Happy birthday, Larry Hagman!
Published 22/09/2012 | 06:00
The apparently indestructible Larry Hagman celebrates his 81st birthday today, reaching a milestone he himself regards as being little short of miraculous.
The star of born-again soap Dallas will be at his Malibu mansion in California, where each of his six cars -- including a brand-new Ferrari -- carries the defiantly cheerful bumper-sticker "Hagman Lives!"
As the Texan-born actor is fond of saying, when introducing himself to crowds: "I'm happy to be here. I'm happy to be anywhere. I'm not kidding."
Only recently treated for cancer, for the second time, the actor needed a life-saving liver transplant in 1995 after decades of alcoholism and then underwent two further, high-risk operations after it became infected.
A chronic drinker and smoker for decades, Hagman has talked openly about his reckless lifestyle, his slide back into drinking (although he now says he is 100pc on the wagon) and how he has said goodbye to his family on numerous occasions, fearing the worst.
Always eccentric (the LA gossip-pages call him the "Mad Monk of Malibu"), the actor now known to two generations of TV viewers as JR Ewing will celebrate his birthday with a glass of orange juice and possibly something stronger, having recently talked about his use of medical marijuana.
Now in recovery from throat cancer, (he was undergoing treatment while he began working on the new series of Dallas) the son of a Texan attorney and a Broadway actress says he views medical marijuana as "much better than smoking or alcohol and it hasn't killed anyone".
Hagman looks on marijuana as a "medicine," saying, "the cancer and the chemotherapy really took it out of me".
The veteran actor lost just over two stone and his weight plunged to just over 12 stone.
"Marijuana actually brought my appetite back," he says.
In characteristic style, Hagman's plans for leaving this world are eccentric.
The actor has said that when he goes, he would like to have his mortal remains put through a wood chipper and then put to good use, an idea partly inspired by a cult movie.
"I would like to be minced. Did you ever see Fargo, when they put the guy in the chipper and his feet are sticking out?" said Hagman after his last big medical scare.
"Then I would like to be spread over half an acre of land. Then I want to spread some wheat over there, and then some marijuana seeds.
"At the end of the year you harvest me for a huge cake -- and serve it up for my birthday.
"I want a big party for guests to come and dance for three days. I have had a wonderful life. It's been so good and so blessed.
"If I have a fault it is that I take life too humorously. If you look at the funny side, it is pretty funny most of the time. I am rich, I am alive and I am living well."
Hagman has had his share of personal heartbreak in recent years. His wife of 57 years, Swedish-born Maj Axelsson (they have two children), was diagnosed with Alzheimer's three years ago. And last year, he put her into a residential care centre when he was no longer able to care for her at their home.
After taking that decision, he said: "Her Alzheimer's hasn't yet robbed her of the knowledge of who I am," he said. "But I dread that day. It's a cruel disease. That's why Dallas is good for me. It made my name the first time around. Now I believe it will save me by keeping me busy and working."
He is very much a recovering alcoholic, admitting to brief lapses after his liver transplant, even if it was "a half-pint of beer once a month with a salad", but now says that he has known for some time that he can never drink again.
"I don't need alcohol any longer and I don't crave it. It might start me again," he says.
"I don't want to disgrace the AA movement by going back into that sort of behaviour.
"I don't hate myself for it. I have never hated myself for anything -- which is maybe part of the problem."
He can trace his alcoholism back to his first drink in his native Forth Worth, Texas, at 15, when he was working as a ranch-hand on a cattle farm owned by a family friend. The boozing started to get serious after a stint in the US Air Force, when he went into acting and became a huge star through the long-running '60s TV series I Dream of Jeannie.
And by the time he was a global star, as JR Ewing in Dallas in the '80s, Hagman was getting through four bottles of champagne a day, along with the drink he regarded as his "vitamins": vodka and orange. He was rarely sober on the Dallas set, but was the only cast member featured in all 357 episodes of the original series.
Very much involved in the counter-culture Hollywood scene of the '60s, Hagman was introduced to marijuana by Jack Nicholson, who thought it might curb his heavy drinking, and dropped acid with Peter Fonda and the musician David Crosby on one occasion, backstage at a Crosby, Stills & Nash concert in LA.
Hagman, who became world famous as the archetypal Texas oilman, has also held the kind of political views that would have JR reaching for his shotgun. He has been a long-time supporter of alternative energy, including solar and wind power.
And in 2003, he told a German TV interviewer of his views on his fellow Texan, and then president George W Bush, saying: "He's a sad figure, not too well educated. He doesn't get out of America much. He's leading the country towards fascism."
When the startled interviewer asked the Texan actor if he was concerned that these views might get him into trouble back home, Hagman nonchalantly said: "It's all the same to me.
"He wouldn't understand the word fascism anyway."
A maverick, a survivor and an actor who has perhaps earned the right to be as cantankerous and self-centred at 81 as he was in his '80s pomp, Larry Hagman is not destined to go quietly.
Or as he has said himself: "I was born with success. Lucky for me, I am able to handle it.
"Also, I damn-well deserve it."