Let me start by expressing my condolences on the recent death of your mom, Maj Hagman. I enjoyed learning more about her in your book. She was a pretty resourceful woman.
She was a doer. Resilient, handy, innovative. She came up with all sorts of things.
For those who haven’t read “The Eternal Party,” can you talk about why you decided to write it?
I was hoping [the book] would instigate larger communication about my father — that other people would then share their stories, and lo and behold, that is just what’s happening. I’m hearing so much. It’s making the whole picture of my father so much more complete. As I put out my stories, people are coming back to me with their stories, and I’m getting a much more rounded knowledge of who my father was.
What sorts of things are you hearing?
My father used his celebrity to reach out to people, and when people contacted him, he often formed long-term bonds with his fans. He would communicate with people over decades. And then there is a story in the book about a little boy who was missing his dad during the Vietnam War and met Dad, who realized that this little boy needed a male father figure — someone to pay attention to him, to hold his hand. I think that may have been one of the very first times that Dad really understood that there was a healing power to celebrity.
I love that story because I suspect that’s how a lot of us saw your dad — like a father figure who came into our living rooms every week.
Yeah, and that’s how he said it. I was with him — I think I was about 8 at the time — and he took me aside and said, “I am in this boy’s living room once a week, but he can’t see his dad. How would you feel if you couldn’t see your dad?” He made it real for me.
Something I struggled with when I read your book is, I always feel like people of notoriety deserve their privacy too, and yet you reveal some personal information about your dad.
And about myself. I figured if I was going to be forthcoming with him, I was going to put myself out there too.
Did you struggle to decide what to disclose and what not to disclose?
You know, I read your commentary and your concerns that my father had never really talked publicly about his infidelities — that was a struggle for me to decide [to disclose]. But when I looked at telling the story of our family’s life, covering up that lie created such a big hole in the fabric of our reality that I had to not leave it out. It was part of the character of J.R. People who are famous often need a whole lot of love, and people who are famous don’t become famous alone. There’s a lot of people propping them up and helping them and giving them all that energy that they need. And my mom, as much as she wanted to, couldn’t give him everything.
You mention J.R. How much did your dad have in common with him?
Obviously, number one, they’re both Texans. Dad had incredible role models to draw off of, real Texans that were in his life, in his childhood. I think to be that good — because he was really good as J.R. — you have to bring a piece of yourself to it.
Something that struck me is J.R. struggled with his relationship with his father, and in real life, your dad had an interesting relationship with his mom [Broadway star Mary Martin]. Do you think he drew upon that when he was playing J.R.?
Certainly there were similarities in the competition of … wanting to be as good as your parents, or better. J.R. wanted to show the world that, “Yeah, I respect my dad, he was so great, but I’m going to be even better than he is. I’m going to take this to the next level.” And Dad loved and respected and admired his mother, but he was determined to take it to the next level.
The other thing that I find interesting is your dad had this reputation as a very carefree person, but he must have been a really hard worker too.
Oh, he was. Dad was incredibly disciplined. He used to use a reel-to-reel tape recorder to tape all of his lines. It was like a suitcase — that’s how big it was. And he developed a special technique where he would read the entire script — his lines, everybody else’s lines — and he’d go [makes a clicking sound], and then he would leave a blank spot. He would sort of say it in his head, and then he would read the line.
He spent hours and hours, every single day, no matter what state he was in, recording his lines, going over his lines, playing with them. When I was a young actress, he said, “Learn your lines backwards and forward. Laugh it. Sing it. Say that line with marbles in your mouth. Turn it into a joke. Say that line — even if it’s a funny line — as if you were going to kill somebody with those words.” And he would say, “You play with it until it becomes really comfortable and malleable.” He was incredibly disciplined.
Did he rehearse a lot?
All the time. He rehearsed over and over and over.
Did you ever rehearse with him? Did you ever read Sue Ellen or Bobby’s lines for him?
No, no, no. He worked with Linda [Gray] and Patrick [Duffy], right there on the set.
Speaking of the set: You made a few appearances on “Dallas” over the years. What are your memories of being on the show?
Some of Dad’s best memories were working with his mother. He was in “South Pacific” in London with his mom. And he thought it would be fun for us [to work together] — that we would relate to one another more. Even after I pretty much gave up acting, I would still come back to L.A. and do a day or two on the show with him, and so I got more of that intimacy of being his co-worker as well. That was a wonderful way of bonding.
Your final episode was the first segment that Linda Gray directed. Do you remember being directed by her?
Was that the masquerade party?
It was the episode after the masquerade party.
You know, frankly, the reason I’m not an actress is when I was doing that stuff, I was so nervous, I had stage fright. You know how everything goes blank?
I don’t remember too much except that Dad was there saying, “Breathe. Relax.” [Laughs]
Is that why you didn’t pursue acting full-time?
I was so terrified. I got a gig doing “Sound of Music.” I played Liesl. My mouth would get so dry that I’d have to put Vaseline on my teeth because when I smiled, my lips would stick to my gums. And at a certain point, after about three years, I realized that I didn’t have to do something that made me terrified.
Was your dad okay with that?
More than okay. I think that he really wanted me to have a family. He felt that family was the most important thing there is. He really wanted me to be a mom and he didn’t want me to have a career that kept me away from my children. So when I started full-time painting and making art, he really, really encouraged that.
He displayed your art in his homes.
Oh, always. Part of the reason that I became a painter, when I was a very young kid, my parents framed things I made and put them on the wall. I really encourage anybody with a kid who has some interest in making art that … taking the time to put it in a frame and show your friends — you can’t replace that kind of encouragement with any kind of class or grade that a teacher can give.
One of the sweetest pictures in the book is the shot of you and your dad in front of a garage-door mural you painted.
Yeah, I love that picture too.
So I have to ask: Your dad had so many great roles over the years. Did he have a favorite?
J.R., definitely. He loved playing that role and he loved the opportunity to do it for so many years, to hone it. Bar none. I think he also quite liked his role in “Harry and Tonto.” I think that that was possibly his most vulnerable, raw piece of acting that he ever did in his career.
What about you? Do you have a favorite performance?
I think it’s the “Harry and Tonto” one. My dad didn’t cry very often, and he pulled out the stoppers on that one.
So what is it like now, when you see your dad in a movie or a TV show?
Oh, golly, it does make me miss him. There are so many things I love about him. I love his voice. When his voice would be dubbed in other languages, they’d often put a very deep voice, but he had a barrel-like, funny, giggly — for a man, a somewhat high-pitched voice. Perhaps it’s the sound of his voice that gets me more than anything.
What do you see as your dad’s legacy? I feel like he helped invent modern television — we wouldn’t have shows like “The Sopranos” and “Breaking Bad” if there had been no “Dallas.”
Absolutely. I feel like the ensemble work with his other cast members is now something you see in so many shows. He was a great fan of “The Sopranos.” And he was very excited about the direction that television has taken since “Dallas.”
Did he see J.R. Ewing as a precursor to Tony Soprano or Walter White?
Yeah, I think he’d see these young guys and go, “Hmm, probably couldn’t have done it if I hadn’t done it first.”
And he always took credit for the “Friends” actors getting those huge salary increases too.
He really did think that everybody should have his due. If somebody’s going to make money off of his work, he wanted it to be him. [Laughs]
For an old hippie, he was a pretty shrewd businessman, wasn’t he?
Oh, yeah, he was, and it was a bit of a game for him. That was better than chess, better than poker, for him.
More parallels with J.R.
Probably. Oh, he loved the nuance, how to get the right publicity. He loved how to work with the public. He loved the attention.
Getting back to his legacy: I feel like your dad has never received the recognition that he deserved for “Dallas.” How he never won an Emmy, I’ll never understand.
Here’s an insider story about Dad and the Emmys. Like you said, he made it possible for other actors after him to get good money for their work. Dad had this idea that these awards shows make a lot of money and the actors don’t get paid for it, and he frequently complained about that. And maybe that’s why the Emmys never gave him an award.
Interesting. I wasn’t aware of that.
I think he didn’t attend them often because he said, “I don’t want to attend something and have somebody else make money off of me and my attendance.”
What a shame if that’s the reason he never received the recognition.
Who knows what the reason is? I’m certainly not on the Emmy committee.
The other thing that I really appreciate about your dad is that he had a concern for the planet. He was an environmentalist.
Definitely. And that was a reason to write the book, frankly. I really wanted people to know that J.R. was not just J.R., that Larry Hagman was an environmentalist.
So where, ultimately, do you feel your book fits into your dad’s legacy?
It’s called “The Eternal Party” because Dad wanted every day to be a celebration. Yes, there are difficult parts in my book, but there’s difficult parts in everybody’s lives. To me, the takeaway is: Living a good life is the greatest cure. Enjoying life, celebrating each day, no matter what kind of difficult things happen, that is the thing that I’d like people to walk away with most.
And that’s a great lesson.
Like he said: Don’t worry, be happy, feel good.
Share your comments below and read more Dallas Decoder interviews.