Following the sad news last weekend of the death of Larry Hagman (23rd November 2012) following complications from throat cancer, it has been announced that the TV series he helped turn into a global phenomenon will continue without the character that he became known for. What’s that? I hear you cry. Dallas without J.R? Are they sure? Is that possible? Wouldn’t that be like Othello without Iago, Harry Potter without Voldemort, The Three Little Pigs without the Big Bad Wolf?
The original series of Dallas ran for 357 episodes from April 1978 to May 1991 and in all that time, the character of John Ross Ewing, Jr. was at the show’s heart, essentially giving it a life-force, a reason for being. He seemed to give motive and motion to everyone else on the show. It’ll come as no surprise therefore that he was the only character to appear in every single episode and a quick study of the list of these episodes reveals that pretty much every plot and subplot included J.R. in some way, shape or form. Either he was scheming against somebody or somebody was scheming against him. He quickly became so important to the show that without him, the producers realised there would be no show. Indeed, during the summer of 1980 when the world was gripped by “Who shot J.R.?” fever, Larry Hagman threatened to leave the show if the producers would not meet his demands for a substantial hike in salary and realising his worth, they relented and made him one of the highest paid stars on television.
Whether or not you were ever a fan of the show (and for me growing up it was essential prime-time viewing – at least until the scriptwriting became notoriously lame), you cannot deny the iconic status that J.R. Ewing attained. He was the epitome of Mr Nasty, the greediest of all tycoons and one of the greatest fictional villains of all time and yet Hagman – who in real life was said by all who knew him to be the complete opposite of his alter-ego – portrayed the scheming oil-baron with such conviction and charm that he was a man we all loved to hate. He was the reason we tuned in each week, millions of us sharing a fervent loathing for this Machiavellian Texan who, let’s face it, was borderline psychopathic. When he was shot, we rejoiced en masse but not one of us wanted him to expire. It’s a credit to the actor to be able to pull this off, to be so despised and yet to be so admired and adored at the same time.
I groaned (maybe you did too) when the new series came out earlier this year that introduced a new generation of Ewings to the world but curiosity urged me to check it out. Yes, the originality was missing and the younger actors seemed no different to the tidal wave of actors playing characters we’ve seen in numerous shows over the past decade or so but it was great to see those original cast members again and to reacquaint ourselves with their character’s lives after twenty years in the wilderness. But for me, the main man was the only reason to watch. J.R. was now an octogenarian and he was frail but he was still consorting with the devil and he was still great to watch. There were a few scenes that I suspected Hagman to be reading his lines from a cue card but even then, and overall his performance was still magnetic, his lines still delivered with the character’s trademark amoral charisma.
The truth is, Larry Hagman was the reason I endured the sensational, silly, convoluted ten episodes of Dallas 2012 and now that he has passed away taking J.R. Ewing, Jr. with him, I’ll probably not bother tuning in to the future goings-on at Southfork.
Larry Hagman will undoubtably be missed by many but he has cemented his place in the annals of TV history for ever by giving the world J.R. Ewing and I think I can say with the utmost confidence that there will never be another character quite like him.