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 Larry Hagman  interview

The Superstar of 'Dallas' admits that his trip to Britain was part of a plan to land a new million-dollar contract.

By Larry Hagman

©TV GUIDE November 15, 1980

J.R. Ewing, the reprehensible fellow I play on Dallas, was shot by an unknown assailant on March 21, 1980, and my world was never to be quite the same again. Crazy! Insane! Did people really care that much who shot J.R.? Don't ask me why, but they did.

Before that fateful shot rang out, I was merely bemused by the success of the character. Villainy could be fun, and that's how I played it. And if it worked. I mean I couldn't go down to the corner to pick up my copy of the Sunday New York Times without running into some nubile creature with "J.R. for President" emblazoned across her chest. Now a higher, shriller note had been added. People who once merely wanted J.R.'s autograph demanded to know who shot him as if it were their birthright, and were angry and upset when I told them, truthfully, that I didn't know.

There was no such thing as a quiet game of croquet any more. everybody wanted J.R. to do something, pose for a picture, deliver an opinion, invest in an oil well. It had been my custom to grant the reasonable requests automatically. Now, I was lucky if they left me time for a trip to the bathroom.

J.R. made some other basic changes in my life. I never thought there'd be so much identification with a character like J.R. I never though I'd get a role like this at my age. All of a sudden at 49 I'm a sex symbol. Not that I was trying to be sexy. The character just seemed to turn people on. All well and good. CBS was making a bundle. Lorimar, the production company, was feeling no pain either. Me? The guys peddling the T-shirts with my face on them were probably doing better than I was. Even before J.R. got shot I had resolved to do something about it.

Other actors in a similar situation have been known to develop obscure diseases that would prevent them from working under terms of their old contracts. This I was unwilling to do.

What I did do was take a trip to London just before the J.R.-shooting episode hit the air in March. This was partly for fun and partly because it is a good idea to put 6000 or so miles between you and your employers in situations like this. I t's surprising what a soothing effect geography can have at times. They get very edgy when they can't find you right away.

My wife and I got off the plane at Heathrow to be greeted by a yelling, screaming, pushing, shoving mob of photographers, shooting through their legs , if necessary, to get the picture. It was like those crazy '30s movies with Pat O'Brian, complete with press card in his hat. But I got the message.

Next day, I went on Television, jet lag and all, with an inventive Irish disc jockey named Terry Wogan. , who ordinarily appeared on radio, had made himself the talk of Britain with a running takeoff on Dallas. It had built to a point where the BBC had offered him an hour-long special if I would do it with him. The British love anything Texan anyway, and we had a field day. The ratings were the highest of the year. It has since been repeated twice.

I had taken a 10-gallon hat with me. In that cowboy-crazy place, it offered unmistakable and immediate identification. It became my trademark from then on. I might never have left London if I hadn't contracted to do the film called "S.O.B." for Blake ("10") Edwards.

I arrived home in Hollywood amid the rising furor over J.R.'s possible demise. Would he or wouldn't he? The viewer wasn't the only one to wonder. The shooting of J.R. was a double-edged sword; it gave my producers and the CBS bosses a perfect way to get rid of me in case my "demands" got out of hand. Meantime, the pressures began to build. Certain rumors were allowed to circulate, such as an insidious scheme, worthy of J.R. himself, to have the ambulance burn on the way to the hospital, necessitating plastic surgery on J.R., who would merge from the operation looking just like another actor.

On May 12, my agents and I held a council of way in Ruth Engelhard's office at William Morris. It was then that the Grand Strategy began to form in my head. My good sense told me that to let J.R. die would be throwing away one of the most inspired bits of electronic hyperbole since NBC refused to allow Barbara Eden to show her navel in I Dream of Jeannie, I was betting they wouldn't let J.R. expire.

But I had to be prepared to go all the way. I was playing a dangerous game. If I lost, I could find myself out of the business permanently. I wanted certain things. Like the rights to my own face and likeness on a T-shirt, for instance. (J.R. may be the biggest TV merchandising gimmick since the coonskin cap.) I was not interested in a share of the profits (They are proving too hard to collect). I'd take the hard cash, tax bit and all. At the same time, I knew what I'd settle for--and what I wouldn't. No recriminations, no bitterness if I lost.

And I would stay entirely away from the discussions. I did not want that pressure. I would send my guys over wearing white cowboy hates to wrap up what could have been the year's biggest deal--or biggest dud. "I don't want to hear any of the treats," I told Ed Bondy, Ruth Engelhard and Jack Grossbart, my white hats at William Morris. "All I want to hear is what numbers they're talkin'."

I figured to fly back to England, for the races at Ascot, where everybody dressed to the teeth in morning clothes and wore pearl-gray top hats. Perfect! Hats were my specialty. Super funas well as international publicity was assured. I ordered three new 10-gallon hats from Nudie, the Western Tailor. For good measure, I put $2000 down on a charter-yacht trip through the Greek islands with my wife Maj; my friend Kevin McClory; My financial adviser Phillip Mengel, the New York investment banker; and a few other close buddies.

It was June and I was still stuck in Hollywood; Blake Edwards was still shooting his movie. The discussions, my white hats told me, were down to the tough stuff. So I flew to London but canceled the yacht and the hotel. Things grew more tense. It was June 9 and still nobody was talking.

On June 12, the day shooting was supposed to start in Dallas, I was at Madame Tussaud's wax museum in London, being measured for a statue.

If there were sounds of a death struggle going on back in Hollywood, I couldn't hear them. indeed, I didn't even know--and still don't know--who was doing the talking for the guys in the black hats. [Negotiating for CBS was Alan M. Levin, vice president in change of business affairs: and for Lorimar, Irv Sepkowitz and Julie Waxman of the business-affairs department--Ed.] I was too busy living it up.

There weren't enough hours in the day. I discovered that the mid-Atlantic sound was not too far from the Texas sound. I fell into it--and into that dry, laid-back English humor--naturally, and what I didn't fall into I faked. The British response was overwhelming. If they decide they love you, the love you forever.

June 17 was our first day at Ascot. I had my morning suit fitted at Moss Bros., naturally. We had a champagne and caviar lunch at Fort Belvedere, the estate were the Duke of Eindsor abdicated the British throne in favor of Mrs. Simpson. Our group had its photograph taken doing a jug in front of the 37 cannons outside.

Kevin McClory, my English adviser, had miraculously arranged for us to get inside the Royal Enclosure at Ascot. I mean, it's a very conspicuous place to be. No bookies are allowed. I can still hear him whispering, "Don't pick your nose, Larry; there are 6000 pairs of binoculars trained on you!"

The world press coverage was unbelievable. The perfect reminder to certain people that It was still alive. As if that wasn't enough, every bookie parlor in the United Kingdom was taking bets, not just on horse races but on who shot J.R. The odds at the time favored Dusty, Sue Ellen's lover, at 2-to-1. Sue Ellen was at 3-to-1, Kristen at 4-to-1, Cliff and Alan at 7-to-one, Bobby, Pam and Miss Ellie at 12-to-one, and Jock himself at 14-to-one. Naturally they assumed I knew who shot me. I really hated to disillusion them. I told them if I knew I'd open my own bookie shop.

It may be that at this writing not even Leonard Katzman, the producer and chief architect of the story line, knows for sure. What Lorimar and CBS are striving for is total surprise, and they will do anything to preserve it, including spending heavy bread to shoot multiple endings for last-minute switching about. And even if I did know, I would not be fool enough to tell.

 


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