Nov. 26, 2012
Kit Stolz, OVN correspondent
Larry Hagman, who became famous around the world in the l980s for his almost gleefully villainous portrayal of J.R. Ewing in the hit show “Dallas,” and who later chose to live with his wife, Maj, in an estate atop Ojai’s Sulphur Mountain for most of the last 15 years, died Friday from complications due to cancer. He was 81.
In a statement given to the Dallas Morning News, his family said they and close friends had joined Hagman for Thanksgiving in Dallas, where he was shooting an episode of the remake of the series of the same name.
“When he passed, he was surrounded by loved ones. It was a peaceful passing, just as he had wished for,” said the statement.
Hagman began shooting the remake of the hit series in October 2011, once again playing the infamous oilman J.R. Ewing. He revealed at the time that he had a treatable form of cancer.
“As J.R., I could get away with anything — bribery, blackmail and adultery,” Hagman told The New York Times. “But I got caught by cancer.”
Hagman appeared as the infamous J.R. in all 357 episodes of the original show, which ran from 1978 to 1991, one of the longest running of all television shows. The series peaked in popularity with the “Who shot J.R.?” episode, which ended the 1980 season with a mystery cliffhanger. That fall, more than 300 million people worldwide watched the “Who Done It?” episode to learn the shooter was J.R.’s sister-in-law and mistress, Kristin Shepherd (played by Mary Crosby).
In Ojai, Hagman was known for his activism of behalf of performing arts, and for his interest in progressive causes.
“He loved Ojai, and he was a great supporter of the arts,” said Joan Kemper, who worked with him on behalf of the Ojai Music Festival and for a performing arts center. “For many years, he used to bring a vintage fire truck up from Long Beach just to ride in the Fourth of July parade, and to have fun throwing his fake Larry Hagman $100 bills to the crowd.”
Kemper noted that although Hagman became famous playing a ruthless oil baron, he was a big believer in alternative energy, especially solar energy.
“I think it was a kind of reverse psychology,” she said. “He was really a private person, but he believed in using his celebrity status for good causes. He had the largest residential solar energy system in the world up on Sulphur Mountain, and he would give talks on solar energy all over the world.”
Teri Prather, who has worked for Hagman and his wife at his estate on Sulphur Mountain for many years, agreed.
“Alternative energy was a passion of his,” she said. “He was as enthusiastic as a kid about any kind of energy that was an alternative to oil.”
Hagman also made appearances and advertisements for health causes. He quit smoking after a cancer scare, recorded public service advertisements for the American Cancer Society, and was chairman of the annual “Great American Smokeout” drive. After having a liver transplant in 1992, he made appearances, spoke at benefits and helped raise money and awareness for organ transplantation.
“He loved life, he loved his family and he loved being outrageous,” said Kemper. “I first came to know him through my work, but he became a personal friend. I remember at one Christmas party with our families, to entertain the kids he came to dinner in a life-sized chicken suit.”
Local historian David Mason also recalls Hagman’s big personality. “Larry was lots of fun — always teasing, always joking, always laughing,” Mason said. “Probably one of his greatest features was that he treated everyone equally. There was never a sense that he favored those that have over those that have not … At dinner parties he would see me and (‘Dallas’ costar) Linda Gray laughing and giggling and telling stories and he was always threatening to separate us.”
Mason said he thinks one of the reasons Hagman loved Ojai so much is that he could walk down Ojai Avenue and “not be bothered by anyone, but receive lots of smiles and greetings from people he met on the street. He hung out in the store (The Village Florist) with me quite often, both Maj and him, and he would always greet me with a hug.”
Another downtown merchant, Primavera Gallery owner Khaled Al-Awar, said he saw those same traits in Hagman during the star’s visits to Primavera. “When somebody recognized him, he never paid any attention to their background, but gave them all of his attention and made them feel so good talking to him, made them feel really comfortable, as if he were just another person, and not a movie star or a TV star. He had an amazing sense of humor, and he could be very frank, very blunt and outrageous, but you always had the sense he liked being in your company.”
Al-Awar said he will remember his friend as “one of the most genuine people I’ve every met, and extremely generous with his time and with his house. You tell me how many people he would lend that house to, for endless events to raise money for any good cause in the community, or the state, or even internationally. He had an amazingly generous spirit, and I feel very privileged and honored to have known him.”
Hagman is survived by his wife, Maj, his son, Preston, his daughter, Kristina Hagman and five granddaughters.