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Larry Hagman

Actor and star of Dallas;

Born: September 21, 1931; Died: November 23, 2012.

Larry Hagman, who has died aged 81, never escaped from his most famous character, JR Ewing, because he never wanted to. Right up to the final days before his death, he was still playing the infamous oilman in the new series of Dallas and revelling in his badness. Hagman always loved the character, which is probably why so many viewers loved him too. He was bad, but with a twinkle. He was television's greatest anti-hero.

Like JR, Hagman was a Texan and often said he based the character on men he had observed when he was growing up. His father Ben was a lawyer but his mother was the Broadway star Mary Martin and throughout his childhood Hagman struggled with who he wanted to be: a tough Texan like his dad or the showbusiness Hollywood star like his mother. In the end, showbusiness won.

His upbringing was not settled. His parents split up when he was young and he never got along with his mother's new husband, Paramount executive Richard Halliday. After graduating, he worked in a tool company but described it as the closest to hell he had ever been. He told his mother: "I want to be an actor."

He was still living at home at the time and had started to develop his prodigious drinking habit. Most of his life, and right through his time on Dallas, Hagman drank heavily. His mother once gave him some good showbiz advice: "Always know your lines. Hang up your clothes. And try to be reasonably sober." Hagman always said, with that famous twinkle, that it was advice he did his best to follow.

It was a friend of his mother's who got him his start in acting, playing bit parts in musicals. Then the Korean War intervened. Luckily, the captain in charge of appointments was a Mary Martin fan and Hagman found himself in special services, providing entertainment for the soldiers. He was sent to the UK and served in Middlesex and at Prestwick, where he developed a lifelong fondness for Scotland.

It was while he was in the UK he met his future wife, Swede Maj Axelsson (he also dated Joan Collins, who he said made Elizabeth Taylor look like a boy). He married Maj and moved to New York, concentrating on getting his acting career off the ground.

It wasn't easy but he started to get jobs here and there including his first soap opera, a five-days-a-week, live show called The Edge of Night. He also started to break in to movies, and although it was in television where he found his biggest successes, he did manage some memorable cameos, most notably the bumbling major in the first Superman film.

His real big break was I Dream of Jeanie, the 1960s sitcom about an astronaut and his girlfriend, a genie in a bottle played by Barbara Eden. It ran for five years until the early 1970s and made Hagman famous but when it ended he again struggled to find work. One of his jobs during this time was directing the horror B movie Beware! The Blob. It was a flop, but after Dallas, it was re-released as "The film that JR shot!"

The Dallas job came in 1977. It was his wife who read the script first and she turned to her husband and said: "Larry this is it. We found it." And she was right. It was an almost immediate hit and ran for 13 years, making Hagman one of the most recognised stars in the world.

In real life, Hagman was the opposite to his character – a liberal, family man with a relaxed attitude to life ("Heck," he would say, "it's only my career").

However, he also knew his own value and at the peak of Dallas, during the Who Shot JR? hysteria, he told the producers: more money, or I walk. For months there was a high stakes game with recording on the new season even starting with a body double standing in for Hagman. In the end, Hagman won. JR was just too big.

Hagman never really worked out why Dallas was so huge, but he always enjoyed working on it – sometimes too much. He would start on set with a glass of champagne and keep drinking through the day, but in 1992 he was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver and stopped drinking for good.

He had a liver transplant and went on to become a campaigner for organ donation. He also kept a picture of the donor above his mirror and would pray to it every day.

In the last year or so, his career had been going through a marvellous renaissance with the new series of Dallas and when asked to reflect on that career and his life, he would sometimes refer to another piece of advice his mother once gave him: take chances and have fun.

Larry Hagman is survived by his wife, daughter Heidi, son Preston and five granddaughters.

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