The Making of a Superstar: The Life and Time of Larry Hagman

In the final scene of the final episode of the 1979–80 season of the phenomenally popular TV show Dallas, arch-villain J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) hears a noise outside his office. He walks out to the hall to investigate. 

He is then shot twice by an unseen assailant–and collapses to the floor. 

This episode was broadcast on March 21, 1980. The cliffhanger was titled “A House Divided.” It launched an eight-month waiting period for Dallas fans to find out whether J.R. would survive the attack. 

Viewers waited even longer to find out which of his many enemies were responsible. 

Immediately following the airing of “A House Divided,” and for the eight-month media frenzy that followed (during which bookmakers around the world set odds on J.R.’s possible assassins), Larry Hagman became one of the most recognized celebrities on the planet. 

He was the most in-demand guest on TV talk shows around the globe.

The long-awaited, aptly-named episode “Who Done it?” finally aired on November 21. It was the fourth episode of the 1980-81 season.

It not only became the most-watched episode of the night, it holds the distinction of being the second-highest, most-watched TV episode in history. Second only to the final episode of MASH.

But while Dallas may have propelled Hagman to superstardom, it was not his first brush with TV fame. 

Seasons #1 and #4 of his highly popular sitcom I Dream of Jeannie (aired from 1965 to 1970, and co-starring Barbara Eden), consistently placed in the top 30 of the Nielsen ratings. Hagman received an Emmy nomination in Season #4.  

Larry Hagman publicity photograph, circa March 1973

Early Life

Larry Martin Hagman was born on September 21, 1931, in Fort Worth, Texas. His father was Benjamin Jackson Hagman (an accountant-turned-criminal-attorney). 

His mother was a 17-year-old named Mary Marti. She would later become a renowned Broadway actress and musical comedy star. He grew up in near by Weatherford, Texas. 

Nearly from the beginning, it was apparent to family and friends that Mary, having married so young, was not cut out for motherhood. Thus, it came as no surprise when in 1936 she and Benjamin divorced. 

At five years of age, Hagman was sent to live with his maternal grandmother, Juanita Presley Martin, in Texas, while his mother pursued an acting career. This living arrangement created years of resentment from Hagman regarding his ever-absent mother. 

In 1940, Hagman’s mother met and married a mean-spirited alcoholic named Richard Halliday. A year later, Mary gave birth to a daughter, Heller—whom Hagman came to adore. 

Halliday treated Hagman cruelly, like an outsider. He effectively prevented mother and son from ever repairing their strained relationship.


During the early years of his mother’s second marriage, Hagman was sent to the Black-Foxe Military Institute. It was known for its strict regimentation. He then briefly went to the Woodstock Country School, a boarding school in Vermont.

When his mother moved to New York City to pursue a Broadway stage career, Hagman was again sent to live with his grandmother. This time in California. 

A few years later, however, his grandmother died. So Hagman was allowed to join his mother in New York City. 

At age 15, Hagman moved back to his hometown of Weatherford and attended Weatherford High School. Although his father wanted him to become a lawyer and join his practice, Hagman was drawn to drama classes and the stage. 

After graduating from Weatherford High in 1949, Hagman made the decision to pursue a career in acting. He majored in dance and drama at Bard College in New York. But finding college not to his liking, he dropped out after just one year. 

A high school photograph of Larry Hagman

A Natural-Born Actor

In 1950, Hagman began acting in Shakespearean productions. They were produced by American-British theater actress, producer, and director Margaret Webster, at her school at the Woodstock Playhouse in Woodstock, New York. 

Among his acting coaches was Nancy Marchand (later of Lou Grant and Sopranos fame). 

During the summer of 1950, Hagman worked in Dallas as a production assistant. He was given small roles in American stage director/producer’s theater-in-the-round productions at Margo Jones’s theater company.

He appeared in The Taming of the Shrew. This was followed by numerous tent show musicals with St. John Terrell’s Music Circus in St. Petersburg, Florida, and Lambertville, New Jersey. 

In 1951, Hagman appeared in the London production of South Pacific (as did his mother). He remained in the show for nearly a year. 

In 1952, Hagman’s career was self-derailed (in a manner of speaking), when he received his draft notice and enlisted in the US Air Force.

He was fortunate, however, to be stationed in London where he spent the majority of his military service entertaining US troops in the UK and on European bases. He was in charge of providing entertainment for some 60,000 men and their families. 

Once discharged from the Air Force in 1956, Hagman returned to New York City where he resumed his acting career. 

That year he appeared in the off-Broadway play, Once Around the Block, written by Pulitzer Prize and Academy Award winner William Saroyan. That was followed by nearly a year in another off-Broadway play, James Lee’s Career. 

Broadway and Television

Hagman’s Broadway acting debut occurred in 1958 in the Speed Lamkin production of, Comes a Day. He played the role of Jim Culpepper; a role that got Hagman noticed by the acting community at large. 

Hagman went on to appear in four more Broadway plays: God and Kate Murphy, The Nervous Set, The Warm Peninsula, and The Beauty Part

During this budding period of his career, Hagman also appeared in numerous (mostly live) television programs including:

  • 1956 – he joined the cast of daytime soap opera The Edge of Night as Ed Gibson—a role he maintained for two years
  • 1957 – he appeared in the episode “Saturday Lost” of the crime drama, Decoy (in the role of Kenneth Davidson)
  • 1958 – he appeared in several “guest-starring” roles in the adventure-drama series Harbormaster (starring the renown TV actress Barbara Bain)
  • 1958 to 1961 – he appeared three times on Lloyd Bridges’ highly popular syndicated adventure series, Sea Hunt (as Alex Kouras, Elliot Conway, and Johnny Greco)
  • 1960 – he had a role on the CBS summer medical series Diagnosis:Unknown (as Don Harding)
  • 1963 and 1964 – he appeared twice in segments of the CBS legal drama, The Defenders.

Behind the Scenes: Personal Life

In 1954, while still in the Air Force, Hagman met and married 25-year-old Swedish-born clothing designer Maj Irene Axelsson. They first had a civil ceremony witnessed by his staff sergeant. 

Then, they had a religious service at London’s Swedish Church. The couple went on to have two children, Heidi Kristina (in 1958) and Preston (in 1962). 

Larry Hagman and Maj Irene Axelsson. 1983

Film Debut

In 1964, Hagman made his film debut in Ensign Pulver. It featured an all-star cast including: Robert Walker Jr., Burl Ives, Walter Matthau, Tommy Sands, and a young Jack Nicholson. 

That same year, Hagman also appeared in Fail-Safe, a Cold War thriller directed by Sidney Lumet based on the 1962 novel of the same name. The film starred several heavy-hitters including Henry Fonda, Dan O’Herlihy, Walter Matthau, Frank Overton, Fritz Weaver, Dana Elcar, and Dom DeLuise. 

In just 14 years, Hagman had gone from a small-production theater actor to one recognized as having the acting chops to take on any role—small or big screen. 

I Dream of Jeannie

Having established himself as one of the most versatile actors in the business—in theater, television, and feature films—in 1965, Hagman was offered the TV role of Air Force Captain (later Major) Anthony Nelson. 

He co-starred with the beautiful television and film actress, Barbara Eden, in a new NBC situation comedy, I Dream of Jeannie. 

It was created to compete with ABC’s Bewitched and CBS’s My Favorite Martian. Jeannie entered the top 30 ratings its first year and ran for five seasons, from 1965 to 1970. 

Jeannie and Bewitched ran neck-in-neck for the first three years. However, Jeannie pulled ahead in the ratings during the fourth season. The show drew the audience from My Favorite Martian by the second year. Fans tuned in each week to see the chemistry between Hagman and Eden.  

Publicity photo of Larry Hagman and Barbara Eden from I Dream of Jeannie.

Real Life: Causes, Drugs, and Reconciliation

In 1968, Hagman joined the left-wing political party, the Peace and Freedom Party (PFP). It was an antiwar, pro-civil rights organization.

It was opposed to the Vietnam War. It also supported Black liberation, farmworker unionizing, women’s liberation, and gay rights. In 2003, Hagman used his PFP association to speak out against US President George W. Bush’s plan to invade Iraq.

In 1969, musician David Crosby (of Crosby, Stills & Nash), introduced Hagman to LSD after a concert. In his biography, Hello Darlin’: Tall (and Absolutely True) Tales About My Life, Hagman later wrote, “LSD was such a profound experience in my life that it changed my pattern of life and my way of thinking and I could not exclude it [from my autobiography].”

At about that same time, Hagman was exposed to marijuana for the first time by movie legend Jack Nicholson. This was meant to be a safer alternative to Hagman’s heavy drinking.

 Included also in his autobiography, Hagman wrote, “I liked it because it was fun, it made me feel good and I never had a hangover.” 

(Although Hagman was a member of a 12-step program for alcoholism, he publicly advocated marijuana as a healthier alternative to alcohol.)

In 1973, Hagman’s stepfather, Richard Halliday, died. This gave Hagman the opportunity to reconcile with his estranged mother, Mary Martin. (The two would remain close until her death from colon cancer in 1990.)

TV and Films

In the wake of I Dream of Jeannie, Hagman was kept busy in more than three dozen film and television projects including: 

  • Rod Serling TV show Night Gallery (1970)
  • Peter Fonda-directed western film The Hired Hand (1971)
  • Made-for-TV comedy Getting Away From it All (1972)
  • TV sit-com Here We Go Again (1973)
  • TV pilot, Side-Kicks, co-starring Louis Gossett (1974)
  • Richard Donner-directed psychological TV-drama, “Sarah T. – Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic”(1975); American Black comedy co-starring Bill Cosby, Raquel Welsh, and Harvey Keitel, Mother, Jugs, and Speed (1976)
  • TV mini-series, The Rhinemann Exchange (1977).  

Hagman’s star was quickly rising and he could pick and choose from dozens of small and big screen projects. 

Little did he imagine that superstardom was just ahead.

Photo of Barbara Eden and Larry Hagman from the television comedy I Dream of Jeannie. Circa 1969


In 1978, Hagman was offered two roles on two new television series: NBC’s The Waverly Wonders, and CBS’s Dallas

Dallas was intended as a vehicle for the “Bobby” character (Patrick Duffy). However, when Hagman read the script (at Maj’s urging), he and his wife concluded that the part was perfect for him. He was J.R. Ewing. 

Hagman decided to base his portrayal of the treacherous oil tycoon on a man he worked for as a boy named Jess Hall Jr. He had been the owner of Antelope Tool and Supply Company.

Dallas became a worldwide, phenomenal success. It aired in 90 countries around the world. Most notably, perhaps, in the UK, where even members of the Royal Family became fans. Most importantly for Hagman, “J.R.” became the most beloved character on prime-time television. 

The phenomenal success of Dallas led to a very successful prime-time spin-off (Knot’s Landing), and a number of Made-for-TV prequels and sequels. Hagman became one of the best-known television stars in history. 

After Dallas

In 1995, Hagman underwent a 16-hour life-saving liver transplant at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center after being diagnosed with liver cancer. This was most likely brought on by some 40 years of heavy drinking.

This health condition was exacerbated by cirrhosis of the liver. It had been diagnosed three years earlier. He had also been a heavy smoker prior to quitting at age 34. 

Hagman spent several weeks recuperating, but recovered quickly and went on to resume a relatively normal life.

Subsequently, Hagman became chairman of the American Cancer Society’s annual “Great American Smokeout” for many years. He also worked on behalf of the National Kidney Foundation.

A Short-Lived Comeback

In 1997, Hagman launched a new TV drama, Orleans. Though it lasted only one season, his memorable portrayal of Judge Luther Charbonnet gave him some of the best across-the-board reviews of his 36-year acting career.  

Larry Hagman, ca. 2010

Final Years and Dallas Revisited

In June of 2011, Hagman announced that he had stage-2 throat cancer. In his words, “As J.R. I could get away with anything–bribery, blackmail and adultery, but I got caught by cancer. I do want everyone to know that it is a very common and treatable form of cancer.” 

Later that year, Hagman had an acorn-sized tumor removed from his tongue. 

Just a few months earlier, Hagman was approached by Warner Bros./CBS about reprising his role as J.R. Ewing. This would be a new, second-generation, revived version of the original Dallas series. 

The new series was to be a continuation of the old one following a 20-year break. During which, the characters and their relationships continued to evolve unseen, until the day the new series began. 

Coming as no surprise to producers, Hagman jumped at the opportunity to bring “Ol’ J.R.” back to life. And despite his fading health, Hagman managed to reprise his dastardly role in 14 of the 40 episodes.

They aired between 2012 and 2014. The series was soon after canceled. It was essentially unsustainable without Hagman’s character. 

In June of 2012, Hagman’s cancer was said to be in remission. But by July of that year, doctors diagnosed him with myelodysplastic syndrome (formerly known as preleukemia).


Larry Martin Hagman died on November 23, 2012, at Medical City Dallas Hospital in Dallas, following complications from acute myeloid leukemia. 

In a statement to the Dallas Morning News, Hagman’s family stated: “Larry’s family and close friends had joined him in Dallas for the Thanksgiving holiday. He died surrounded by loved ones. It was a peaceful passing, just as he had wished for.”

The New York Times obituary described him as, “one of television’s most beloved villains.” (And that, he certainly was.) 

Coming Full-Circle

For five episodes during Season 14 of the original Dallas, Larry Hagman and Barbara Eden were reunited. Eden joined the cast as LeeAnn De La Vega, a wealthy South American entrepreneur and owner of De La Vega Oil; a company much larger than Ewing

According to the plot, De La Vega was a woman J.R. met and impregnated while attending the University of Texas. Who, after having an abortion was unable to bear children. She showed up looking for revenge. 

In 1991 she finagled Ewing Oil from Bobby Ewing (who’d managed to gain control). The company then became a wholly-owned subsidiary of De La Vega Oil

During their encounter, Eden’s character tortured J.R. by letting him remain at Ewing Oil, while orchestrating an end to his relationship with love interest Vanessa Beaumont, by seducing him. 

Once having her revenge, De La Vega left Dallas and sold Ewing Oil to Michelle Stevens. This was the scheming younger sister of April Stevens, who married Bobby Ewing but was killed on their honeymoon, to further torture J.R.   

References, “15 Most Watched TV Episodes Of All Time,” 15 Most Watched TV Episodes Of All Time (, “Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 54 – ‘A House Divided’,”, “Comes a Day Broadway Original Cast,”

Hagman, Larry, “Hello Darlin’: Tall (and Absolutely True) Tales About My Life,” Hello darlin’ : tall (and absolutely true) tales about my life : Hagman, Larry : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive, “Dallas Reboot: The Next Generation,” Dallas Reboot: The Next Generation – A New Era of Secrets, Schemes and (, “Lee Ann De La Vega,”, “Larry Hagman, Biography,” Larry Hagman – Biography – IMDb 

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