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Charismatic villain charmed in 'Dallas'

| Saturday, Nov. 24, 2012, 3:34 p.m.
This 1981 file photo provided by CBS shows Larry Hagman in character as J.R. Ewing in the television series 'Dallas.' Actor Larry Hagman, who for more than a decade played villainous patriarch JR Ewing in the TV soap Dallas, has died at the age of 81, his family said Saturday Nov. 24, 2012. Associated Press

J.R. Ewing was a business cheat, faithless husband and bottomless well of corruption. Yet with his sparkling grin, Larry Hagman masterfully created the charmingly loathsome oil baron — and coaxed forth a Texas-size gusher of ratings — on television's long-running and hugely successful nighttime soap, “Dallas.”

Although he first gained fame as nice guy Maj. Tony Nelson on the fluffy 1965-70 NBC comedy “I Dream of Jeannie,” Hagman earned his greatest stardom as J.R. The CBS serial drama about the Ewing family and those in their orbit aired from April 1978 to May 1991, and broke viewing records with its “Who shot J.R.?” 1980 cliffhanger that left unclear whether Hagman's character was dead.

The actor, who returned as J.R. in a new edition of “Dallas” this year, had a long history of health problems and died Friday at 81 of complications from his battle with cancer, his family said.

Hagman starred in two short-lived sitcoms, “The Good Life” (NBC, 1971-72) and “Here We Go Again” (ABC, 1973). His film work included well-regarded performances in “The Group,” “Harry and Tonto” and “Primary Colors.”

But it was Hagman's masterful portrayal of J.R. that brought him the most fame. And the “Who shot J.R.?” story twist fueled international speculation and millions of dollars in betting-parlor wagers. It helped give the series a place in ratings history.

When the answer was revealed in a November 1980 episode, an average 41 million U.S. viewers tuned in to make “Dallas” one of the most-watched entertainment shows of all time, trailing only the “MASH” finale in 1983 with 50 million viewers.

It was J.R.'s sister-in-law, Kristin (Mary Crosby), who plugged him — he had made her pregnant, then threatened to frame her as a prostitute unless she left town — but others had equal motivation.

Hagman played Ewing as a bottomless well of corruption with a charming grin: a business cheat and a faithless husband who tried to get his alcoholic wife, Sue Ellen (Linda Gray), institutionalized.

Ten episodes of the new edition of “Dallas” aired this past summer and proved a hit for TNT. Filming was in progress on the sixth episode of season two, which is set to begin airing Jan. 28, the network said.

In 2006, Hagman did a guest shot on FX's drama series “Nip/Tuck,” playing a macho business mogul. He got new exposure in recent years with the DVD releases of “I Dream of Jeannie” and “Dallas.”

The Fort Worth, Texas, native was the son of singer-actress Mary Martin, who starred in such classics as “South Pacific” and “Peter Pan.” Martin was still in her teens when he was born in 1931 during her marriage to attorney Ben Hagman.

As a youngster, Hagman gained a reputation for mischief-making as he was bumped from one private school to another. He made a stab at New York theater in the early 1950s, then served in the Air Force from 1952-56 in England.

While there, he met and married young Swedish designer Maj Axelsson. The couple had two children, Preston and Heidi, and were longtime residents of the Malibu beach colony that is home to many celebrities.

Hagman returned to acting and found work in the theater and in TV series such as “The U.S. Steel Hour,” “The Defenders” and “Sea Hunt.” His first continuing role was as lawyer Ed Gibson on the daytime serial “The Edge of Night” (1961-63).

He called his 2001 memoir “Hello Darlin': Tall (and Absolutely True) Tales about My Life.”

“I didn't put anything in that I thought was going to hurt someone or compromise them in any way,” he said at the time.

Hagman was diagnosed in 1992 with cirrhosis of the liver and acknowledged that he drank heavily for years. In 1995, a malignant tumor was discovered on his liver and he underwent a transplant.

After his transplant, he became an advocate for organ donation and volunteered at a hospital to help frightened patients.

He was an anti-smoking activist who took part in “Great American Smoke-Out” campaigns.

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