Saturday, November 24, 2012
Remembering Larry Hagman
Mary Martin liked to tell the story of the phone call she once got from one of her son Larry Hagman's teachers.
Miss Martin had been unable to attend a home and school interview concerning Hagman's marks and when asked why the ever sly Larry (then a teenager) retorted :"My mother is busy these days running around with a fairy known as Tinker Bell."
Panic ensued and Miss Martin was telephoned by the principal and asked to explain herself.
As Martin told me: "It was all so very true but it was the way Larry told it that sparked the crisis."
Martin was, of course, the Broadway luminary of such hits as South Pacific and The Sound Of Music.
And indeed she had been acting up with a fairy named Tinker Bell but that was in the long Broadway run of the musical Peter Pan.
And that's the first thing about Hagman one must understand: he was the son of one of show business's iconic figures.
But even so Hagman would surpass all his mother's fame when he became Texas oilman J.R Ewing.
Hagman passed away on Friday from the effects of throat cancer at 81 as he was starring in a cable TV revival of Dallas. And his death as J.R. will accordingly be written into the script.
I should tell you I first met Hagman on the set of a very pleasant but thin 1972 NBC TV sitcom titled The Good Life where his co-star was Donna Mills. That was years both became famous prime time soap villains. Mills co-starred on the Dallas spinoff Knots Landing.
And even then Hagman had a past. Born in Texas in 1931 he had started out as a stage extra in his mother's long running Broadway hit South Pacific. He'd first hit TV in 1957 in the series Decoy and even played a recurring part on Search For Tomorrow in 1957.
"Hell, I even did Sea Hunt to make ends meet," he joked. Think of it --J.R. snorkeling! But he hadn't
made it there either and in 1961 commenced a two-year run on the CBS soap Edge Of Night.
In 1965 opposite Barbara Eden he'd turned I Dream Of Jeannie into a solid five year hit that ran 139 episode and is still see in reruns. But the flop of The Good Life had dimmed his TV stardom.
He didn't hit in big again until Dallas which premiered on CBS in April 1978 and was not a hit.
Initially the story revolved around patriarch Jock Ewing (Jim Davis) and his long suffering wife Miss Ellie (Barbara Bel Geddes).
Cast as the covetous son J.R. Hagman told me he was marking time --eventually he struck by ad-libbing great gobs of dialogue, acting outrageously, making sure J.R, was the firm focus of every hour.
That's when I first met Hagman in the summer of 1978 as 100 U.S. TV critics-- and me-- boarded buses to Hagman's Malibu retreat for a night of wild partying.
At the door greeting one and all stood Mary Martin who whispered to me: "Larry is a sensation, true, but I'm the real luminary here."
As the night wore on she became miffed she wasn't asked to sing and I was able to talk to her for the longest time out on the balcony.
Larry's living room was entirely a huge hot tub and scribes had to strip to their underwear and dive in to get exclusive quotes from Larry holding court in a swim suit and holding a gigantic glass of brandy.
Later on he ran up and down the sandy beach with a flag of Texas as next door neighbor Burgess Meredith peered at the mess created by a faltering septic tank and roared "You're all pigs!"
But the evening ended when a New York critic was discovered in Hagman's bedroom counting the number of underwear shorts in Larry's drawers --he was promptly expelled from the tour for years to come.
In fact we critics did make a return visit to Malibu in 1984 when Donna Reed joined the case as the new Miss Ellie. Hagman's antics at his house were just as outrageous as ever but the absence of most cast members was noted.
And Reed only lasted a year until Barbara Bel Geddes returned from heart surgery.
What really made Dallas take off was the brilliant 1980 CBS publicity ploy of "Who Shot J.R.?" In fact Hagman had asked for too much money and CBS balked and had Robert Culp ready to stand by and take over.
By accident I bumped into Culp that summer on the press tour and he spilled the beans and then begged me not to say anything. And, of course, Larry did finally settle and the show lasted another decade.
Hagman tried yet another series as Judge Luther Charbonnet in New Orleans which ran all of six episodes in 1997.
He guested on other people's shows until Dallas was revived last season on cable. As usual J.R. was supposed to be in support but nobody bother to tell Larry.
He dominated every scene through sheer force of personality and he was at it again filming a second season before death finally claimed him.
Hagman once said he thought of death as simply the last cancellation but how great it happened in the middle of another personal triumph.