Farewell JR, you were a real star act
Published 28/11/2012 | 08:00
It's strange what moves the heart. Statesmen, Nobel prize winners, captains of industry come and go and you barely register their existence. But a jobbing actor leaves the stage and a flood of memories sweep you back into the past.
The death of Larry Hagman, who played that modern Iago, JR Ewing, was just such a moment. The early Eighties, a world of Thatcher, bombs, New Romantics, your dad buying your mum a Babycham and very big hair.
As a child (Dallas started in 1979 but only got into its stride a year later) I knew little about politics and stared at bomb scenes in bewilderment. I wasn't allowed big hair or Babycham. But I could watch Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran et al every Thursday on ToTP and JR whenever Dallas was on.
The miners' strike, the Big Bang in the city of London or freeze-frames of JR laughing manically at his latest plan to take over Ewing Oil/the world - I know which one meant more to me. The triumphant French horn as the theme tune started, the screen splitting into three views of each star.
Hagman was no great actor: no Gable, no Cagney, no Bogart, no George Clooney even. Only the most arcane fact-loving cinephile could name a Larry Hagman movie (and, no, his cameo in Nixon doesn't count because while he was brilliant, he was still basically playing JR).
No, he wasn't a legend, but he was JR Ewing. As a youngster, I remember my disbelief when I saw a repeat of I Dream of Jeanie and there he was as Major Tony Nelson. JR in a sitcom? While obviously I realised that Hagman was an actor and not really JR, it didn't make emotional sense. How could such an evil man be funny?
But, of course, as I settled down to see Bobby and JR wrestling over Ewing Oil (aka, the struggle of Good vs Evil over our very souls) I was also too young, too naive to realise that JR was one of the finest comic creations in the history of television.
And Hagman had the good grace to enjoy every moment of it. Even when he fluffed his lines at the Royal Variety Performance and his mother, Mary Martin, sprang to his rescue. Not for him a life of moaning about the pressure, the lack of privacy or how he really wanted to leave the heap of corn pone that was Dallas and work with "more challenging" material. The bizarre thing was that Dallas, the symbol of 80s excess, was in truth the essence of old world modesty and courtesy.
His success, he said, was a fluke, a strange - but very pleasant - twist of fate which made him hugely famous. (The shooting of JR, a fictional character remember, was the top story on the 9 O'Clock News, practically bringing the nation to a stop. It was a moment of social history, immensely trivial but somehow era defining at the same time.)
Yet there was a troubled side to Hagman. There must have been. A man who downed five bottles of Champagne every day on set wasn't really a happy-go-lucky spirit.
But he'd the class not to bleat about it all over the papers. He was honest about his drinking (to a point), didn't deny he'd a problem but didn't revel in it, either. Still, the fact that by his bathroom mirror he kept a photo of the young man whose liver he'd received so that every day he could look at his face and promise to make the most of every second of his second chance at life hinted at the anguish deep down in his soul.
But that wasn't for public consumption. Instead, he was always a genial presence, appearing on Wogan and playing along with the delightful wedge of kitsch that was Dallas. It's hard to think of any other TV star who laughed so openly at his own show.
His return as JR in this year's reboot of Dallas was a triumph, a fitting coda to a great TV character. The eyebrows were bushier, the frame stooped, but the eyes ... ah, the eyes remained the same: twinkling at the ludicrousness of it all and the realisation of how lucky he was - and just getting on with the business of making sure we all had a high old time of it.