Sixteen years ago, to my undying glory/everlasting shame, I answered every question on CBS’ TV critics-only “Dallas” quiz correctly shortly before a news conference to promote a reunion movie.
And when I ran into Larry Hagman — J.R. Ewing himself — in the hotel that afternoon, he had another question for me: “How the hell did you remember what county we lived in?”
I was simultaneously embarrassed and thrilled. Because Hagman was clearly pleased that I loved “Dallas” almost as much as he did.
Make no mistake about it, Hagman loved “Dallas.” He used the same word to describe it — “fun” — every time I interviewed him: as the original series was ending, as the reunion movies and specials were produced and as the series was revived on TNT earlier this year.
In 2004, Hagman said the biggest surprise — much more than any of the plot twists — was “how much fun we had.”
He had fun with his character. With the cast. With the press.
“I liked the storyline where I put [Sue Ellen] in the insane asylum,” Hagman said as he and Linda Gray, who played Sue Ellen, laughed. “That’s about as low as you can get.”
Fun aside, the actor and his character had a major influence on TV. J.R. Ewing was designed as a supporting character on “Dallas,” but his joyful portrayal of TV’s first great antihero turned the show into a worldwide hit and paved the way for villains to come on everything from “The Shield” to “The Sopranos,” “House” to “Dexter.”
And it was totally unexpected from a guy best known as Major Tony Nelson on “I Dream of Jeannie.” Arguably, that remains his most famous role — certainly to those who are too young to remember “Dallas” but grew up on “Jeannie” on syndicated reruns.
“Kids in their 20s, even 30s don’t know what ‘Dallas’ was all about,” Hagman said with a smile. “Thank God.”
Back when Hagman was gently mocking me for my “Dallas” obsession, he was also celebrating the 1995 liver transplant that saved his life. He visited Utah for the 1996 U.S. Transplant Games at the University of Utah, and he couldn’t have been happier.
“Healthy liver is a lot of it,” he said. “And not drinking, not smoking. Hell, I could walk on water, boy!”
I’ve interviewed hundreds of stars, and I can honestly say there are none I admired or enjoyed more than Larry Hagman. There are few who would have caused me to involuntarily exclaim “No!” as I did when I learned of his passing.
Hagman worked on “Dallas” up until his death on Nov. 23, and the producers promise us J.R. Ewing will receive a “proper sendoff” on the show.
It’s what Hagman deserves.
Oh, and I still own the cowboy hat I won for answering all those “Dallas” questions correctly.
Scott D. Pierce covers television for The Salt Lake Tribune. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @ScottDPierce.