‘Dallas’ Star Larry Hagman Talked Why J.R. Was Popular

by Allison Hambrick
Larry Hagman, American actor and star of soap opera 'Dallas', in October 1983. (Photo by Harris/Express/Getty Images)

“Dallas” actor Larry Hagman once reflected on the popularity of his character J.R. Ewing, whose exploits made the show one of the highest-rated of the 1980s. In the series, Hagman played J.R. alongside Patrick Duffy as his brother Bobby Ewing. The family ran an oil company and a ranch, and J.R.’s top priority was managing Ewing Oil at all costs. Other stars included Linda Gray, Barbara Bel Geddes, and Victoria Principal, among others.

“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,” explained Hagman on an episode of Pioneers of Television. “A father, an uncle, a brother, a cousin. Somebody who asserts authority and is a jerk. Everybody can identify with that.”

The series was a bonafide rating hit. Everyone was watching Dallas, and if they weren’t watching it, they were talking about it. And no one character was more talked about than J.R. Ewing. Interestingly, Hagman revealed that the character wasn’t always meant to be the villain.

“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.”

Though J.R. was a rascal onscreen, Hagman was a perfect gentleman in real life.

How Larry Hagman Stood Up for His Dallas Costar

According to Grey, Hagman was responsible for saving her future on the popular series.

“In the 80s, I was getting bored Sue Ellen Ewing as an actor,” Gray said “She was drinking and having an affair, or having an affair and drinking, so I had two notes to play. I had always wanted to direct, so I think year eight it was, I approached the production staff, and I said I would like to direct one episode in the next two-year cycle. And they said, ‘Nope.’ I said, ‘I don’t want any more money, I don’t want anything–I would just like to direct. I feel like I’m ready; I’d like to direct one episode.’ ‘Nope.’”

The actress said that the back and forth between her and the production staff nearly caused them to write her character off of the series.

“I wasn’t invited back for year nine,” Gray revealed. “Because if that was my only request, they didn’t want me back. Mr. Hagman took a deep breath and said, ‘Well, now…’ This is what he tells me he said to them, ‘If Miss Gray is not coming back, I am not coming back.’ Knowing Larry the way I do, Larry probably never said that because he would always go back and play J.R. Ewing, with or without me, but it sounded good, and it made me feel good. He did go and talk to the producers, and he said, ‘Well for god sakes, let her direct one.’ I thought they probably said, ‘Alright, for god sakes, let her direct one.’ 

After Hagman’s intervention, Gray went on to direct five episodes of Dallas. Additionally, Gray and Hagman remained close friends until the latter’s death in 2012.