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Thursday, December 6, 2012

My Larry Hagman Memories: The innocence of youth

Larry Hagman died last week. He was 81. He lived a long, productive life. This blog isn't a bio of him, nor a career retrospective. Others have done those. Instead, I have chosen to touch on the moments of his career, both famous and forgettable that impacted my life in some way.
When he died, my wife mentioned to me that J.R. had died. Of course, I corrected her on that. However, most people view Larry Hagman as J.R. It was that iconic a character. I loved that show, and that character, but I do not view Larry Hagman solely as J.R. I have 3 very distinct memories of him, and that is just one of them.
His career basically started just after I was born, and spanned very close to the day h
e died. In essence, my whole life he has some part of it. Now, he is not. But the things he did will live on in my mind. And so will the memories attached to them.

I Dream of Jeannie, the show that would first bring Larry Hagman to the notice of the world debuted on September 18, 1965. Of course, I was born on January 7, 1965, which made me about 8 months at that point. By the time the show had finished its run in 1970, I still had not seen one of them. As a 5 year old, my viewing experience consisted of cartoons and pretend morning shows, mainly Captain Kangaroo, The Flintstones, The Jetsons and Mr. Dress Up, among others.
Like most 60's shows that I watched, I saw them all in reruns. Many of those I watched daily at my grandmothers house. I was always captivated by I Dream of Jeannie, and by the time I watched them, around 1973 or 1974 I actually understood the premise of the show.
Basically, it was about an Astronaut who seemed to lose his mind although he actually didn't, and he spent every episode trying to convince the world he didn't, which he actually didn't. And his Jeannie in a bottle, who wanted to please him so much that she got him in trouble more times than not. A simple premise that worked because of the superior writing of Sidney Sheldon, who created the show and wrote almost every episode himself. That is something that is unheard of these days.
But mostly it was just good entertainment, just like most 60s sitcoms were. I obviously never saw any of them in first run, but shows like My Three Sons, Green Acres, Gilligan's Island and Family Affair were shows I grew up on in the 70s and would watch every day. I didn't understand the concept of re runs at that point and they seemed to be "in the moment" to me. I wonder if kids these days feel that way about shows from the 1990's. I doubt that. With the internet and You Tube, kids are way more savvy these days than we were back then.

We all have down times, when things aren't going so great. Time between when we really hit it big, and when we are going to hit it big again. The times when we just do stuff that isn't that significant in our lives, but nonetheless keeps us going. Bill Cosby, Raquel Welch, Harvey Keitel and Larry Hagman, has just an experience.
That movie was called Mother, Jugs and Speed in 1975.

I'm sure to them, this was just a stupid movie, a paycheck, a project to pass the time to get to the next better project, but to me, it was very significant because of when and where I saw it. I do remember that I didn't make the connection between what I had ever seen these stars do before and what I saw on the screen in this movie.
Another of the staples of the shows I watched in the 70's was Fat Albert, the Saturday morning cartoon that was really all about Bill Cosby, his youth and his standup act. I knew nothing about any of that. To me, it was just a fun show to watch about a bunch of interesting characters, based on a place I would never see (the ghetto) with a moral at the end that I didn't fully comprehend. Cosby voiced all the parts in the show, something I didn't realize until much later in life.

 Bill Cosby also got his big break, as did Larry Hagman, in 1965, when he was the first black actor to be a lead on the show I Spy. To that point, Cosby was mostly known for his nightclub standup act, his Tonight Show appearances and a bunch of successful comedy albums. 

 By the time I Spy ran its course--and Fat Albert was fading a bit-- Cosby took on Mother Jugs and Speed. As did Raquel Welch.
Growing up, Raquel Welch was the benchmark that every woman was compared against in terms of being sexy and beautiful. I still remember hearing my grandparents and parents utter the phrase many times.

"Well, she may be pretty, but she is no Raquel Welch"

By the early 1970's, Raquel Welch had been in numerous box office flops,  most notable being Kansas City Bomber, a horrific movie about Roller Derby.

Many considered her to be the sexiest woman alive at that time. But by 1975, her movie career had faded considerably, as had Cosby's and Hagman's star power.

"someday, you're going to know who I am"

-Larry Hagman in 1965 at the beginning of I Dream of Jeannie

Both Hagman and Cosby, as talented as they were, were known as very difficult to work with, and many didn't want to work with them. When you get to that point, you take what comes. Mother, Jugs And Speed came along in 1975.
To a 10 year old boy at the time, I was just fascinated with the sexual appeal that Raquel Welch could bring on screen. I am surprised to this day that I was allowed to watch a movie like this. The language, the skin and the tone of the scenes were certainly adult in nature. I recall we were on vacation, somewhere in or around New York City, and there was nothing to do that night, so as a family,  we took in this movie at a second rate theater that was mostly empty. I remember the movie being very funny, although it probably wasn't nearly as funny as I thought it was then. 
Bill Cosby has always been a very funny guy, and Larry Hagman a super actor who could play anything, as he evidenced when he played comedy on I Dream Of Jeannie and drama on Dallas. Raquel Welch, in addition to being a sexpot, was also a decent actress, as she evidenced later in her career when her draw was no longer her T and A.
One thing that sticks with me about this movie is her name. Because of how sexy she was then, and the name she had, I have always associated the name Raquel with a woman being mega sexy. I don't know if that actually holds up, but it is a mindset I still have to this day. The first girl that ever liked me was named Roxanne, and that was close enough for me. That was also the same summer I saw this movie. 
Bill Cosby went on to gain his greatest fame with his sitcom, The Cosby show,  while Raquel Welch became famous for her fitness tapes, while Larry Hagman was still to reach his greatest peak. 
 Fast forward two more years to 1977. Larry Hagmans career is in the dumper, and I am over at my friend Elan's house doing something for which I cannot remember. Elan was fascinated by science fiction and superheroes, which I was not. On the TV in his kitchen was a promo for a new show about a man who came from the water. That show was called Man From Atlantis.

Man From Atlantis started as a TV movie that did very well, but then as a series did not and was cancelled after one season. Just as the star Patrick Duffy was waiting to hear that he was out of work, a few days later he got cast on a show called Dallas. It was his big break.

Larry Hagman always wanted to have some say in the creative content of the shows he was on. He tried that on I Dream of Jeannie and failed, and even though he loved Dallas, he knew he wasn't meant to be the focus of the show. Patrick Duffy was. But he created that J.R. character, one he had played around with in a couple of movies just after Mother, Jugs and Speed and before Dallas, and because he did that, he became the focus of the show.

I remember when Dallas came out,  it was not a terribly hyped show and I don't think they thought it would last. To that point, the nighttime soap opera format had not caught on. This was really the first to take hold, and it brought the rush of many others later, most notably Dynasty, but also Falcon Crest and Knots Landing. But Dallas was always the king of those. And that was due to the tremendous writing, acting and tension they created. Larry Hagman was at the center of that from day one. It truly was the break that would make him famous forever,  as he had predicted back in 1965.

One thing that really stood out on that show was the opening theme song and credits, which are iconic to this day. It really set the tone for the whole show, and each time you saw it,  although you had seen it many times before, you watched it and you couldn't wait for the first set of commercials to be over so you could see what they had in store for that week.
I do remember that I watched it every week, every Friday night for years. Even among us Grade 9, 10 and 11 kids, it was a major topic of conversation on Monday mornings at school. Even more so than "what was wrong with the Maple Leafs?"

Of course, the biggest moment was the summer after J.R. got shot. Who shot J.R.? Did he live, and if he did, who tried to kill him, and why? It was one of the biggest cliffhangers ever, to this day.
Many don't know this, but that wasn't the original script idea. It only came about by accident when the show started to get very good ratings and they wanted to produce 4 extra shows that season. So they just decided on the spur of the moment to shoot J.R. and deal with it the next season. Which turned out to be a huge break for Larry Hagman, who realized quickly he could cash in on that chance. Which is exactly what he did. I remember very clearly there was a daily battle in the newspaper over whether he would come back. He wanted more money...and he was going to get it or he was going to walk. 

 In fact, even though Hagman was almost 50 years old and didn't look like the handsome young man he did at 35 when he was the lead on I Dream of Jeannie, he became a huge sex symbol because of the J.R. character. If you remember the show well, he also had his pick of the best looking women each week on the show,  something that made him even more hated, as he was married to Sue Ellen at the time. Of course, Sue Ellen was shacking up with his arch rival, Cliff Barnes. And Cliff Barnes was the brother of J.R.'s younger brothers wife, Pam (Victoria Principal). And they used the Hatfields and McCoys/Romeo and Juliet storyline, in that the Ewing and Barnes families had been feuding for many years. In fact, Jock Ewing, J.R.'s father, had stolen the oil business and the woman they both wanted from Cliffs father. The contrast and conflicts were superbly crafted on the show. They were never short of storylines and packed a lot of show into 45 minutes each week.

 And then there was the who shot J.R. revelation, which was created in the first place because Larry Hagman wanted a lot more money per episode and the producers weren't sure they wanted to give it to him. But, in hedging their bets, they also backed themselves into a corner, which only ended up costing them more when they had to have him the next year.

It was classic soap opera all the way,  and Dallas did it better than anyone ever had or has since. Larry Hagman had started off as a soap opera player back before he landed I Dream of Jeannie and he knew how to be successful at it..and Larry Hagman's career bloomed because of that.
I have many memories of him, but that will always be what the rest of the world remembers him for.  And rightly so. Dallas was his shining moment. For me, it was just one moment in a lifetime of moments that Larry Hagman popped in and out of.
He will live on in the reruns of those shows, and every time I see one it will take me back to those times. 
Larry Hagman was right. We will always remember him. 






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