I’m the only person I have heard of whose mother actually got down on her knees and begged her son to go into the theater,” recalls Larry Hagman, 47. Of course, his stage mother really is a stage mother—Broadway legend Mary Martin. “She said, ‘Come on, go on the road with me in Annie Get Your Gun,’ and I said, ‘Nah, I don’t want to do that. I want to be a cowboy down in Texas because my daddy lives there.’ ”
Happily, young Larry got saddlesore “sweating for 35¢ an hour” and reconsidered. He returned to a lengthy theater apprenticeship, scored as Barbara Eden’s master in I Dream of Jeannie and now has ambled into a role that combines his showbiz and Texas legacies. Hagman plays the villainous cattle and oil baron J. R. Ewing on the CBS melodrama Dallas. Hagman loves the role, “but the characters aren’t nasty enough,” he says, even though J.R. once caused his brother’s pregnant wife to miscarry by fighting with her in a hayloft. “I know so many Texans who are the epitome of this dude. People get wealthy, and they get mean.”
Hagman is himself a well-heeled but gentle eccentric who lives in a five-bedroom, five-bath haven on Malibu Beach with his Swedish wife, Maj (sounds like my), 47, and their son, Preston, 16. (Daughter Heidi, 21, lives in her own L.A. house.) Pennants flutter from the upper deck, and Hagman will perch on the roof to observe the sunset or wear an American Indian headdress while entertaining. The home’s most striking feature is a luxurious indoor spa-cam-Jacuzzi that Maj, who supported the family during lean times as a clothing designer, created 11 years ago. She’s since created such grottoes (they run $12,000 minimum) for clients like Burgess Meredith and producer Robert Radnitz. Larry likes his so much that he laughs, “The family that bathes together, stays together,” and indeed he and Maj have been wed 24 years.
Hagman’s own youth was more slapdash. He spent his first five years in his mother’s hometown of Weatherford, Texas (which has a statue of Peter Pan dedicated to her), until she divorced his lawyer father, Ben, and married producer-manager Richard Halliday. At odds with his stepfather, Hagman moved in with his grandmother in Los Angeles, attending Black-Foxe Military Institute. He then went East, bouncing among boarding schools, and says he attended liberal Bard College in upstate New York because he was “terribly rich and terribly oddball and couldn’t get into any other college.”
“Mother gave me my freedom,” recalls Hagman. “I resented it for a while, but then I found out she was right. I couldn’t compete in her area, but she’s been a great help. She opened doors for me and gave me $50 a week for three months to get started as an actor.” His mother now insists, “Larry made it all on his own. He never used my name, ever, and I think it’s great.” He had acted in some 60 stock shows by age 19 and appeared in London’s South Pacific chorus behind his star mother before enlisting in the Air Force in the early 1950s. He then did “hundreds of TV roles” (including two years on the soap The Edge of Night) before uncorking Jeannie—and his career—in 1965. Perhaps his most touching movie role was as Art Carney’s self-pitying son in Harry and Tonto, though he’s tended to be typed as a military man in films like The Eagle Has Landed and even in Superman as a missile-unit commander. “Larry worked hard to be his own man,” says director friend Ted (The President’s Analyst) Flicker, who even foresees Hagman emerging as “the next Duke Wayne in our business.”
Already Hagman is unofficial mayor of Malibu, frequently throwing on outlandish get-ups and leading ragtag parades down the strand. His latest zealotry is antitobacco, and he carries a battery-operated fan (and gave 100 of them to friends) to blow away the smoke. Once a week he tries to observe a day of silence—”wonderful discipline, and my family is grateful.” Larry and Maj love to cook for friends like Brooke Hayward and Peter Fonda, and are hot springs freaks, visiting them throughout the country in a custom-made van that has a seven-foot bed.
Hagman no longer sees the therapist who “got me over a period of transition” nearly 10 years ago when he had trouble dealing with Jeannie’s success. “My feeling is that therapy is profitable for the therapist but usually a pain in the ass for the patient. I’m more reasonable now,” says Hagman. Then he looks out over the Pacific and grins: “Just another crappy day in paradise.”