LOS ANGELES -- J.R. Ewing was a business cheat, faithless husband and bottomless well of corruption. Yet with his sparkling grin, Larry Hagman masterfully created the charmingly loathsome oil baron - and coaxed forth a Texas-size gusher of ratings - on television's long-running and hugely successful nighttime soap, Dallas.
Although he first gained fame as nice guy Air Force Major Tony Nelson on the fluffy 1965-70 NBC comedy I Dream of Jeannie, Hagman earned his greatest stardom with J.R. The CBS serial drama about the Ewing family and those in their orbit aired from April, 1978, to May, 1991, and broke viewing records with its "Who shot J.R.?" 1980 cliffhanger that left unclear if Hagman's character was dead.
The actor, who returned as J.R. in a new edition of Dallas this year, had a long history of health problems and died Friday due to complications from his battle with cancer, his family said.
"Larry was back in his beloved hometown of Dallas, re-enacting the iconic role he loved the most. Larry's family and closest friends had joined him in Dallas for the Thanksgiving holiday," the family said in a statement that was provided by Warner Bros., producer of the show. The 81-year-old actor was surrounded by friends and family before he passed peacefully, "just as he'd wished for," the statement said.
Linda Gray, his on-screen wife and later ex-wife in the original series and the sequel, was among those with Hagman in his final moments in a Dallas hospital, said her publicist, Jeffrey Lane.
"He brought joy to everyone he knew. He was creative, generous, funny, loving and talented, and I will miss him enormously. He was an original and lived life to the fullest," the actress said.
Hagman also starred in two short-lived sitcoms, The Good Life (NBC, 1971-72) and Here We Go Again (ABC, 1973). But it was Hagman's masterful portrayal of J.R. that brought him the most fame. And the "Who shot J.R.?" story twist fuelled international speculation and millions of dollars in betting-parlour wagers. It also helped give the series a place in ratings history. When the answer was revealed in a 1980 episode, an average of 41 million U.S. viewers tuned in to make Dallas one of the most-watched entertainment shows of all time, trailing only the M*A*S*H finale in 1983 with 50 million viewers.
"I know what I want on J.R.'s tombstone," Hagman said in 1988. "It should say: 'Here lies upright citizen J.R. Ewing. This is the only deal he ever lost.'"