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Larry Hagman dead at 81

7:39 AM, Nov 24, 2012   |    comments
(Photo: Tony Gutierrez, AP)
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Carol Memmott, USA TODAY

Actor Larry Hagman, 81, whom fans for decades confused with J.R. Ewing, the conniving character he so convincingly played on TV's Dallas, died Friday in the Texas city that made him a household name.

Hagman had been battling cancer for the past year, having announced his diagnosis just as he began work on the soap-opera reboot for TNT.

A statement released to the Dallas Morning News by the actor's family noted, "Larry's family and close friends had joined him in Dallas for the Thanksgiving holiday. When he passed, he was surrounded by loved ones. It was a peaceful passing, just as he had wished for. The family requests privacy at this time."

In a statement, Warner Bros. and the new show's executive producers Cynthia Cidre and Michael Robin, said, "Larry Hagman was a giant, a larger-than-life personality whose iconic performance as J.R. Ewing will endure as one of the most indelible in entertainment history. He truly loved portraying this globally recognized character, and he leaves a legacy of entertainment, generosity and grace." And the network called him "a wonderful human being and an extremely gifted actor"

Hagman relished the chance to reprise his best-known character. "Of course it's fun to play the villain," Hagman told USA TODAY in 2011 while filming an episode of the new Dallas, which returned to television earlier this year after a 20-year absence. "I don't understand why people love J.R. so much, but it's not just America, it's all over the place. France, England. Ireland. In Germany they have this amazing core of people who follow my career."

Hagman, like the scheming oil baron J.R., the star of the prime time soap opera which aired from 1978 to 1991, was a Texan. He was born in Forth Worth in 1931. His father, Ben Hagman, was a district attorney and his mother, Mary Martin, was a renowned Broadway actress.

Hagman, who became a household name for playing J.R., said for years he would remind people that he wasn't J.R., but that later in life, he changed his attitude. "I used to say, 'No, I'm not J.R.,' but I don't now. When people think I'm J.R., I play up to that."

In the fall of 2011, while filming the new Dallas, Hagman released a statement in which he announced he was battling cancer but, "I do want everyone to know that it is a very common and treatable form of cancer." He had previously battled cirrhosis of the liver as a result of heavy drinking, which led to a liver transplant in 1995.

Drinking wasn't his only vice. A heavy smoker earlier in his career, he served as the chairperson of the American Cancer Society's "Great American Smokeout" from 1981 to 1992.

Though best known for his work on Dallas, Hagman, who graduated from Bard College and served in the Air Force, also appeared on the daytime soap opera Edge of Night from 1961-63. In 1954 he wed Maj Axelsson, with whom he had two children, daughter Heidi Kristina and son Preston.

He credited the longevity of his marriage to "two bathrooms," and his ability to live vicariously through J.R.. "I did all my fooling around on screen," he told USA TODAY in 2004.

Hagman's career took off when he played astronaut Maj. Anthony Nelson on the 1965-70 sitcom, I Dream of Jeannie. The story revolved around Nelson's secret relationship with a magical and beautiful genie, played by Barbara Eden.

"I Dream of Jeannie has been around for 47 years," Hagman said in 2011. "Most people in their 50s and 60s grew up with it, and I watch it occasionally. It's a lot of fun. It's still popular all around the world."

Eden posted on her Facebook page: "I still cannot completely express the shock and impact from the news that Larry Hagman has passed. I can still remember, that first day on Zuma Beach with him, in the frigid cold. From that day for five more years, Larry was the center of so many fun, wild, shocking... and in retrospect, memorable moments that will remain in my heart forever."

Other friends, fans and co-workers expressed their sorrow on Twitter. "I'm shocked," tweeted Larry King. "Larry Hagman was a dear man who had an incredible career. He helped me to stop smoking." Wrote Elizabeth Hurley, "Thank you for being such an entertaining actor and giving us such happy memories." And Angie Harmon, star of TNT's Rizzoli & Isles, tweeted, "Thank you for being as amazing & talented & kind in person as I'd always hoped!"

In addition to his television work, Hagman portrayed a corrupt Texas oilman in Oliver Stone's Nixon (1995), And in Mike Nichols' Primary Colors (1998), he played an ex-Florida governor.

The second season of TNT's Dallas is scheduled to premiere Jan. 28; six of the 15 episodes had been filmed at the time of his death.

USA TODAY

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