Viewers around the world are expressing their sadness over Larry Hagman’s passing. The man who brought the inimitable J.R. Ewing to life on “Dallas” certainly went out on top, with J.R. and the rest of the Ewing clan having become a TV hit for a second time. We will miss his outsized personality, his humor, warmth and charm. We will never forget his silent Sundays rule — when he would refuse to speak one day each week — because one of those silent Sundays happened to be the wedding day of Marilyn Beck and Arthur Levine at the Bel Air Hotel, which Larry attended. He socialized by smiling, gesturing and whistling. Asked to express his wedding wishes on tape, as other guests were doing, Larry whistled “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.”
Larry gave up silent Sundays in more recent years. He worked on making himself a better human being. His successes on and off-camera, with his long-running marriage to wife Maj, his family and many friendships, was all the more phenomenal given the colossal challenges Larry had to overcome. Known for many years as the biggest eccentric in Hollywood, the son of famed musical star Mary Martin told Marilyn that his childhood was a kaleidoscope of broken homes, step-parents, private schools and strange surroundings. He attended 18 different schools, lived everywhere from London to Texas to New York — and recalled times of loneliness and rejection and depression.
By the time he was in his thirties and costarring in “I Dream of Jeannie,” the depression had grown so acute that, he confided, he went through a series of nervous breakdowns, “about a breakdown a month. The first time they had to haul me off the set in a truck and cart me over to a psychiatrist’s.”
At another time he said, “I’m a schizophrenic. I really am. I’m wild and undisciplined.” And referring to his behavior on the “Jeannie” set, he said, “Lots of times without any warning, I’d start screaming or crying or vomiting. And towards the end, I cried an awful lot.”
Intense psychotherapy helped a lot, but even after times for Larry improved, he stood out as one of the industry’s kookiest characters. He drove around in a beat-up Volkswagen bus, usually dressed in cowboy attire — including a 10 gallon hat and a necklace fashioned out of horses’ teeth. His many escapades included riding a bike home from a party near his Malibu digs early one morning, dressed in a chartreuse gorilla suit. Invariably, slung over his shoulder was a suede pouch crammed with objects he would display at the slightest provocation: chopsticks, a magnum of champagne, incense, candles, long-stemmed wine glasses and a flute he would toot in the middle of most conversations.
When “Dallas” – and Larry – rocketed to super success, Mary Martin was asked what she thought of her son becoming a legend. Her response: “I’m a legend. He’s a cult figure.”
Certainly she had her own eccentricities. After second husband Richard Halliday died in 1973, she had his body moved from town to town as she traveled, unable to decide where to bury him.
Larry’s silent Sundays rule came into effect in the 70s, as did his edict that no one on his “Dallas” set would be allowed to smoke. “I don’t smoke – and I’ve laid down the law that no one can smoke on the set, at least not when I’m there,” said Larry in January of 1979. “And I’m there five days a week. There are 36 smokers in our company of 40 – and when they’re all puffing away, I can’t breathe by the middle of the day. I know I’m causing resentment on the set. I know it became so impossible for some of the crew to accept that a couple of them left, quit, I guess. But I figure I’m more important than those folks. After all, it’s my face on screen.” He kept a supply of hand-held, battery-operated fans with him, so that if he ended up being in the company of someone who was smoking anywhere, he would turn on the fan so the smoke would be directed back in the face of the offender.
In 1995, Larry, who had been a big-time drinker for many years, underwent his liver transplant. He came through the experience fine. In fact, life for him for many years seemed very fine — something he never expected it to be when he was young and lonely and seldom saw the mother who cast such a huge shadow.