Remembering Larry Hagman, the Life of the ‘Party’

Dallas, Kristina Heidi Hagman, Larry Hagman

Party people

I’ve always believed famous people are as entitled to their privacy as anyone else, which is why I hesitated to read “The Eternal Party,” the new biography of Larry Hagman written by his daughter Kristina. The pre-publication publicity made it clear the book would contain information that Larry might have preferred to keep private, and so after I received my copy, I struggled with what to do with it. Curiosity eventually got the better of me, and ultimately I’m glad it did. “The Eternal Party” challenges some long-held beliefs about its subject, but Kristina mostly paints a sweet, loving portrait of her father. She also sheds light on how he brought J.R. Ewing to life, which is all I really want from a book about Larry Hagman in the first place.

“The Eternal Party” is framed as a mystery — a nod, perhaps, to the “Who Shot J.R.?” phenomenon that marked the zenith of Larry’s fame. The book opens with Kristina recalling her father’s final hours as he lay dying in a Dallas hospital in 2012. In his delirium, the notoriously carefree actor begs for forgiveness, prompting Kristina to spend the rest of the book re-examining Larry’s life. She documents his indulgences with his favorite substances — ground that Larry candidly covered in his own 2001 memoir, “Hello Darlin’” — and also shares private details about her parents’ 58-year marriage. The latter passages left me torn. My sense is that Larry and his wife Maj wouldn’t want some of this material to be public knowledge. On the other hand, as a student of “Dallas” history, it’s interesting to ponder the parallels between the Hagmans’ marriage and J.R. and Sue Ellen’s. How much did Larry draw upon his personal experience when shaping this part of his character?

Other passages in “The Eternal Party” show how the J.R. traits that “Dallas” fans know so well were rooted in mundane aspects of Larry’s domestic life. Remember the menacing glare J.R. would offer his enemies when he was about to destroy them? Kristina recalls her father wearing the same scowl when he was trying to housebreak the family’s German shepherd puppy. In another amusing tidbit, she details the years before Larry’s “Dallas” wealth, when the vagabond Hagmans frequently relied on the kindness of others. This includes future “Dallas” co-star David Wayne, who allowed the family to stay at his home whenever they needed a place to crash. Imagine: Digger Barnes offering shelter to a down-on-his-luck J.R. Ewing. The mind reels.

Kristina also has kind words for Larry’s friends and “Dallas” co-stars, Linda Gray and Patrick Duffy. She recalls Gray giving him dietary advice after his cancer diagnosis and Duffy standing near her frail father during their public appearances, “always ready to offer a steady hand in case he needed it.” In another poignant memory, Kristina describes accompanying an aging Larry to Pike Place Market in Seattle, where no one recognized him. (In true Hagman style, though, he purchased a giant, stuffed red lizard from a vendor and walked around with it on his shoulder, helping him get the attention he craved.) The book’s most heartbreaking moments include Kristina’s struggle to come to terms with a sexual assault she suffered at the hands of a neighbor, Larry’s efforts to care for Maj after her Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis, and the final chapter, when the author finally solves the mystery of why her father had forgiveness on his mind at the end of his life.

Mostly, though, “The Eternal Party” is about Larry and Kristina’s relationship. She clearly adores him, even if she doesn’t always understand his choices. Likewise, even though I have reservations about some of the disclosures, that doesn’t mean I don’t value the book. In an especially illuminating scene, Kristina recalls accompanying Larry to a public appearance on a military base, where he met a little boy whose father was away in combat. The child knew Larry as Major Nelson on “I Dream of Jeannie” and had come to think of him as a father figure. Kristina writes:

“The boy was so happy, and the way his sad face brightened had a huge effect on Dad. I think he may have had an epiphany that day about his ability to make a difference in people’s lives, and he helped me understand his responsibility to everyone who supported our family by watching him on television. From that day on, I understood that my father would never be mine alone; he belonged to his public.”

More than anything else in “The Eternal Party,” this story makes me appreciate the author, and her willingness to share her famous father with the rest of the world.

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Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 185 — ‘The Verdict’

Bobby Ewing, Dallas, Jenna Wade, Patrick Duffy, Priscilla Beaulieu Presley, Verdict

Stand by your woman, man

Bobby Ewing fights to save Jenna in “The Verdict,” but the real man of the hour is Patrick Duffy. After an unusually long stretch of disappointing episodes, Duffy takes his 12th turn in the “Dallas” director’s chair and helps get the series back on track. His understanding of what the audience wants to see — combined with his ability to draw solid performances from his fellow actors and his knack for visual storytelling — make “The Verdict” the show’s strongest entry since “The Brothers Ewing.” I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Duffy helmed that episode too.

Interestingly, while “The Brothers Ewing” works because it allows several characters to play against type, “The Verdict” succeeds because it shows our favorites returning to form. This is true for Bobby, particularly in the scene where he goes to Los Angeles and delivers an impassioned speech to Ann McFadden, hoping to persuade her to come home with him to testify on Jenna’s behalf. Most importantly, though, “The Verdict” finds J.R. getting his groove back after spending most of the eighth season moping over his various business and romantic frustrations. During the course of this hour, J.R. springs a trap on hapless bureaucrat Nathan Billings, shares a passionate embrace with Mandy Winger and clashes with Sue Ellen, punctuating their argument with an especially menacing expression. Isn’t it nice to see Larry Hagman having fun again?

My favorite performance in “The Verdict,” though, belongs to Stephen Elliott as Jenna’s attorney Scotty Demarest, who is sly and drawl-y enough to out-Matlock Andy Griffith. How can you not love the scene where Scotty approaches Jenna on the witness stand, hands her the gun used to kill Naldo and asks her to unlock it? She has no idea where the safety lever is, making Scotty’s stunt “Dallas’s” version of O.J. Simpson trying on the bloody glove. David Paulsen’s script gives Elliott some hoot-worthy dialogue here, particularly when Scotty turns to the jury and says, “The prosecution wants you to believe that under the effects of chloroform, this little lady here can grab [a gun] away from a man bigger, stronger than she, find the safety, release it, shoot, before he could stop her?” The only thing missing is a Johnnie Cochrane-style refrain: If she can’t find the lever, you must free her!

I applaud Duffy, in his role as director, for giving Elliott so much latitude, but I admire Duffy’s sense of imagination even more. He’s always demonstrated a flair for interesting camera angles, going back to the shot of Bobby and Pam on the Southfork staircase in 1981’s “The New Mrs. Ewing,” the first “Dallas” episode he helmed. In one scene in “The Verdict,” Duffy puts the camera in the jury box, allowing us to see the action unfold in the courtroom the way the anonymous characters sitting in judgment of Jenna are seeing it. It’s a small but clever touch.

Duffy has also mastered the art of efficient storytelling. When the judge begins reading the jury their instructions, Miss Ellie rushes out of the courtroom, followed by Clayton, who comforts her in the corridor. This kills two birds with one stone: It gives Donna Reed and Howard Keel their only meaningful scene in the episode, but it also signals to the audience that the trial is winding down — without forcing us to sit through the judge’s speech. In an earlier scene, we hear Scotty urging Jenna to allow her daughter Charlie to testify, but instead of showing Elliott and Priscilla Beaulieu Presley, Duffy fixes his camera on Ellie and Clayton as they take their seats in the courtroom, and then he pans to Scotty and Jenna. It’s another small touch, but it’s a way of keeping Reed and Keel’s characters in the action.

Besides being entertaining, these visual flourishes distract us from “The Verdict’s” bonkers view of the criminal justice system. During his testimony, Bobby pulls out a letter from Veronica Robinson, a star witness who was murdered before she could clear Jenna in Naldo’s death, and proceeds to read it to the jury. On what planet would this be admissible evidence? Shouldn’t the prosecution want to authenticate the handwriting? Does no one want to hear from someone who witnessed Veronica write the note? Why does Bobby get to read it aloud? And while we’re on that subject, don’t jurors usually have assigned seating in courtrooms? The extras in “The Verdict” never seem to sit in the same seat twice. (By the way: Heidi Hagman, Larry’s daughter, plays the forewoman.)

“The Verdict” also knows when to give the audience more information than the characters, including a brief scene in which Bobby and Pam share a tender moment in Christopher’s Southfork bedroom, unaware that Jenna is lurking in the doorway. Just as importantly, this episode knows when to keep viewers in the dark. We go through the hour suspecting that J.R. is setting up Billings, but we don’t receive confirmation until the next-to-last scene, when we discover the delightfully named Rhonda Cummings — future “War of the Ewings” star Michelle Johnson — is using a hidden camera to film her tryst with Billings, undoubtedly so J.R. can use it against him later.

The twist isn’t unexpected, but the reveal is fun nonetheless. It’s also nice to know “Dallas” still has the ability to pull itself out of the doldrums, although as we reach the end of the eighth season, I’m only sorry these recoveries are so frequently necessary to begin with.

Grade: A

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Dallas, Scotty Demarest, Stephen Elliott, Verdict

We, the jury

‘THE VERDICT’

Season 8, Episode 24

Airdate: March 15, 1985

Audience: 19.3 million homes, ranking 5th in the weekly ratings

Writer: David Paulsen

Director: Patrick Duffy

Synopsis: Bobby obtains valuable evidence from Ann, but Jenna’s trial ends with a guilty verdict. After the Texas Energy Commission shuts down a Ewing Oil field, J.R. sets up the chairman, Nathan Billings, with a prostitute. Donna refuses to return to Ray, while Jamie resists Cliff’s romantic overtures. J.R. tells Mandy that he may not be with Sue Ellen much longer.

Cast: Victor Campos (Mendoza), Roseanna Christiansen (Teresa), Pat Colbert (Dora Mae), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Stephen Elliott (Scotty Demarest), Eric Farlow (Christopher Ewing), Rosemary Forsyth (Ann McFadden), Conroy Gedeon (Dr. Finch), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Heidi Hagman (Jury Forewoman), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Nanci Hammond (Secretary), Jenilee Harrison (Jamie Ewing), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Michelle Johnson (Rhonda Cummings), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Omri Katz (John Ross Ewing), Howard Keel (Clayton Farlow), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Virginia Kiser (Judge Roberta Fenerty), Allan Miller (Assistant District Attorney Frederick Hoskins), Bill Morey (Leo Wakefield), William Edward Phipps (Ewing Oil Foreman), Priscilla Beaulieu Presley (Jenna Wade), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Nicholas Pryor (Nathan Billings), Donna Reed (Miss Ellie Farlow), Debbie Rennard (Sly), Sherril Lynn Rettino (Jackie Dugan), Barbara Rhoades (Lila Cummings), Deborah Shelton (Mandy Winger), Wesley Thompson (Bailiff), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing)

“The Verdict” is available on DVD and at Amazon and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.