Jack Mathews is film critic for New York Newsday

It's been 2 1/2 years since J.R. Ewing was shot in the last episode of "Dallas," but he looks fine now. The eyes are bright, and still a little mischievous, the skin tone good, the voice as resonant and deliberate as ever. He's quit drinking since being left for dead, and it's done him a world of good.

"I've been having a wonderful time," says J.R., a.k.a. Larry Hagman, sipping a nonalcoholic beer in his 20th-floor apartment in New York City. "I decided (after 'Dallas'), I was going to do all the things I've denied myself over the years, that I'm going to do exactly what I want to do. There is life after J.R."

Duck hunting, fly fishing, traveling. Some of the things occupying Hagman's new life are pretty ordinary for a millionaire with time on his hands. Riding a Harley-Davidson and flying a motorized parachute are not.

"I'm absolutely driven by these things," says Hagman, 61, of his new hobbies. "I don't get terribly proficient at them, but I love to talk about them."

Hagman loves to talk about almost anything. His 13 years on "Dallas," his five on "I Dream of Jeannie," the contrasting vistas from his apartment in New York and the new mountaintop ranch he and his wife built in Ojai, his latest TV venture and, not coincidentally, his souring opinion on the new breed of network executive.

"When I came into the business, if the heads of the network liked an idea for a show, they'd say, 'Do 26 of them.' Those days are gone. These young bucks coming up with no experience, they're not committed to anything and nothing gets done."

On this early autumn day, with the leaves bursting into fall dress across the street in Central Park, Hagman is perturbed by NBC's foot-dragging on future installments of "Staying Afloat," the pilot for which will air Friday as part of the network's rotating "Friday Night Mystery Movie."

The two-hour show, a caper comedy in the broad style of "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," stars Hagman as Alexander Turnbull Hollingsworth III, a disinherited playboy who allows the FBI to maintain his yacht-club lifestyle while he uses his social access and sense of larceny to help the agency crack a drug ring.

The tone of the show is a far distance from "Dallas," but Hollingsworth shares J.R.'s passion for money and the high life--as does Hagman--and the actor says the material is so familiar to him, he could write it in his sleep.

Which he partially did.

"You know those dreams you have that are so vivid, you can almost direct them? That's when I do my creative stuff. There's a scene where Ryder (his valet played by Eric Christmas) says, 'You've lost your Rolls-Royce, they're about to repossess your yacht, your friend just died and I understand you have a problem with your bottom.'

" 'My bottom?' "

" 'Yes, the Invincible has worms.' "

Hagman chuckles at the memory of it and swears the whole thing was hatched in a dream, relayed in the morning to his bedside tape recorder and turned over later to the show's writers.

"Verbatim," he says. "They just wrote it down."

No one is about to repossess Hagman's toys. Millions have poured into his bank account from "I Dream of Jeannie" and "Dallas," and both shows will be in syndication into the 21st Century. He says he would like to do six two-hour episodes of "Staying Afloat" a year; that way, he'd have plenty of time to ride his Harley and paraplane over his 32-acre retreat in Ojai. But so far, no word from the network.

In the meantime, Hagman is keeping his dreams to himself, and going on with the good life. Although he was to spend the early fall in Florida shooting the second episode, he's going duck hunting in upstate New York and planning a drive through the Berkshires in Vermont to see the fall colors.

The Ojai property, a gleaming white Mediterranean villa 90 minutes north of his primary home in Malibu (both would be spared by the late October-early November wildfires), seems to be Hagman's chief preoccupation now. He refers to his New York apartment as "Hagman's Folly," and nearly gasps when asked if he spends more time there or in California.

"I could afford the best hotels in the world for the rest of my life for what this thing costs," he says. "The taxes are like $40,000 a year. But Mrs. Hagman wanted a pied a terre in New York."

Still, he acknowledges, with just a hint of J.R.'s sarcasm, that "it is a cute little place." It has one bedroom, a den and a mirrored faux fireplace that, when the candles he's placed inside are lighted, actually gives off a flickering illusion of warmth. From its balcony, Hagman can look over Central Park, over the Upper East Side where he spent his childhood and, on a clear day, see Connecticut where he grew into an adult.

As for the death of "Dallas," Hagman isn't mourning. He says the show lasted about as long as it should have, that he's proud to have established a character whose evil was surpassed only by his popularity, and that he managed for 13 years to preserve J.R.'s integrity. Yes, integrity!

"I never killed anybody," Hagman says, casually slipping back into character. "They used to write it into the script that I'd scope somebody out and kill him. I said, 'I won't do it.' They said, 'Would you wound him?' I said, 'No, if I need that kind of job done, I'll hire somebody to do it.' "

" NBC Friday Night Mystery Movie: Staying Afloat" airs Friday at 9 p.m.

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