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Larry Hagman, Dallas Villain J.R. Ewing, Dies at 81

Larry Hagman Laura Farr/ZUMA Press

Larry Hagman's J.R. Ewing was Darth Vader in a 10-gallon hat.

Hagman, who played the dastardly oilman on Dallas, and, as such, became TV's highest-paid actors, died Friday in the city that served as the backdrop for his signature role. He was 81.

The actor passed away at Medical City Dallas Hospital from complications of a recent battle with cancer, the Dallas Morning News reported.

Hagman's most recent battle with cancer

"Larry's family and close friends had joined him in Dallas for the Thanksgiving holiday," Hagman's family said in a statement to the paper. "When he passed, he was surrounded by loved ones. It was a peaceful passing, just as he had wished for."

The family statement said Hagman, who'd saddled back up Ewing for TNT's Dallas reboot, was back in Dallas to reeinact the "iconic role he loved most." Shooting on that show's second season began in September.

The original Dallas ran from 1979-1991, dominating the Nielsen ratings, inspiring a prime-time soap craze, and giving rise to "Who Shot J.R.?" mania.

At the center of it all was Hagman, maybe the one American in the summer of 1980 who didn't care who'd stalked the Ewing Oil headquarters, and fired bullets into ol' J.R.

"After all, I'm J.R.," Hagman told the Associated Press back in the day, "so it wasn't me."

Dallas Reboot: Who's Going to Shoot J.R.?

The son of Broadway musical legend Mary Martin (South Pacific), Hagman was born Sept. 21, 1931, in J.R. Ewing territory—Fort Worth, Texas.

Hagman became a star in his own right in 1965 as straight-man Major Tony Nelson to Barbara Eden's mischievous genie on I Dream of Jeannie. The sitcom ran for five seasons, and for forever in reruns—the latter-day Hagman would remark he was more recognized as astronaut Tony than bad-guy J.R.

By the late 1970s, Hagman was a familiar face but not a big name when he was given the script for a planned series about a wealthy Texas family that lived communally on a ranch called Southfork.

From the start, Hagman said, he knew there was something special about Dallas: "There wasn't one redeeming person in it," he once said. "Even the mother was bad."

Dallas started slowly in the ratings. But by its third season, it was in the Top 10—and about to explode.

On March 21, 1980, on the occasion of the series' third-season closer, Hagman's J.R. was felled by gunfire. The identity of the assailant was not revealed. The season-ending cliffhanger was, if not invented, then invigorated.

All through the summer, the press and public ran through the list of suspects. The suspense only ratcheted up in the fall, when new episode after new episode went by with still no answer. Finally, on Nov. 21, 1980, J.R.'s spurned sister-in-law Kristin Shepard (played by Mary Crosby) confessed to the shooting. The episode, "Who Done It?," became the highest-rated prime-time program of its time. Though subsequently outdrawn by the M*A*S*H* finale and various Super Bowls, it still ranks among the elite.

"When the 'Who Shot J.R.?' episodes came along," Hagman once remembered to CNN, "I knew we were set for a long time."

Dallas was TV's No. 1 show from 1980-82, and again from 1983-84. The show's series finale ended with yet another bang—except this time, J.R., egged on by no less than Satan, shot himself. Or so it seemed.

J.R. and Hagman, a reformed heavy drinker who underwent a liver transplant in 1995, survived for two Dallas reunion movies in the 1990s.

Larry Hagman: A Life in Pictures

Though best known for TV, Hagman had featured big-screen roles in the Cold War classic, Fail Safe, and the Clintonesque comedy-drama, Primary Colors.

With his wife of nearly 60 years under 24-hour care for Alzheimer's disease, Hagman said in 2011 that he looked forwarded to returning to Dallas for a next-generation take.

"It made my name the first time around," Hagman said of the franchise to the Daily Mirror. "Now I believe it will save me, by keeping me busy and working."

In October 2011, Hagman revealed he was battling an unspecified form of cancer. And battle he did, appearing, as promised, in the TNT version, which premiered in June.

"Hagman is having fun as usual," Slate.com noted in a review of the new series. "J.R. remains a towering bad guy."

Other stars who have fallen this year

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