I first saw Larry Hagman in the flesh back in the ’60s.
And he was an amazing sight to see.
I was staying in a friend’s house, a few doors from Hagman’s Malibu Colony beachfront home. It was July 4th.
Early in the afternoon on Independence Day, the famous star stepped onto the sand and began to lead a parade of pals playing tin whistles along the beach.
He was carrying a Viet Cong flag.
Hagman was violently opposed to America’s unpopular involvement in Vietnam in a nation savagely divided by that marathon war. And although he was a big star, he had no hesitation in telling the world that he was opposed to the conflagration — and damn the consequences.
Hagman — immensely popular in heartland America — was an “eccentric.”
Larry, who died this week at the age of 81, was a rebel all his life. His longtime friend and Dallas co-star Linda Gray called him “the Pied Piper of Life.” He was a lifelong maverick who relentlessly stood up for his beliefs — even though he risked damaging his career.
That’s the way he lived life. No compromises.
In the ’60s, the son of a famous mother — Broadway star Mary Martin — was already a big star following the success of I Dream of Jeannie, in which he played an affable astronaut opposite Barbara Eden as the sexy genie.
A decade later, when Hagman became an even bigger star following his role as the Machiavellian Texas oil baron J.R. Ewing in the highly popular Dallas series (perfect casting for a guy who was born in Fort Worth, Texas), he already was a household name. Dallas was a worldwide smash and ran from l979 to l991.
Larry liked to do some interviews at his Malibu Colony beach house.
One year he sat in the patio hot tub, which overlooked the Pacific Ocean, and told me that he liked to get naked in the tub with his buddies. He explained: “That’s the way Julius Caesar and those Roman leaders did it. Their philosophy was that when a man strips off all his clothes or togas then he gets rid of all his inhibitions. And naked, no man is able to conceal a weapon — or hide their true intentions.”
He, of course, knew how to throw a party. He loved to drink and party and it cost him dearly. It destroyed his liver although he was able to get a liver transplant in 1995, which helped him live much longer. He became a nondrinker, although he developed cancer of the throat in his late 70s.
Flash-forward with me two decades to Ojai, the oasis community in Ventura County 90 miles from Hollywood. I had driven to Larry’s magnificent mountaintop estate for lunch. He proudly showed me around the place and its energy-saving solar panels.
He called the place Heaven. It was a spectacular 25,000-square-foot aerie designed and built by Maj, his wife of almost 60 years.
Locals knew the estate well. Hagman generously donated his home for an assortment of fundraising musical events and charity auctions that were near and dear to his heart.
At that time Larry provided me with a marvelous al fresco lunch and chatted easily about his life — and his legend. It was one of the last extensive interviews he ever gave.
Wearing a crisp navy short-sleeved shirt, white slacks, blue clogs and a straw Panama hat, he proudly showed me the house and talked extensively about his charmed life.
“Ah, JR,” he said, “He was wicked — but so much fun. I would have loved to hang out with him.”
When I asked him if his gigantic earnings on his hit series enabled him to pour multimillions into Heaven, he explained:
“We lived in Malibu for 26 years. Then our old friends started dying off and it wasn’t the same crowd anymore. Times were changing. People were tearing down $10 million houses and building new ones for 20 million. It was bizarre. I was at our friend Mary Crosby’s house. It was perfect. So I told Maj, ‘Find us a place like this.’ “
Hagman continued to enjoy his iconic status fame until the very end — even doing a guest appearance in a 2012 Dallas show.
“All over the world people recognize me for ‘Who shot J.R,’ “ he said, “Or they ask, ‘Who killed you?’ I think something got skewered in the translation.”
Hagman worked ferociously to persuade people to donate their organs. It became one of his most passionate causes, particularly after his liver transplant.
At the end of our lunch I asked him what he considered the most important things in life:
He paused and pulled off his Panama hat: “My mother used to say there are only three things you have to do when you do a show. Hang up your clothes, know your lines and be reasonably sober. Well, I never hung up my clothes — stars don’t have to do that. And I did one of the others. “
“But you must laugh at life because it’s so short. Have a good time, try to make people happy. Don’t worry. Feel good. Be Happy. As boring as it is, that’s my motto.”
Not long after that interview, Larry began treatment for the cancer that took his life.
Because of illness — and because of his wife’s decline into Alzheimer’s — he put the magnificent estate, which houses his career treasures along with the souvenirs and paintings of his famous mother Mary Martin, up for sale.
Hagman has now left his Heaven on earth. But I’m sure he hasn’t stopped laughing.