiest. His home town loved him too, and a statue honoring him was unveiled in 2006 in front of the Metropolitan Theatre. The statue was designed by local artist Jamie Lester, another West Virginia native.

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Photo: guardianlv.com

Don Knotts had a spectacular career. As a young man, he got a job in a chicken factory and spent his days pulling feathers off dead chickens because he was told he had no future in the acting profession. It would have been hard for him to imagine at the time the legacy of performances he would leave—television shows and movies that generations of fans would watch. More than sixty years after Barney Fife put that bullet in his pocket for the first time, viewers continue to watch and love the Mayberry residents as they go about life in their small town. And the fact that the place where he first learned about life cared enough to fundraise and build a memorial to honor him says a lot. Thank you Don Knotts for showing us the importance of humor and following your dreams!