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RIP: Major Nelson, Ex-Luckiest Man On Earth, Dead At 81

 

TIME: The love-to-hate-him (her) character is by now a staple of TV. But rarely has there been an actor who so palpably enjoyed being love-to-hated as Larry Hagman. Hagman died of throat cancer Friday at age 81, in the place where he spent much of his childhood and working life, and the place where Americans came to hiss-applaud him as oil tycoon J.R. Ewing—Dallas. Hagman was born near Fort Worth in 1931, into a part-showbiz family—his mother was a Broadway actress—and spent his childhood in Texas, California and New York. He kicked off his showbiz career in Dallas, working in local theater until his career took him to the stage in New York City and movies through the 1950s and early 1960s. He first became a national stars playing, of all things, a sweetheart: astronaut Tony Nelson, the put-upon “master” of Barbara Eden’s title character in I Dream of Jeannie, which rolled up the ’60s vogue for the space program, fantasy sitcoms and pre-women’s-lib gender relations all in one. But Hagman’s career, and TV history, would be changed by his casting in Dallas, one of those incidents that shows how much television magic comes from happy accidents and unintended consequences. J.R., the conniving scion of a Texas oil family, was not meant to be the star of Dallas. But as Hagman played him, it became clear that he couldn’t not be. Soap-star villains are common as Texas dirt, but Hagman tapped a once-in-a-lifetime gusher of gleeful villainy. J.R. was written as a callous, cocky bastard, the evilest mind ever to lease space in a ten-gallon hat. But what made him a TV icon—the thing people remember of Dallas even if they never watched it—was the swaggering, lusty, funky delight that Hagman brought to his schemes. He embarked on deceptions as happily as if he were digging into a plate of barbecue, and it was that infectious delight that made audience want to see him brought down—and also, to never, ever stop. MORE

NEW YORK TIMES: I gather you’ve tried pretty much every drug, including mescaline, which you ate on an Indian reservation.

LARRY HAGMAN: Well, I was in a hut with about 10 young Indian boys. I took this stuff and got real sick, but after a while that passed, and I looked down and I had bird’s claws, bird’s feet and fur instead of feathers. I thought, Well, golly, this is interesting. I flew around the hut, and then I flew through the wall and flew around the reservation and came back. It was a heavy-duty spiritual thing. I wouldn’t particularly want to do it again, but it was a wonderful experience.

NEW YORK TIMES: Hold on, so you actually think you turned into a bird?

LARRY HAGMAN: I’m sure it was an out-of-body experience, but at the time I did. And I enjoyed flying too.

NEW YORK TIMES: The problem with psychedelic drugs is that you feel as if you’ve unlocked the mysteries of the universe, but after the trip is done you can’t remember what you learned.

LARRY HAGMAN: Oh, God, no. I remembered almost everything afterward. It comes into play in your permanent psyche. For me, they gave me great compassion and a love of everything. MORE

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