By David Zurawik
The Baltimore Sun
2:51 PM EST, November 24, 2012
I wasn't going to write about Larry Hagman, who died Friday in Texas at age 81 from complications of cancer.
Even though I had reported on him and reviewed much of his work over the years, as well as doing an interview with him during a party at his Malibu home one raucous night, I thought I'd leave it to others to do the appreciations.
But all I am seeing is "I Dream of Jeannie" and J.R. Ewing, and while that's obvious and fine, I thought there should be at least one voice mentioning the Hagman I remember.
The image of him I have in mind is not from "Dallas" or "I Dream of Jeannie." It's from the last time I saw his work—a couple of weeks ago on a DVD. He played the interpreter in the 1964 Sidney Lumet movie "Fail Safe," and I was struck by how startlingly good he was in this black and white movie that really wanted to be a stage play.
He and Henry Fonda sat at a desk with a phone, and he interpreted what the head of the Soviet Union was saying about these nuclear armed planes heading Moscow's way. It was a scene in which the silences spoke louder than the words, and Hagman gave depth and resonance to this young man standing on the brink. In a story that has nuclear holocaust as its theme and stars the stature of Henry Fonda, that is no small feat.
But Hagman did make his name in TV—and, let's face it, in two of the medium's more ridiculous series. And, he cultivated an image that went along with that—living on the beach and living it up all the time.
He really played that image to the hilt in the piece I did with him at the height of his CBS "Dallas" fame. Some stars might have considered my reporting on what looked like a poster for Hollywood debauchery to be borderline libelous, but Hagman thought it was just fine. In fact, I came later to believe it is exactly how he wanted me to write it. He was playing me all the way that night in Malibu.
What doesn’t get said is that there is no harder work in the world than producing a series for American television. You work each day until you've got that week's entry in the can. From before dawn to way after closing time. If you do NOT deliver 22 or 26 or more weekly episodes for the producing studio every season on a killer schedule, you are out of the business -- they'll find a star who can work that schedule and deliver the goods. That's why there was so much amphetamine abuse in the good old days of network TV.
Today with cable, a stellar series like Showtime's "Homeland" only produces 12 episodes a year. And there's a good reason for that: That is about the upper limit of what's possible in a calendar year. And that's a show that really has three stars that can carry a scene or sequence. Clare Danes doesn't have to be in most of the scenes for the hour episode to work.
But back in the bad old days, when the networks ran the studios and the studios ran the stars, you did a mind blowing number of episodes—however many the network wanted, and the lead actor was all over the place, in most scenes, involved in all the drama.
We never saw that Larry Hagman—the guy who headed the lighter than light comedy "I Dream of Jeannie" or the original big soap opera, "Dallas," in the sweatshop that was TV production.
And so, that is the last slight of hand from this actor—the guy on the beach holding a martini in one hand, reaching out to welcome the caress of a beautiful woman with the other, who wanted us all to think, “Gee, what a life!”
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