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Larry Hagman

Actor most famous for his role as the villainous oilman JR Ewing in the long-running television show 'Dallas'

Larry Hagman, who died on Friday aged 81, was the American actor who played JR Ewing, the reptilian scion of a corrupt oil dynasty in the long-running television series Dallas.

The extraordinary success of Dallas owed much to Hagman's portrayal of the scheming JR, who was arguably the most memorable villain in television history. When, in the final episode of the 1980 season, he was shot by an unknown assailant, over 200 million people worldwide watched the show. All summer viewers waited for the next episode as the phrase "Who shot JR?" dominated the collective consciousness, ubiquitous on T-shirts and in the tabloid press, while sociologists and media commentators debated the cultural significance of the series.

Larry Hagman was born in Weatherford, Texas, on September 21, 1931. His mother was the actress Mary Martin and his father, Benjamin Hagman, was a lawyer retained by many Texan oilmen. After their divorce his mother married the producer and agent Richard Halliday. Young Larry lived periodically with his parents but mainly with his grandmother in Los Angeles. Finding it difficult to cope with his mother's fame, he was educated in a succession of private schools and finally at Bard College, New York, from which he dropped out after only a year.

After college he worked his apprenticeship in St John Terrell's Theatre Company, in roles ranging from grip to stage manager. In 1951 with his career meandering, the hit Broadway musical South Pacific, in which his mother starred, transferred to London and she persuaded him to join her and take a small part. He remained in Europe for five years, four of them as director of shows for the US Air Force.

Upon his return to America, Hagman worked off Broadway until 1959 when he won roles on Broadway in God and Kate Murphy and The Nervous. Meanwhile, he was cutting his teeth on New York-based television in programmes ranging from drama to daytime soaps, including The Edge of the Night (1961-63).

He made his debut in the cinema in 1964 with Ensign Pulver. The same year, in the nuclear suspense drama Failsafe he was, according to the Washington Post, "outstanding . . . showing creative work in a minor role".

While he continued to appear sporadically in films of limited scope, such as The Cavern (1965) and The Group (1966), Hagman's first real break came in 1964 when he flew to Hollywood to appear on the Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Although the episode was cancelled, he stayed in Hollywood where he won the main part in NBC's sitcom I Dream of Jeannie. The pilot show concerned an astronaut who met a genie when he was stranded on a desert island and the subsequent series followed the adventures of the pair when they returned home. An unexpected international success, the programme ran for five years and made Hagman a television personality.

However, while his perfectionism on set could upset his colleagues, off-screen his emotions were becoming increasingly turbulent and eventually he suffered a breakdown followed by an extensive period of psychotherapy. He was not helped by following I Dream of Jeannie with two disappointing series, The Good Life (1971) in which he starred as a stockbroker turned butler and Here We Go Again (1973). He was also making little headway on the big screen, giving impressive performances in barely reviewed films such as Up in the Cellar (1970), Harry and Tonto (1974) and his own directorial debut, the unalluring Beware! The Blob (1972).

A harbinger of his future success in Dallas was his fine performance in Stardust (1975) which starred David Essex. In the film he portrayed a materialistic American businessman who buys the contract of a British rock group and, acting as their manager and Svengali, drives them to self-destructive superstardom.

In spite of this success he still found it difficult to attract quality scripts. He coped manfully with the crudely-drawn psychopath in Mother, Jugs and Speed (1976), but there was nothing he could do to redeem The Big Bus (1976), an ill-judged satire on the disaster movie genre.

When he finally won a part in a superior film, The Eagle Has Landed (1977), based on Jack Higgins' novel about a German attempt to kidnap Winston Churchill during the Second World War, he was unfortunately cast as a caricature American officer. He played another American officer, an incidental part, in the money-spinning adventure Superman (1978).

Throughout the seventies, Hagman had worked in made-for-television features. Some of these films, such as Sidekicks (1974) were intended as pilots for future situation comedies that never materialised. This, it seemed, was to be the leitmotif of his career.

Then, in 1978, he won the part of JR Ewing in Dallas (1978-90), a series whose success far outstripped the most optimistic expectations. Conceived for Lorimar Productions by David Jacobs – who had never been to Texas – as an inversion of Lorimar's long-running and homily-ridden The Waltons, Dallas was a multi-generational saga of an oil and cattle rich family feuding amongst themselves and with their neighbours. Intended initially as a vehicle for the stars Linda Evans and Patrick Duffy, Hagman's supreme performance as JR – "an overstuffed Iago in a stetson" – stole the show to such an extent that Evans soon departed, claiming it was "unworthy" of her talents. Insufficiently unworthy, it transpired, to stop her appearing in Dynasty, a pale imitation spawned by the success of Dallas.

As each episode was budgeted at $700,000 (seven times the average for a series), no expense was spared to seduce the viewer and his credulity. With the ruthless, amoral JR dominating events, Dallas at times seemed to suggest that, for certain folks in Texas, alcoholism, adultery with in-laws, murder, illegitimacy, consigning one's wife to an institution and relentless corruption were simply the currency of day-to-day existence.

The series, which created a new genre of high budget television serials, was finely balanced between satire and a celebration of the events it portrayed. By the mid-Eighties it was the most popular show in the world and felt at liberty to script the most unlikely plot contortions. The same character was played in different series by different actors while JR's brother, Bobby, was killed in one episode only to reappear in the next claiming it was 'just' a bad dream. However, in spite of increasing narrative gymnastics and the introduction of celebrity actresses, its popularity dwindled in the late Eighties and, although it outlasted its glossy progeny such as Dynasty and Knots Landing, the series finished in 1990.

Hagman, who became a major international star and was, after early contractual difficulties, richly rewarded for his part, effectively retired when the series closed. He had not appeared in a film since Blake Edwards' S.O.B. (1981) and he felt disinclined to start again.

In June 2011, Hagman revealed that he was suffering from throat cancer. Despite his illness and retirement from acting, he appeared earlier this year in a new 10-episode season of Dallas alongside co-stars Linda Gray and Patrick Duffy.

Off screen, Hagman was a close family man. He retired to Malibu after the end of the initial run of Dallas and avoided the social whirl of Hollywood. Known locally as an amiable eccentric with an infectious sense of humour, he was given to wearing outlandish clothes and organising unexpected beach parties. A reformed smoker himself, he carried a battery powered fan which he used to blow smoke back into the faces of offending smokers. He practised Zen meditation and tried to keep Sunday as a day of silence.

He is survived by his wife, Swedish dress designer Maj Axelsson, and their son Preston and daughter Heidi.

Sunday Independent