CLASSIC TV REWIND: MY INTERVIEW WITH LARRY HAGMAN (2004)

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“Work breeds work.”

Larry Hagman was born in Fort Worth, Texas, on September 21, the son of actress Mary Martin and attorney Ben Hagman. When his parents divorced, he moved to Los Angeles to live with his grand-mother. Following his grandmother’s death, Hagman, twelve years old, returned to his mother, who had remarried and was in the midst of a successful acting career.

Larry’s characterizations, as astronaut Tony Nelson on I Dream of Jeannie and as the ruthless J.R. Ewing of Dallas, remain among television’s most iconic portrayals. On November 21, 1980, a record 350 million fans in fifty-seven countries tuned in to discover the answer to pop-culture’s most intriguing mystery: Who shot J.R.?

My first professional ambition was to be a cowboy. Tom Mix was my inspiration. I sat on his horse, Tony, at the Fort Worth Polo Grounds when I was about five years old. He was one of my heroes, and he was a great guy. He was also AWOL from the army for about thirty years, and he was a rogue, but I didn’t know that at the time.

He was presented as a hero … but he was quite a guy.

I was going to school in Vermont, and my mother, Mary Martin, came up and asked me if I wanted to go on the road with her in Annie Get Your Gun. I said no, because I knew I would then have to spend a year with my stepfather, who I didn’t like at all.

I told her, “No thank you; I think I want to be a cowboy.”

So I moved down to Texas with my father when I was fifteen … and I found out that the cowboy life wasn’t that good after all. I worked in the fields bailing hay and digging ditches. That’s what made me want to become an actor.

I went to Bard College. During my Bard College days they had a winter field period, where you could try to get a job in the field of endeavor that you wanted to do for the rest of your life. My mother kind of pulled some strings and got me a job with Margo Jones in Dallas in the Theater-in-the-Round. I apprenticed there for a couple of months and got the feel of it. I then worked the next summer with Margo Jones in Woodstock, New York, in the regional theater there, and did about six or eight shows.

I got a job with “Sinjin” Terrell; that’s “St. John” Terrell. He was a great guy and entrepreneur in the Theater-in-the-Round. It was called the Music Circus, and that was down in Florida in Miami. I did about twenty productions down there. We rehearsed in the daytime and played at night. I was the assistant stage manager. I also played small parts and danced and sang. I worked hard.

My first real job was at the City Center in New York City in Taming of the Shrew. That’s where I got my Equity Card. I then went to work in Lambertville in the Theater-in-the-Round again, and then from there to London. I was in South Pacific with my mother for a year. I joined the American Air Force, and I performed in theatrical productions. When I got out I did three off-Broadway plays and then four plays on Broadway all in one year. That shows you how successful they were. That was followed by three years on The Edge of Night, a daytime soap opera. I had a pretty extensive acting background before I got Jeannie.

My mother was responsible for me getting my foot in the door, and so I got to see people that normally other people wouldn’t be able to see. I was an admirer of hers; she had great charisma on stage. She was really a special person.

I had an in, and I just kept working.

St. John said, “Listen, kid, don’t ever turn down a job in the theater, because you meet a lot of people that way, and they’ll get you other jobs if you’re any good at what you do.”

So I learned that work breeds work.

I Dream of Jeannie and Dallas became very successful. My mother was one of the biggest Broadway stars ever.

And she said, “Always be kind to your fans, because it takes a lot of guts to come up and ask for your autograph. Always be good to them, because they’re your base.”

And I was. And, let’s see, what were the other three things she said?

“Always know your lines, hang up your clothes … and be reasonably sober.”

I kind of didn’t pay too much attention to the last one, but I did hang up my own clothes.

I’m a recovering alcoholic. I’m also a really happy man. I’m a lucky man. I had a liver transplant nine years ago; I had quit drinking a couple years before. Since then, I guess I’ve become more introspective. I just recently had another liver operation. I had a little trouble with it around Christmas (’03), but I’m feeling well and recovering. Today, I’m just a happy man. I’ve got five granddaughters who keep me fairly busy, and I made enough money to be comfortable for the rest of my life … I hope.

It’s very difficult for people, male or female — especially female — to be successful in any job that demands a lot of attention. I mean, in acting you have to go to acting school, you have to hang around with actors … you have to take bit parts. It would be awfully hard for somebody with a couple of kids to do that, and then also to have a daytime job to pay the bills.

They’re obsessed people.

What was that movie that was just out? The one about the Irish couple that comes over here with their kids? (In America — Ed.) I recommend that everybody see that film. That guy was tenacious, and I’d say he succeeded.

Maybe that’s the answer … tenacity!

(The preceding interview took place in December of 2004. Larry Hagman passed away on November 23, 2012. He left behind a legacy of classic TV memories.)

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Joel Eisenberg is an award-winning author, screenwriter, and producer. The Oscar in the profile pic isn’t his but he’s scheming. WGA and Pen America member.

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