As the ruthless Texas oilman J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman learned what it’s like to be shot in front of 83 million viewers—and then come back. Before Dallas, Hagman played astronaut Tony Nelson on I Dream of Jeannie with more wit and charm than strictly necessary and no damage done to his blossoming career. At 64, Hagman is a survivor—and a star. But as the actor told L.A. deputy bureau chief Todd Gold, nothing prepared him for the life-and-death drama that began developing a little more than three years ago.
It was a normal day at the end of May 1992, and I was working out with my personal trainer Taylor Obrë at a gym in Culver City [Calif.]. I felt great. We were talking about my general health, and she asked if I’d had a physical recently. It had been at least a year since I had seen my doctor; I had been too busy having a blast—working, riding my Harley and traveling with my wife, Maj, between our homes in Malibu, Santa Fe and New York. “Well, I have a great internist,” Taylor said, and several days later Dr. Paul Rudnick gave me a complete examination, including a thorough blood workup. At 6:15 p.m. on the third of June, Dr. Rudnick called me at home. He got right to the point. “Larry,” he said, sounding a bit disturbed, “we’ve got the results from your blood test back, and we’ve got a life-threatening situation here.”
I felt terrific, so I was slightly stunned by that news. “You have cirrhosis of the liver, and it’s quite serious,” Dr. Rudnick said. “If you keep on in your current lifestyle and continue drinking, I don’t think you’ll be here six months from now.”
For the 15 or 20 years preceding that phone call, I had been a pretty heavy drinker. I had never been ill, never got sick, never blacked out or suffered the DTs, never really got drunk or anything. I had no serious problems getting along with Maj or with our kids, Kristina and Preston. None of the bulls-t that has been reported. But I did drink.
I started around age 15, and the habit just escalated through the years. A decade ago, in the heyday of Dallas, it got to the point where I showed up for work about 6:30 in the morning, and by around 9, I might have opened a bottle of champagne, which I would nurse until about noon. By lunch I might start on another half bottle of champagne. I would go through about three bottles a day, sometimes with people who would drop by the set, but mostly by myself. I just kept that steady drip going. The drinking sometimes made it harder to remember lines, but I liked that constant feeling of being mildly loaded.
After work I went home and had several drinks of vodka and orange juice. Then wine with dinner. In the morning I woke up feeling wonderful, so I would start the process all over again. Clearly there is all the reason in the world for me to have cirrhosis.
But the moment the doctor gave me the news about my liver three years ago, I stopped drinking. Just quit. I never had any problem of withdrawal, never missed my glass of champagne, never had a second thought.
In fact, I quit smoking the same way 30 years earlier. Maj and I were in a small Italian village where I was shooting a film called The Cavern. I had picked up a chest infection and was coughing my head off. The film’s producer sent me to a radiologist for a chest X ray. Since we weren’t paying, both Maj and I had chest X rays. Then we waited for the results.
An hour later the doctor brought the pictures back. Maj’s was clear; mine had about 30 arrows in it. The doctor, who spoke only Italian, read the report. I didn’t understand a word he said, so in frustration he drew his hand across his throat. I knew he meant, “Larry, if you keep smoking, you will die,” and so I fainted. Right on the floor. I hurt my head, started bleeding. But I quit smoking.
This time, I was equally motivated. My cirrhosis—technically a scarring of liver tissue—was in an early stage, my doctor said, and there was no indication that I would need a transplant. Maj and I both had the impression that if I took care of my health, I could live a long, normal life, which is possible with cirrhosis if it’s caught early enough. The doctors checked my blood every three months, because cirrhotic livers are fertile nesting places for tumors, but my tests looked good, and I didn’t worry. Between 1993 and this year, I directed episodes of In the Heat of the Night for my dear friend Carroll O’Connor. Otherwise, Maj and I enjoyed our lives and our homes, especially the place we spent five years building on top of a mountain in Ojai, about 90 miles north of Los Angeles.
A 10-bedroom chateau with breathtaking views, the Ojai place was our dream home, and we named it Heaven—that’s actually the address I use on my stationery. But a scary situation developed there that I think is partially to blame for the tumor that doctors would eventually find in my liver. In 1993 the National Weather Service put up a tower for Doppler radar, which warns of severe weather conditions, 800 yards from my house. It’s 68 feet tall, topped by a forest-green metal ball, 30 feet in diameter, that pulses 24 hours a day, emitting low-level microwave radiation. The government informed us that the tower posed no health risks, but I hired an independent radar specialist and found out that my house, which is on the neighboring mountain, receives what I consider unacceptable levels of radiation. A woman who lived right next door to the tower has developed three tumors—and a child from a family who lives on the hill across from me was born with a hyperthyroid condition. And then I came down with my thing.
Last June 22 I went in for a routine blood test, and the results indicated something irregular. So I had a CAT scan and an MRI. The tests showed a small tumor measuring 2.7 by 2.8 centimeters. I met with Dr. Leonard Makowka, director of transplantation services for Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, who had operated on my mother, Mary Martin, when she had cancer in 1988. Dr. Makowka didn’t know if the tumor was malignant. But he saw it was pressed up against a vein, and it didn’t look good. He ordered a biopsy and several other tests.
Maj and I were in Santa Fe when the doctor called and told us the tumor was cancerous. Till then we thought the liver would somehow stay healthy and even regenerate. The news hit Maj hard. We will have been married 41 years this December. She suddenly realized our time together might be very limited. I felt detached. If something is growing inside of your body, why worry? You’ve simply got to do something. I met with specialists, who explained my options. One was a liver transplant. The other was “checking out.”
On July 19 my name was entered on a list of almost 5,000 people across the country waiting for a liver. As the news became public, I received dozens of calls and boxes of mail, including cards drawn by third graders in Pennsylvania; Maj is having them bound.
The hospital gave me a beeper and explained that it would go off when they found a suitable liver. Despite what people think, neither celebrity nor money determines who gets a liver. The average wait is between 30 days and a year, and it is all based on medical condition, blood type, size and proximity to the donor organ. I had no idea when I would get mine. I just hoped it would be in time.
Meanwhile I continued exercising to stay in shape for the possible transplant. I even went salmon fishing in Canada with Patrick Duffy, my Dallas costar. I felt very calm.
Gradually the effects of liver disease became more evident. My energy was way down. As I look back, I see that my handwriting was deteriorating. And my memory was noticeably spotty. One day, while soaking in the hot tub with a friend, I asked how his mother was feeling. He looked at me as if I was joking. “Lar, my mother died a year ago,” he said. “She’s having lunch with your mother today.”
On Aug. 5, Dr. Makowka performed a chemoembolization, an elective procedure to prevent the tumor from spreading. That would buy me time as I waited for a liver. The tabloids got wind and wrote that I was fighting for my life. What garbage. I was just doing what the doctors told me to do. Mickey Mantle—he was the fighter, and I watched his struggle with fascination. I also talked to musician friends David Crosby and Dallas Taylor, a former drummer from Crosby, Stills and Nash and a patient of Dr. Makowka’s, about their liver transplants. Both mentioned how big the incision is, the length of the operation and the side effects—like your scrotum temporarily expanding to 10 times normal size because of fluid buildup.
At this stage of my life, I do not fear death. I do fear pain, though. I watched my mother suffer as cancer ravaged her body five years ago. It was profoundly disturbing, and I don’t know if I could have tolerated as much. Fortunately I didn’t have to go through that.
On the afternoon of Aug, 22, I got a call from Dr. Makowka. I was in the Ojai kitchen having a cup of coffee. He said that he had good news and bad news. “The good news is that I was going to invite you fishing this weekend,” he said. “The salmon are running.” The bad news was we couldn’t go. “We have found a perfect liver for you,” he said. Thirty-three days had passed since I had gone on the list. “Can you be here in half an hour?”
After I hung up with Dr. Makowka, I turned to Maj. She already knew everything just by my smile, but I simply said, “It’s now.” I felt the same euphoric rush I get before having to act, but necessity quickly took over. The hospital dispatched a helicopter; it brought Maj and me there an hour later. We didn’t say a word to each other or the pilot the whole helicopter ride down. We just held hands.
As soon as I arrived, doctors and nurses started prepping me. Around 7 p.m. a member of the surgical team came into my room as I talked to a friend on the phone. “I’ve got to go,” I said. “My driver is here.” I remember getting an injection, and before I could count backward, I was out of it.
The operation lasted 16 hours, longer than anticipated. I later learned that the theme from Dallas—Dr. Makowka’s choice—kicked off the operation, but that soon Makowka made several unexpected discoveries. First, my liver was much further gone than anyone had thought. Recently, Dr. Makowka told me that I probably wouldn’t have lasted more than a few months without a transplant.
Several times during the operation, Dr. Makowka came out to assure my wife that everything was fine, but he also had to rebuild the bile duct connection to my liver, treat an odd blood vessel and spend three painstaking hours cleaning out gallstones, which I made him promise to save. An artist friend, Barton Benes, has since turned them into a stunning ring.
But the best news was that no cancer cells had spread, and my new liver appeared to be a perfect match. Afterward, I was taken into intensive care. I had been told that the 48 hours following the operation would be critical in determining how I was going to recover. After 5 hours, I remember opening my eyes and regaining some consciousness. Dr. Makowka and Maj were staring at me. I had a tube in my nose, one in my mouth, others all over the place. My arms were strapped down. Maj’s first words to me were, “Honey, you look just like a machine.”
For me, this wasn’t a problem. I just spaced out and meditated on a mental picture of a field of bright yellow mustard flowers in full bloom and a single red rose in the middle.
I spent four days in ICU and then moved into my own room. Apparently I was doing great. On the second day in my own room, they even got me out of bed and forced me to sit in a chair, which was hard. Oddly, later that night, I had my one and only freak-out. It was very late, and and I was watching an old Steve McQueen movie, The Hunter. I knew him a bit. He was a motorcycle guy, like me. And I started thinking about his terrible death from a heart attack after surgery for removal of a cancerous tumor.
Suddenly I felt helpless and weird, and I got out of bed, grabbed my walker and bolted into the hallway. The security guard I hired was completely startled and asked what was going on. “I’m taking a walk,” I snapped, and then I moved through the hallway talking to McQueen. “F—k it, Steve, I’m not letting this get me.”
Except for that instance, I sailed through a singsong sort of existence from all the medication I took. I watched the U.S. Open tennis tournament and felt as if my mind could control the way Andre Agassi played—a lot of good it did. I also felt my mind come back—more than I could handle—so when I was on the phone, I turned into a master kind of networker. I was terribly busy designing new products—lamps, packages, suits. People kept telling me to rest, but I was full of ideas. After nine days in the hospital—less time than the expected two weeks—I went home, and everyone was probably glad that I did.
It has been eight weeks since the operation. So far I haven’t had any signs of rejection, and each day I get stronger. I start my day by measuring my blood sugar (the operation leaves you a diabetic) and then taking my medications, which I do five times a day. I take steroids, antirejection pills, pills to counteract the effect those pills have on my stomach, pills to counteract those—about 26 pills in total. I walk up to one-quarter mile, pedal a stationary bike for about 10 minutes and lift light weights. I’m strong, but my stamina isn’t there yet.
This whole ordeal has brought the family closer together, and it has made me more aware of a higher being. Lately I have been giving things away. People come over and admire something and I say, “Here, take it.” I have also had some of the best talks ever with my children. One night I dreamed that I snapped at my sister Heller. The next morning, I apologized. She thought I was nuts. But I’m so grateful to be around and kicking.
I’m looking forward to the December premiere of Oliver Stone’s Nixon, in which I play a Texas millionaire. In March, if I’m up to it, we are going to film a Dallas reunion movie, and hopefully my neighbors and I will be successful in getting the damn radar tower turned off.
It is against the rules for me to know anything about the person whose liver I received, but I’ve thanked God he or she had the foresight to sign a donor card. I talk to that person every day. I’ve said I’m sorry you had to die, but I’ve reassured my donor that a part of him lives on.