It has been 32 years since the headlines screamed out “Who Shot J.R.?” and created a cultural phenomenon that shook the world. It was an advertising dreamtime for CBS and its Dallas TV series, a nighttime soap opera that was for a time the biggest thing around. Back in 1980 there was no way anyone could have escaped the mania involved with the shooting of one of the nastiest villains ever to appear on television screens.
To his credit Hagman made J.R. more than a villain. In a time when Darth Vader could be seen as cinema’s worst bad guy, there was something very sterile about him, almost robotic. Not so with John Ross Ewing Junior as played by Hagman. He was a complicated fellow, with internal and external conflicts that would rival the title characters in Shakespeare’s Macbeth or Othello. J.R. loved his mother Miss Ellie (Barbara Bel Geddes), had a love-hate relationship with his wife Sue Ellen (Linda Gray), craved his father Jock’s (Jim Davis) approval, despised his brother Bobby’s (Patrick Duffy) wife Pam (Victoria Principal), and had an equally evil nemesis in Cliff Barnes (Ken Kercheval). There were plenty of opportunities for dysfunction at every turn at the sprawling Southfork Ranch where the family lived, and the audience loved it for fourteen seasons (1978-1991).
By the time J.R. seemed to get his comeuppance with a bullet that ended season three, the frenzy about learning the name of his assailant reached juggernaut proportions. There were stories in newspapers, magazines, and on TV about it, and the Dallas cast kept the secret extremely well. I remember having friends overseas at the time and even they were caught up in the mania. By the time the shooter was revealed to be his mistress and sister-in-law Kristin Shephard (Mary Crosby), everyone was surprised and delighted. Of course, J.R. made a full recovery and got quickly back to his dastardly ways.
I just typed “Who shot” into Google and the first thing to come up was “Who Shot J.R.?” After 32 years, that is pretty amazing. What followed were 217,000,000 results in three seconds, and it is hard to believe that too. Hagman’s villain did leave his mark on TV because it changed the way many shows operated. It became clear that an ostensibly bad guy could actually be the lead character of a successful TV show. Over the years that tactic was used again – just think of James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano in The Sopranos and Michael Chiklis as Vic Mackey in The Shield as examples.
While I always found Hagman’s portrayal of the evil J.R. quite enjoyable, my favorite memory of him was on a very different show. He played astronaut Tony Nelson in the 1960s comedy I Dream of Jeannie. Tony finds an old bottle when he is stranded on an island and releases a beautiful genie (Barbara Eden), whom he takes home with him when rescued. Hagman made quite an impression in this series as an entirely likeable and funny character, and I think that many people will remember him fondly for this role.
Hagman had been starring in a new version of Dallas that started earlier this year on TNT. Though some of the old characters did return, I must honestly say I never saw an episode, so I cannot comment on it. I know it was renewed for a second season, but I am sure that Hagman’s death will greatly affect the future of that series.
At this point Larry Hagman has a secure place in TV history as one of the best bad guys ever. Rest in peace, Larry Hagman and J.R. Ewing!
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