Twenty years had passed, but when it came time to reprise his role as Texas oil baron J.R. Ewing on TNT’s rebooted version of Dallas last fall, Larry Hagman was ready to go. His eyes had that old fire in them-the happy little flame of mischief that made him a global celebrity during the hit drama’s original 13-year run (which ended in 1991). Even though he was being treated for tongue cancer, Hagman relished the notion of revisiting the role of lovable scoundrel J.R. and planned to play him for another decade-at least. “I’ll be 93,” he joked, “and in my iron lung.”
Sadly, the 81-year-old star made it through only one more year and one season of the new Dallas before he died of complications from cancer Nov. 23. “He went very peacefully,” his son Preston, 50, tells PEOPLE. In Dallas to shoot scenes for the show’s second season, Hagman was admitted to Dallas’s Medical City hospital on Nov. 19 with an infection. Four days later he passed away surrounded by his son and daughter Kristina, 54, his five grandchildren and two of his dearest friends, Dallas costars Linda Gray, 72, and Patrick Duffy, 63. “He really loved people to be around him,” says Gray, who played J.R.’s long-suffering wife, Sue Ellen. (Hagman’s wife of nearly 60 years, Maj, 84, was unable to travel from the West Coast because of advanced Alzheimer’s.) To have so many close ones by his side at the end “was a miracle,” Gray says. “He didn’t like to be alone.”
He had a knack for drawing a crowd. Known to friends and colleagues as a man who did his damnedest to avoid dull moments, Hagman famously showed up to the first script reading of Dallas in 1978 with two champagne bottles in a leather satchel slung over his shoulders. He would blow soap bubbles during down moments on the set and lead impromptu parades near his Malibu home. “The only thing Larry loved more than having a good time was sharing it,” says Dallas costar Victoria Principal, who recalls first meeting Hagman on the way to a Renaissance fair: The actor was decked out in “a cape, sunglasses that were rose-colored and a trimmed hat.” Hagman “really did have a charmed life,” says Duffy, who plays J.R.’s brother Bobby. “He managed to establish himself as a television icon in a joyful, fun way. And he took everyone on that ride with him.”
The son of the legendary Broadway performer Mary Martin, star of the original Sound of Music, and lawyer Benjamin Hagman, the actor worked his way up the Hollywood ranks as a character actor in the ’50s and ’60s before landing his breakout role in 1965 playing Major Tony Nelson, the astronaut to Barbara Eden’s flirtatious genie on the hit sitcom I Dream of Jeannie. Dallas put him in a Stetson hat and changed everything: Hagman was one of the most winning bad guys in TV history, scheming and outwitting rivals (relatives and wife included) in the oil business. Nominated twice for an Emmy, he played J.R. with ingratiating charm, an ambiguous smile and an occasional poison glare. (He was most dangerous when calling someone “Darlin’.”) Says actor Glenn Morshower, who appears on the revamped series with Hagman: “He loved becoming the cornerstone of Dallas.”
And yet Hagman nearly passed on the show: At the time, he was weighing a sitcom, The Waverly Wonders, a nine-episode flop that ended up starring Joe Namath. His wife, Maj, made the fateful decision, says Gray: “They were both reading scripts and she had Dallas and yelled out, ‘Whatever you are reading, put it down. I’ve found it.'”
Maj, say the couples’ friends, was the stabilizing force in a life of overindulgences-booze, marijuana, food (at one time he puffed up to 222 lbs.). “When he met Maj, she was a very strong Swedish woman and wonderfully take-charge,” says Gray. She was the one who ran their day-to-day life, says Duffy. If the progress of her Alzheimer’s changed that, Hagman never let on. Says Duffy: “He said that you play whatever cards you are dealt and get whatever you can out of them.”
Hagman was the first to admit that he sometimes loused up a hand: In the course of a day’s shooting on the old series, he could polish off three bottles of champagne then go home and continue with wine. The year after the show ended, he was diagnosed with cirrhosis-and promptly quit drinking. (He also gave up cigarettes; after that, he carried a mini fan to blow smoke back in offenders’ faces.) Then doctors found a tumor on his liver in 1995. Chemotherapy bought him time while he waited two months for what became a successful transplant. After that, says Duffy, “it was all gravy” until the new cancer diagnosis in the fall of 2011.
Before he was hospitalized last month, the actor had planned a Thanksgiving dinner at the Omni hotel followed by a tour for his family of the Southfork ranch, the Dallas spread that serves as playground and battlefield for the Ewing clan. But by the time Gray and Duffy visited Hagman in the hospital Nov. 21, he calmly told them he wouldn’t live to see Christmas. “He said, ‘I only have two weeks to live,'” says Gray, her voice cracking. “I said, ‘That’s not going to happen. You have a scene with me on Monday and you just ordered a new car.’ He immediately snapped out of the doom and gloom and said, ‘Oh yeah, I forgot about that.'” The day after Thanksgiving, Hagman died with Preston holding his hand.
His health had been faltering for months, but Hagman never dreamed of slowing down. Even at the end he had call times scheduled and no plans to bow out. “We watched him lose weight through the season,” says Marlene Forte, who plays Southfork housekeeper Carmen Ramos. “But he never lost an ounce of hope, humor or professionalism.” (Scenes are being rewritten to give J.R. “the send-off he deserves,” says a show source.) Recalls Josh Henderson, who plays J.R.’s son: “The last time I saw him on-set there were a hundred of us in a courtroom and he made us laugh all day.”
But it was Hagman who found the most joy being back in the saddle. Always loath to think of himself as retired, when the opportunity arose to return, “he was so happy to be doing the show he loved to do with the people he loved to be with in the city he loved to be in,” says Preston. And he shared the love, says Henderson: “The first time he showed up on the set, he said: ‘Welcome to Dallas. Enjoy the ride and please have fun every day-otherwise, why are you here?'”