Like many people around the world, I was saddened by the news just after Thanksgiving that someone who had caught the fascination of 300 million people in my youth had ended his adventure on this earth.
I too wondered for a summer “Who Shot J.R.?”
It would be years later that I would learn some of the behind the scenes wrangling being conducted as J.R. merchandise flew off the shelves helping to make “Dallas” more than just a night time soap but rather a piece of Americana that would place its stars among the best known actors in television history and leading the way was Larry Hagman.
I had come to know Larry as the astronaut Maj. Nelson that found Barbara Eden’s Jeannie on a beach and then spent years at her mercy as it were while pretending to the her master.
I officially met the actor Larry Hagman after he was bringing his first run as “J.R. Ewing” to a close. He was a close friend to my boss and mentor Carroll O’Connor and so as part of his transition he came to “In the Heat of the Night” as a director under which I was honored to act.
I found him to be a man truly searching to change the direction of his life and use his remaining time to be a positive force in the world. In the intermittent times I was around him over the next couple of years, I saw him navigate a new direction that I believe ultimately gave him the opportunity to reach 81 years and to once again play “J.R.” on the most recent TNT version of the series.
I came to know a man that would leave a waitress a tip that was 400 percent of the bill. I came to know a man that when a child asked for an autograph, he would ask them for something in return. I would hear him say, “ Give me a poem, a scripture, or a song in exchange.” His thinking was that if the child had to earn it, then it would mean more to them and in his way he was encouraging the youth into not expecting something for nothing.
He was such a gracious director, encouraging the actors into being brave with their choices even when it might go against common practices on our set. I remember we had a very tight rein on us relating to changing dialogue without Carroll’s approval.
In one of the scenes where I was featured, I remember a discussion about getting approval for a change Larry wanted to make. Out or respect to both of them, I will leave out the comment he made when someone said it needed to be run by Carroll but needless to say in J.R. Ewing style, he simply did it his way.
While we visited, he shared with me many stories of his experiences on “Dallas,” and his work on “I Dream of Jeannie” and even how he didn’t do the reunion for “I Dream of Jeannie.”
Larry went out of his way to very supportive of me as an actor on the set and even once he went home, if I called upon him for some assistance, a bit of advice, he wouldn’t hesitate. He didn’t even mind me calling him at home. He even shared with me some time later that he had become a fan of my music.
Larry continued working because that’s what he loved to do. If I had one regret, it is that I never got to work on screen with Larry. I am however extremely pleased to know that he was back playing “J.R” again in his last couple of years. I know he was having a ball.
It is easy to see that even today, he was still working to make a difference and in his last months, he had created the Larry Hagman Foundation, an organization funding educational programs that promote fine arts and creative learning opportunities for economically disadvantaged children in Dallas, Texas.
I began my professional television career as a youth in Dallas as part of the cast of the “Country Kids TV Series,” so I am especially excited to see the legacy that Larry created continue there.
I encourage you, if Larry Hagman ever brought you and your family one-minute of joy and entertainment with his work that you will take the time to donate to this wonderful effort in memory of a great man, a tremendous friend and a great encourager.
Visit www.larryhagman.com to learn more about his efforts and please keep his wife Maj and their wonderful family in your prayers in the coming days. The second season of TNT’s “Dallas” will begin airing on Jan. 28, 2013 and of course you will be able to see Larry in his element as the final episodes featuring “J.R.” air.