Iconic “Dallas” villain Larry Hagman revealed how his own upbringing in Texas informed his portrayal of J.R. Ewing on the series.
“When you’re starting out anything new, you’re feeling out everybody and getting to know each other,” said Hagman on an episode of Pioneers of Television. “So Mr. Katzman who was the producer, was a wonderful guy. He and I struck up a friendship, and he recognized that I knew a lot about Texas. I was born in Fort Worth and brought up in a town called Weatherford, which is on the other side of Fort Worth. It was about 60 miles west of Dallas. I knew the vernacular and the mindset, and I modeled my character after a gentleman who just passed away recently, Jess Hall Jr. He was the quintessential J.R., and I just took his character and lived it.”
Hagman’s idea of drawing from reality paid off. J.R. became a massively popular character. In fact, storylines concerning J.R. often scored the best ratings. The biggest example of this was the “Who Shot J.R.?” mystery of 1980. Because each and every character had a motive, speculation ran rampant between episodes. Additionally, the episode when the mystery was solved became the second highest-rated episode in American television.
“I think one of the reasons that the show is so popular, especially overseas in European in South America, is that everyone in the world has a jerk like J.R. in the family,” Hagman continued. “A father, an uncle, a brother, a cousin. Somebody who asserts authority. Everybody can identify with that.”
Larry Hagman Discusses Dallas Character
Additionally, Hagman revealed that when Dallas was first written, things were a little different. Initially, each character had their own villainous interests. Over time, it became clear to the writers that one character was a bit more dastardly than the rest.
“The first script I read, everybody was a scoundrel,” Hagman said. “Even Mama, in her own way, was a scoundrel. Over the period of five or six shows that we did, the pilot, the miniseries, it kind of narrowed down to me, which was fun because good guys, you know, that’s the hard work. Like Bobby, Bobby has the hard work. He’s such a nice guy, and the bad guys get the ladies and the money and all that kind of stuff. I had more fun with that, and I still am having more fun with that part.”
At the time of the interview, Hagman had reprised his role on the 2012 reboot of Dallas. It again centered on the Ewing family and their two main ownerships: Ewing Oil and Southfork Ranch. Only this time, Ewing Oil became Ewing Alternative Energies. Also, this revival focused on the children of J.R. and his brother Bobby, John Ross and Christopher.
Hagman remained on the series until his death, after which the series shot another elaborate mystery a la “Who Shot J.R.?” wherein it was revealed that J.R. orchestrated his death to go out on his own terms.