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Monday, November 26, 2012

Goodbye, Larry

Not all actors are celebrities, not all celebrities are stars, and not all stars are actors. Larry Hagman was all three. But he was a celebrity for quite a while before he became a star. The role of Major Tony Nelson on the sitcom I Dream of Jeannie made him famous, famous enough to receive fan mail or appear at a grocery store opening, but it didn't make him iconic or give him industry clout or bestow upon him that wondrous thing that the nice boy Tom Hanks once described to a New Yorker interviewer as "fuck-you money." After Jeannie folded, Hagman's subsequent attempts to land a successful sitcom (The Good Life, Here We Go Again) didn't go anywhere, and his directorial debut with Beware! The Blob --the director's cameo begins at the 47-minute mark--didn't lead anywhere. (That movie, whose making was later immortalized in an issue of the oddball DC Comic Wasteland, was later re-released with the tag line, "The Film J. R. Shot.")

Meanwhile, he burrowed into his character parts in mostly undistinguished movies (Stardust, Mother, Jugs & Speed, The Big Bus), focused on honing his skill. (He also appeared in Peter Fonda's directing debut, The Hired Hand, in a scene that was cut from the theatrical version and then, inevitably, restored for the TV airings.) His best movie, and most remarkable performance, was his brief appearance as Art Carney's son in Harry & Tonto, a sweaty yet smiling depiction of hopeless resilience and good-natured self-delusion. But at a time when TV celebrity put a ceiling on an actor's ability to sustain and extend a movie career, Hagman was in constant competition with his younger self: Jeannie turned out to be a juggernaut in syndicated reruns throughout the 1970s. Hagman didn't get residuals from it, of course, and that must have made it feel especially sweet when the role of J. R. on Dallas finally gave him the power to grab ahold of the people who signed his checks and twist a little. 

A few years after Hagman first made headlines for wresting more money and control of the show from his employers by threatening them with his absence from the set, his co-star, Patrick Duffy, made a fool of himself by quitting Dallas to pursue the movie career that wasn't waiting for him, then had to humbly ask to return. It was a mistake that Hagman wouldn't have made. A show biz kid--his mother was Mary Martin, Broadway's Nellie Forbush and Peter Pan--he understood the realities of the business, and he waited until he was in a position of power before he started swinging his weight around. Dallas was unthinkable without him, and the show's producers had themselves to blame for that as much as they had him to thank. Other TV stars were resented for the demands they made, but I think most Dallas fans enjoyed the way that Hagman and the role seemed to merge, so that his public duels with the bosses were just another chapter in the entertaining saga of J. R. Ewing, Reagan-era wildcatter. When J. R. is first seen at the start of the recent Dallas reboot, he's apparently been feigning senile catatonia for years, as if he could fins no reason to say or do anything if there's nobody watching.

It worked in the other direction, too. There's a shared understanding among makers of potboilers that the villain roles are the good roles, but a lot of actors in flamboyantly villainous, scene-stealing roles have failed to make an impression. Hagman imbued J. R. with some of the fear and nervy drive of a working actor of a certain age who's worried that he may have made as big a splash as he's ever going to make. J. R. wasn't as young or pretty as his virtuous younger brother, and as a corporate shark, he didn't have the romantic cowboy aura of his father. So he worked, hard and ruthlessly, and though you might recoil in disgust at his methods, he earned everything he had. When Hagman denounced George W. Bush as a "sad," uneducated little man who was "leading the country towards fascism," you could hear the voice of Hagman the show business hippie merging with that of J. R., the striver who had nothing but loathing for the rich punk who'd had everything handed to him, proven himself incompetent, and then been handed more stuff.

Hagman gave a few more remarkable, non-J. R. performances after Dallas ceased production the first time in the early '90s, especially in the movie Primary Colors. But it was even harder for him to be seen as someone other than J. R. than it had been for him to be someone other than the guy who used to be Major Nelson. (In Nixon, Oliver Stone cast him as a mysterious Texan oil millionaire, in a sequence whose point seemed to be that J. R. was one of the several thousand people Stone thinks was in on the conspiracy to kill President Kennedy.) But it's also possible that he acted a lot less in his last couple of decades because he didn't need the money and was having too good a time just being Larry Hagman. I'm glad that he got to come back to the role of J. R. in his last year, and that the makers of the Dallas revival had sense enough to treat him as its rightful star and prime attraction. It was like coming home in a way. But he also enjoyed being a celebrity like few others, and he treated being a good celebrity the way a good actor tries to balance his career: a little do-gooding, some honorable, non-preachy advocacy for legal marijuana and campaigning against cigarette smoking, some touch-up work on the image, and the occasional honest job. Compared to some of the celebrities we have now, he was a great argument in favor of celebrities who are famous for having actually done something.


Mike said...

Yes, yes, and yes. This is vintage Phil--stuff we already knew, stuff we never knew, and stuff that changes how we think about what we thought we knew.

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