I don’t know who came up with the idea that J.R. Ewing was the man we loved to hate, but nothing could have been further from the truth. Do you know anyone who hated J.R., ever? He was always the “Dallas” character we cared about most. The “Who Shot J.R.?” hysteria didn’t occur because people thought he got what was coming to him. We didn’t spend seven months trying to guess the identity of J.R.’s assailant because we wanted to shake that person’s hand. We wanted to know who to shake our fist at. Who dare harm our hero?
J.R.’s funeral on tonight’s edition of TNT’s “Dallas” will bring an end to one of the most enduring figures in our popular culture. J.R. arrived in the era of pet rocks; he leaves in the age of Angry Birds. He has been as much a fixture in our living rooms as any president. Jimmy Carter held the office when CBS flung open the doors to J.R.’s white house, Southfork, in 1978. J.R. outlasted him and Reagan and made it halfway through Bush I, then took a break and came back with reunion movies and specials during Clinton and Bush II. Finally, under Obama, J.R. began making weekly visits again.
Like Superman, James Bond and Mr. Spock, J.R. spanned decades. One big difference: Those characters have all been played by multiple actors, but for 35 years there’s been only one J.R.: Larry Hagman. (Yes, Kevin Wixted had a small role as a teenaged J.R. in the 1986 “Dallas: The Early Years” prequel, but Hagman’s appearance at the beginning of that movie is the one we remember.) Hagman logged almost 400 hours of prime-time television inhabiting J.R.’s skin. He appeared in every “Dallas” episode, movie and clip show, plus a few hours of “Knots Landing.” For awhile in the 1980s, Hagman even donned J.R.’s Stetson and hawked BVD underwear in TV commercials. His memorable tag line: “Now where else would I put my personal assets?”
Hagman’s irresistible charisma made it impossible to dislike his character. J.R. did awful things, but Hagman was clearly having so much fun doing them, we couldn’t help but have fun too. J.R. bribed, blackmailed and backstabbed. He cheated on his wives and his mistresses. Most entertainingly, he never bit his tongue when it came to letting his family know how he felt about them. To Pam: “I don’t give a damn about you or your happiness, honey. But I do care about what’s good for me.” To Lucy: “Say, why don’t you have that junior plastic surgeon you married design you a new face – one without a mouth?” To Bobby: “You’re a whole lot dumber than I ever thought a brother of mine could be – with the exception of Ray and Gary, of course.”
As mean as he was, “Dallas” never lost sight of J.R.’s humanity. More than anything, he wanted Daddy to be proud of him, but Jock loved Bobby best. In the beginning, every one of J.R.’s schemes stemmed from his desperate desire to win the old man’s approval. This made J.R. enormously sympathetic. After all, who among us hasn’t felt unloved at some point? There were other flashes of J.R.’s softer side, like the time he recalled falling in love with Sue Ellen and the tears he shed at Bobby’s burial. But nothing made J.R. more relatable than fatherhood. When Jock died, J.R. made John Ross the center of his universe. Every time we saw him doting on that little boy, our hearts melted. Forget Bill Cosby; J.R. Ewing was the best TV dad in the ’80s.
In old age, J.R. became even more complex. He still schemed, but now he was just as likely to use his powers to help others as he was for his own selfish ends. J.R. plotted with John Ross to take over Ewing Energies, but he also blackmailed a smug prosecutor to save Sue Ellen from going to jail and vowed to help Bobby bring down Harris Ryland. We also discovered there were lines that J.R. wouldn’t cross. He stole Southfork from Bobby, then returned it when his conscience revealed itself. And when John Ross wanted to take advantage of one of Bobby’s misfortunes, J.R. put the young man in his place: “You still got a lot to learn, boy. When the family’s in trouble, we don’t take advantage.”
Perhaps most movingly, the elderly J.R. also became a teller of hard truths. To John Ross: “I spent most of your childhood chasing after women I didn’t love and making deals that didn’t really matter.” To Sue Ellen: “The best decision you ever made was the day you walked away from me.” To Bobby: “I love you … and I don’t know who I’d be without you.”
It’s true that daytime soap operas have given us many characters who have endured for decades, but almost no one in prime time can match J.R.’s longevity or evolution. James Arness played Marshal Dillon on “Gunsmoke” for 20 seasons, and even though that character grew less brooding as the show progressed, he was essentially the same good-hearted hero in the last episode that he was in the first. Archie Bunker, immortalized by Hagman’s friend Carroll O’Connor, grew more tolerant during his 11-year run, but frankly that made him a little less interesting. You can’t say the same thing about J.R.’s journey through life.
If Hagman hadn’t died last fall, J.R. would still be here, captivating us. Quite appropriately – and quite courageously, when you think about it – the “Dallas” producers are allowing J.R. to die, sending him off with a brand-new “Who Killed J.R.?” mystery. The character’s death marks the end of an era, although his legacy is plain for all to see. Before “Dallas,” the people who made television drama were afraid to let storylines continue from week to week. They insisted protagonists be good. Now the prime-time landscape is populated with flawed heroes whose stories never end. Don Draper. Walter White. Carrie Mathison. J.R. didn’t just touch the lives of his fans; he helped shape an entire medium.
Maybe you feel differently, but I never loved to hate J.R. I just loved him. The only thing I hate is that now he’s gone.
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