Larry Hagman, Comic Book Hero
Sometimes it feels as if the power of television — or what television once was — is never clearer than with the passing of a genuine legend of the medium. That has surely been true during the days following the death of Larry Hagman. He was that rare television performer who achieved historic pop culture success in two vastly different iconic series, the campy comedy I Dream of Jeannie and the most successful serial in the history of American television, Dallas.
For many of us, childhood memories of his wide-eyed Major Anthony Nelson learning to live with and eventually love Barbara Eden’s effortlessly appealing Jeannie-in-a-bottle mean almost as much as those from our young adulthoods of his unrelentingly greedy businessman J.R. Ewing engaging in endless power-plays for control of Ewing Oil. Looking back, I can’t imagine my life without the countless hours spent enjoying both of those shows — especially all those Friday night TV parties with family and friends watching Dallas.
How perfect, then, that Hagman was able to take a prolonged final bow by returning to the grander of those two roles, the seemingly unconquerable J.R. It was a rare opportunity that seemed to bring as much joy to him as to the millions of Dallas fans who had to endure a punishing twenty-one years between the end of the original show and the beginning of TNT’s continuation of the franchise earlier this year. (A smattering of Dallas reunion movies in between simply did not suffice.)
I haven’t a clue how the new series will continue without him, but I know it must, in grand style and for years to come, if only as a tribute to a man whose work touched several generations of television viewers. Surely J.R. will have to pass away, because this role is as impossible to recast as Ralph Kramden, Lucy Ricardo, Archie Bunker or Mary Richards, to name but a few of the timeless television characters that his name belongs in the company of.
Aside from Major Nelson, J.R. Ewing and his other, lesser-known television and movie roles, there is another character Hagman was once associated with that has not been acknowledged in any of the stories about his death that I have come across in print, online or on television.
Back in the Fifties, when Hagman was an up-and-coming actor seeking to make a living in New York City, he was hired by acclaimed cartoonist Leonard Starr as the model for a character in Starr’s hugely popular comic strip series, Mary Perkins On Stage. Hagman provided the likeness for Jed Potter, the hot-tempered son of a legendary movie actor.
The story of Jed Potter has been assembled in the second volume of the On Stage reprint series published by Classic Comics Press. In fact, a rendition of Hagman circa 1958 is featured on the cover of the book.
Like almost everyone who wrote about television during the last 25 years, I was fortunate to have had several brief chats with Hagman during that time, most of them at various CBS parties and events. I still treasure the autographed $100 bill emblazoned with his face and the words In Hagman We Trust that he gave me after we talked at a Fox party just a few years ago about his guest role on FX’s Nip/Tuck.
During that conversation I mentioned that I was familiar with On Stage and had read the Jed Potter story. That’s when he smiled and produced the Hagman c-note. Apparently he enjoyed being reminded of his long-ago brush with comic strip stardom almost as much as he did surprising people with those custom designed artificial bills.