The love-to-hate-him 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, who died Nov. 23 at age 81 in the city of his hiss-applauded conniving oil tycoon J.R. Ewing — Dallas. A TV star (I Dream of Jeannie) before he became a soap-star villain, Hagman, the son of Broadway star Mary Martin, tapped a once-in-a-lifetime gusher of gleeful villainy. J.R. was written as a callous, cocky bastard, the evilest mind ever to occupy a ten-gallon hat. Yet what made him a TV icon was the swaggering, lusty, funky delight that Hagman brought to J.R.’s schemes. He embarked on deceptions as happily as if he were digging into a plate of barbecue, and it was that infectious pleasure that made audiences want to see him brought down–and also to never, ever stop.
J.R. and Hagman very nearly obliged them. Dallas ran from 1978 to 1991, bracketing the flush Reagan ’80s. But its pop-cultural peak was the third-season cliffhanger, when J.R. took a bullet and “Who Shot J.R.?” became a national obsession all summer. The shooter turned out to be his sister-in-law Kristin, pregnant with his child, but who couldn’t it have been? That America was so rapt by the fate of a rat-bastard millionaire shows how well Hagman physically embodied what storytellers since Milton, with his Lucifer, have known: nothing beats a charming villain.
This text originally appeared in the Dec. 10, 2012 issue of TIME magazine.
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