Goodbye, J.R.

Dallas, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, TNT

R.I.P., J.R.

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.

What are your favorite memories of J.R. Ewing? Share your comments below and read more opinions from Dallas Decoder.

Comments

  1. This made me cry!!

  2. I’m still on the fence about this murder mystery storyline, as I don’t like the idea of anyone “killing” J.R. Ewing, and would have rather that he just died peacefully in his sleep, but I guess I just have to cross my fingers and hope that they can make this work and that, by the end of the season, he will have somehow managed to get the last laugh.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Beautiful. There is nothing to be added. I’m choked up anyway…

  4. Further thoughts: You’re right about how it was Hagman who made the character work, with his charisma. As David Jacobs famously said, it was in that very first episode where the script said that J.R. was supposed to smile after he was outwitted by Pam, but, instead, Hagman laughed, and that just showed a whole different side to the character, and set the stage for how he would be portrayed. So even when he was being totally devious, he still seemed like he was having fun, and that made him likeable.

    Also, in relation to J.R.’s desire to please his daddy. That was the other thing about J.R., and the show of Dallas in general, that made it such a lasting cultural phenomenon. That’s why it holds up in a way that other hit shows from that era like Dynasty, Miami Vice, or even Knots Landing don’t. It was ultimately about family, which was something everyone could relate to. I always say, look @ me, and my older brother, both Dallas fanatics. We were two lower-class teenage Black boys being raised by our single mother in Los Angeles, what the heck would we have in common with this rich, White family living on a ranch in Texas? But when you stripped away the material trappings of wealth, they were ultimately just another family, having the same types of squabbles that all families have. And it was focused on two brothers, both fighting for the love of their parents. The older brother who got all the responsibilities and felt the pressure to live up to his father’s expectations, and was resentful of the spoiled younger brother whom the parents doted on. As my brother always said, its a story as old as Cain and Abel. Something everyone could understand. And that’s what kept us coming back every week (& also why season 9 didn’t work, because it was missing one brother, so the dynamic was broken).

    • J.R., I love the way you expressed this. My family doesn’t have much in common with the Ewings either — and yet we have everything in common with them. Almost every family does. Thanks so much.

  5. This is a wonderful essay on the evolution and impact on the character. I really like how you relate J.R. to the flawed protagonists of contemporary dramas.

  6. Lloyd Ferrigon says:

    Yes Dallas was quite different from Dynasty, Family mattered we loved the Ewings. Alexis and Adam were evil for evil’s sake where as with JR you understood his motivations.

    Also, both the writers and Larry Hagman were careful not to make JR over the top evil. He had his boundaries and he did love his family.

    This episode will be sad saying good by to both Larry Hagman and JR Ewing. RIP.

  7. Chris, beautifully written and so very true. Thanks!

  8. “Bobby, ain’t you supposed to be changing your baby’s diaper and taking care of that crazy wife of yours?”

    Secretary:”Cliff Barnes is here to see you” J.R.: “Tell him to get the hell out of here.”

    Miss Ellie: “J.R. , did you marry this girl?” J.R. “Yes I did Momma.”

    “Daddy:
    MY JR impression is just of me trying to imitate him saying “Daddy” “Bobby” “Sue Ellen” and “Cliff Barnes” or just “Barnes”

    Looking at the broad international appeal and influence of “Dallas”,it is safe to say that J.R. Ewing is a global icon. Here is a short article in the Washington Post http://tinyurl.com/cv338rj

    How ‘Dallas’ Won the Cold War
    By Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch,April 27, 2008

    “Yes, April 1978 was the first time our nation turned its lonely eyes to Southfork Ranch, the winningly diabolical genius of J.R. Ewing (as played by Larry Hagman) and Victoria Principal’s high-waisted pantsuits. It was the booze-and-sex-soaked caricature of free enterprise and executive lifestyles that proved irresistible not just to stagflation-weary Americans but viewers from France to the Soviet Union to Ceausescu’s Romania.”

  9. Only great actors can transform unsavory characters in wonderful characters. Larry was the best. Simply the best. Indeed, today is his masterpiece.

  10. Very nicely written. I will miss JR forever. What is most shocking is that Hagman never received an Emmy for his remarkable performance. What an oversight!

  11. Good grief this post wrung me out to dry! Great perspective. I share your point of view on JR. I loved him too. I saw him as an outlaw on Dallas and a loner, really. So when he did let Sue Ellen and John Ross in, it was all the more poignant. And your parallel to other flawed heroes is so right on. You mentioned some of my very favorite characters, the ones who personify the human experience from the ugliness to the spectacular and everything in between.

  12. The news articles that refer to J.R. Ewing as a “villian” miss the point entirely. J. R. was the protagonist of the show! He WAS Dallas (and I doubt the series will continue for long without him). I don’t know if Larry Hagman ever won an Emmy for his portrayal of the Texas oilman, but he definitely should have! He masterfully created a character with charm, intelligence, and ingenuity. J. R. was tough and tenacious, while at the same time vulnerable and caring. His legacy is likely to continue in DVDs of the Dallas series for many decades.

  13. Tanner Y. says:

    I was reminded, while watching “J.R.’s Masterpiece”, about Bobby’s “funeral” It think part of the priest’s eulogy is how the fans feel. ” Our lives will never be the same, for his having touched us, and then left us.”

  14. My self I loved J.R Ewing.I know that Larry wanted J.R killed off and left a letter that said that. At first I did not want J.R murdered but now think that it was the right way to write him out of Dallas.
    Bye J.R I will miss you

    • I wasn’t aware Larry left a letter with those kinds of instructions. Has that been reported in the press? Thanks again for commenting Ellen!

  15. You have done a superb job at putting together this site. And you did a great job summarizing Hagman’s character of J.R. I wrote my own after Hagman died. http://rhettwilson.blogspot.com/2013/01/j-r-ewing-and-ebenezer-scrooge.html I was hoping he would live long enough for J.R. and Sue Ellen to remarry. And I was sorry that we did not find out that his killer was Katherine Wentworth. But, they didn’t ask me to write it!

Trackbacks

  1. […] series often get a boost from “milestone” episodes, and the death of J.R. – whom Hagman began portraying in 1978 – fit the […]

  2. […] this scene, “Dallas” has a little fun with its audience. For years, viewers — present company included — had been treating J.R. like a hero. Now fictional fans like Cliff’s deliveryman were doing […]

  3. […] this is about what Hagman has meant to television. When J.R. Ewing entered our living rooms in 1978, prime-time dramas were populated with characters […]

  4. […] drama, populated by antiheroes like Walter White and Don Draper. None of them would exist if J.R. Ewing hadn’t come first. What a shame so many TV critics neglect to mention that. Even more shameful: Hagman’s omission […]

  5. […] I suppose it’s possible no one submitted Hagman’s name this year, but that seems mighty unlikely, especially after the brouhaha that erupted over his snub during the Emmy tributes. No matter where the blame lies, isn’t it a shame Hagman is once again being overlooked by the medium he helped shape? […]

  6. […] This guy too. No one loved a good time more than Larry Hagman, the great actor who brought J.R. Ewing to life. If Mr. Hagman were still here, I have a feeling he’d love how much fun TNT’s “Dallas” has […]

  7. […] complex performance, alternately making John Ross a source of scorn and sympathy. (Remind you of someone else we once knew?) Trust me: Henderson is going to be a big star someday. Hold on to him as long as […]

  8. […] watched J.R. for more than 35 years, observing him through milestones like the death of his beloved father, the birth of his son, the […]

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