Can the Soaps Stay Afloat? : Larry Hagman Still Relishes Being TV's Oiliest Villain

Times Staff Writer

After 11 1/2 years of playing the same role, Larry Hagman says he's still thoroughly enjoying himself as the villainous J.R. Ewing on "Dallas." And why not? He works three days a week, is paid millions and maintains good relationships with his co-stars.

"It's a real close family on the show," Hagman said. "My thing is to keep an ensemble group working like in a summer stock theater--except that you don't change shows (every few weeks) and we don't do Shakespeare, Shaw or Ibsen. . . . But believe me, I'm not sure 'Dallas' will be remembered as long as Shakespeare, Shaw or Ibsen, but it will sure make a hell of a lot more money than they did."

Dressed in a brown pinstripe suit and jogging shoes, Hagman was in the best of moods recently when he slipped away from the "Dallas" set at Lorimar Studios long enough for lunch. Alternately jocular, optimistic and witty, he had plenty of reasons for good humor, even though his Caesar salad was too laden with garlic.

After completing 12 episodes for this season, Hagman and his wife, Maj, were off to Europe the next day for a four-week vacation.

And just the night before at Chasen's, the couple had celebrated a new contract that will make him both producer and star of an upcoming TV miniseries based on the life of Texas billionaire H. L. Hunt.

Further brightening Hagman's demeanor as he departed for Scotland, Germany, Greece and Turkey was knowing that his "Dallas" character--oilman J.R. Ewing--is back to his thoroughly devious ways.

J.R.--one of television's most famous villains--has undergone several personality changes over the years, some of which have not pleased Hagman. But this season, the "sex, greed and avarice" are back with a vengeance, he said.

The show, the longest running drama currently in prime time, began its 13th season last Friday on CBS. Although a host of actors and actresses have come and gone, Hagman is one of only two (the other is Ken Kercheval's Cliff Barnes) who have remained a fixture on the series since it debuted in April, 1978.

In fact, Hagman seemed surprised when it was pointed out that he is one of the show's few constants.

"By God, you're right, I had not thought of that. It never occurred to me," he said.

The success of "Dallas" is surely due to the public's fascination with J.R., as much as the constant conflict that swirls around him. The character has the power to strike back at enemies with impunity, the wealth to launch the wildest schemes and the wherewithal to force his will on the timid or unsuspecting. Part of the appeal, according to Hagman, is that the character is not invincible and does, on occasion, lose.

"This guy always comes swinging back, though," he said. "What else can you do in life?"

J.R.'s standing is helped by the fact that the character is the focus of much of the show even when Hagman is not on camera.

"The nice thing about this part is (that the other characters) talk about you all the time, always building up your entrance. They say, 'God, what is J.R. gonna think about this?' I don't have to do a thing. . . . Hell, that's better than being on the screen. It's more of a threat. Then when you come on they say, 'Oh my God, he's going to kill us.' And then you appear on camera smiling and having a good time . . . and still kill 'em," he said with the hearty laugh that is one of television's most familiar and sinister.

Unlike J.R. Ewing, though, Hagman was mostly gracious about the competition his show has faced from other networks. Notable among these was NBC's "Miami Vice," which was moved, amid heavy publicity, from 10 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Friday nights in an attempt to knock "Dallas" off the air in the fall of 1986. The final episode of "Miami Vice" ran last spring.

"It was just one of those things. 'Miami Vice' was a hell of a show and if we are ever knocked off the air then I hope it is by a quality show. If we had been knocked off by 'Miami Vice' then that would have been OK," he said.

But then Hagman added, with a devilish grin, that the reason "Miami Vice" did not do better against "Dallas" was because he had put a "hex" on it.

That sort of playfulness extends to the "Dallas" set. Earlier in the day, in fact, he and co-star Patrick Duffy taped a bawdy video message to be broadcast at the bar mitzvah of Omri Katz, who plays Hagman's son, John Ross, on the show. He also enjoys good-naturedly needling Charlene Tilton between breaks. The petite actress is quick to return the fire, but without the rancor that pervades their characters' relationship. Both Duffy and Tilton had left "Dallas," but were persuaded to return to the show, in part by Hagman.

Another such departure is not likely to be remedied, except by occasional guest appearances. Linda Gray, who played Sue Ellen Ewing, J.R.'s wife and frequent foil, left as a regular "Dallas" cast member at season's end.

"Linda Gray was my favorite female co-star," he said. "She was the greatest leading lady I've ever worked with. She was here for 12 years. There was a lot of electricity and a lot of subtle work between us. We would always find pieces of the story that weren't written into the script. She was the best (female co-star) so far in my life, but hopefully there'll be others."

As has frequently been the case with the series, three major characters have been added to the cast for this season. Kimberly Foster turned up last Friday as April Stevens' sister, the show's new femme fatale ; Michael Wilding debuted as an art dealer who will develop a romantic interest in J.R.'s wife, and Sasha Mitchell will soon be introduced as a man who claims to be J.R.'s 21-year-old illegitimate son.

Hagman, who since last season has been co-executive producer of "Dallas" with Leonard Katzman, is upbeat about this season's story and glad to be rid of some of his character's vulnerabilities that surfaced last year.

Apparently gone are scenes such as one last season when J.R., while traveling in Vienna, atypically rebuffed the advances of a glamorous European aristocrat who had been his former lover. The oilman's philandering had been tempered by his marriage to a much younger woman, played by Cathy Podewell.

"I thought that was kind of dumb, to tell you the truth," he said.

"Everybody says, 'What is the purpose of 'Dallas?' The purpose is to entertain. It's for entertainment and we don't do it for any morality plays or anything like that. We're here to entertain people," he said.

As for surviving so long on "Dallas"?

"I guess that makes me feel rich--and don't forget modest and smart," he said in his distinctive laugh. "Yeah, rich, smart and modest."

J.R. Ewing couldn't have said it better.

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