April 14, 1980 12:00 PM

Not since John Milton gave Satan all the good lines in Paradise Lost has a villain so appalled—and fascinated—the world. In two seasons on CBS’ Dallas, actor Larry Hagman has breathed into heinous life the most successful cad in television history. As J.R. Ewing, the oilman the country loves to despise, Hagman has driven his wife to drink, promiscuity and into a sanitarium; swindled his fat-cat friends and rivals; slept with his sister-in-law, then threatened to report her for prostitution; mortgaged his family’s ranch; blackmailed former allies, and lied to and dishonored his father and mother. As if that were not enough, he has also wandered from his Friday night homestead to a Thursday spinoff series, Knots Landing, and further complicated the already wretched life of his alcoholic brother.

All that has, of course, helped Dallas corner the Nielsen market the way it used to be thought that some real Texans of this continent could corner silver. But now the only remaining unassailable commodity on the marketplace seems to be actor Hagman himself. The two shots someone fired into J.R.’s unrepentant hide on this season’s cliff-hanging climactic episode were literally heard round the world in 50 countries. There were more U.S. viewers—nearly 50 million—than for any show this year except the Super Bowl. Even the Wall Street Journal took note of J.R.’s rise. Well now, Daddy, as J.R. might drawl after another sinister success, this calls for a celebration.

The only remaining question is whether the J.R. character will crawl back to his feet for revenge next season, or was that gun loaded with wolfsbane and silver bullets? Hagman just chortles that the shooting was a “contract” job. “Whether I live or die will depend upon my contract negotiations,” jokes Larry, 49, whose twice-renegotiated pact already brings him an estimated $25,000 a week. “The producers figure if I demand too much money, then it’s the hell with you, you s.o.b. Then I’m surely dead next season. Something like this happens only every 10 or 20 years in an actor’s life, and I mean to cash in on it.”

The producers, of course, are well aware that if J.R. dies, so does Dallas, and such a disaster is not likely to happen. For one thing, Hagman is literally the son of Peter Pan (his mother is Broadway great Mary Martin) and has a kind of borrowed immortality. What’s more, Hagman is quietly reveling in the morbid allure that has made him a perverse international sex symbol. “I must say I’m shocked at the letters I get. Evidently women find J.R. a sexual turn-on,” laughs Hagman, who recently created pandemonium in one supposedly sophisticated audience just by walking into a Broadway theater. “A large percentage of American women must be masochistic. Let’s face it. J.R. treats his women like dirt. Yet I get adoring letters from gals who mention everything except to say, ‘Bring the whips and chains!’ ”

As an amiable eccentric who has been happily married to the same woman for 25 years, Hagman might disappoint the chain gang, but not because of his new whippet-lean looks. Last year he ballooned to 222 pounds by “eating my own cooking—chicken pastille, chili, beef bourguignon and the best spaghetti in Malibu,” and Larry and Swedish wife Maj, 48 (sounds like “my”), have been on strict doctor-supervised diets since New Year’s. “Really, it’s a fast,” says Hagman, who has shed 35 pounds from his 6’1″ frame (Maj has lost 27) on the slimming plan marketed commercially as Opti-Fast. “I eat no food whatsoever, and, of course, I stay off the booze. I merely live on three packets of powder the doctor prescribed that contain egg whites, skim milk and some other stuff. Every week I have my blood tested to make certain that everything is going well,” he continues, “and I’m never in bed later than 10. I wouldn’t know what a Hollywood party is—I’ve never been invited.”

So Larry was stung when a scandal sheet accused him inaccurately of production-delaying temper tantrums and drunkenness on the set. Lee Rich, president of Lorimar, the parent production company, took the unusual step of denying the accusations in an open letter (printed in the Hollywood trades). “I was terribly offended by those charges,” says Larry. “They’re all lies that are designed to hurt my career.”

Admittedly, Hagman’s offbeat approach raises some eyebrows. “Am I eccentric?” he asks. “If I am, I’m a harmless one. I just do what I feel like doing, and it never hurts anyone.” He collects (and zestfully uses) hats, canes and costumes, sometimes appearing the same day as a Chinese coolie, a Foreign Legionnaire and a gorilla. He owns more than 100 bright flags, which fly from his Malibu Beach rooftop or flutter in his frequent impromptu Frisbee tourneys or parades (“Sometimes we march with five kids, other days with hundreds”) along the strand. Yet he refuses to speak even to his family on Sunday—”It’s a form of self-discipline and it saves my voice.”

When he and Maj vacation, they like to visit caverns and grottoes in their custom RV, which includes a seven-foot bed. And when he goes on location for Dallas, he shleps along a TV-hi-fi-radio combination, an Indian bedspread, a dozen candles and six miniature paintings. “As soon as I get into the motel room, I put the mattress on the floor as a firm foundation for my back,” says Larry. “Then I put up the bedspread to form a tent. The candles and paintings inside the bedspread provide my own ambience. Without brightening up, these motel rooms could drive a person crazy.”

“Hell, Larry’s just a goddam clown,” affectionately reports co-star Jim (Jock Ewing) Davis. “He’s got a lot of the little boy in him, but he’s a man of his word, a man of integrity.” The sentiment is echoed uniformly by Dallas‘ large cast, who make Hagman seem as saintly as J.R. is dastardly. Once this year he flew all the way to the Philippines for one day to appear in a film by a Dallas director, Gunnar Hellstrom. He is less charitable, however, about cigarettes on the set, and carries a portable fan everywhere to blow smoke back into offenders’ faces. His nagging succeeded with Jim Davis, who has kicked a three-pack-a-day habit. Larry is still working on Victoria (Pamela Barnes Ewing) Principal and Barbara (Miss Ellie) Bel Geddes.

A while ago, however, Hagman’s onset zealotry was more abrasive. As co-star of the 1960s TV hit I Dream of Jeannie, Larry drove colleagues, and eventually himself, nuts. “I expected everyone to be excellent every day,” Larry admits now. “I was trying to act as well as be producer, writer, cameraman and sound man. It used to drive me up the wall. Eventually it all got to me, and I had my breakdowns.” It took some $40,000 worth of therapy to sort things out. “These days if I want something corrected, I ask people in a nice way. I don’t shout and scream anymore. As a result, I never feel guilt afterward.”

Hagman’s drive for perfection, fittingly, was bred of both Texas sage and Broadway stardust. He spent his first five years in mother Martin’s hometown of Weatherford, Texas, 60 miles from Big D, before she divorced his lawyer dad, Ben, to marry producer-manager Richard Halliday. A rebellious boy (he didn’t get along well with his stepfather), Larry bounced around a score of pricey boarding schools before entering liberal Bard College north of New York City. He later served a four-year hitch in the Air Force, a two-year stint in The Edge of Night soap and a lengthy stage apprenticeship in his mother’s inescapable shadow. But, significantly, he was destined to make his mark where his mother never succeeded—Hollywood. After “hundreds of TV roles,” he rubbed Jeannie the right way in 1965.

He also has been out of work for as long as 18 months at a stretch. “When Larry wasn’t earning money, I was,” notes his wife, whom he met in England. Maj creates some 20 custom-made Jacuzzi spas yearly at $20,000 and up. Formerly a clothing designer, Maj also makes most of the family’s duds. She has even built additions to their opulent five-bedroom, five-bath pad without the help of fumble-fingered Larry. Their home, whose centerpiece is a bubbly grotto Jacuzzi bath of Maj’s, cost $115,000 when Hagman bought it 15 years ago. He recently declined an offer of $1.2 million. “Big money affords me relative comfort, and I enjoy that,” admits Hagman, who also has acquired a gun-metal gray $33,000 Mercedes. “I’ve always believed in spending money because if you save it, generally it’s not worth a crap.”

While saying “I certainly hope I’ve spoiled my kids,” Hagman cut off son Preston’s allowance last year on his 16th birthday. “He took it in stride, and earned $5,000 as a supermarket bagboy,” Larry says proudly of the son who already had earned his commercial pilot’s license. “This year he’s a waiter.” As for daughter Heidi, 22, a budding actress, Hagman admits, “I’m a firm believer in nepotism. You give your friends a helping hand, why not your own kids?” Accordingly, he helped Heidi land bits on two Dallas episodes and called buddy Carroll O’Connor for an audition that won her an appearance on Archie Bunker’s Place.

While on Dallas hiatus these past few weeks, Hagman and Maj disappeared into Marrakesh for R&R before he returns to shoot the next film of producer Blake (“10”) Edwards. Lest fans fret that Hagman’s had it with his J.R. image, the movie will be titled S.O.B.

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