‘Dallas’: Larry Hagman Didn’t Think J.R. Ewing Was a Bad Guy

When Dallas debuted as a miniseries in 1978, the network didn’t hold out too much hope of success, but the soapy primetime TV show quickly caught fire. With the emergence of a talented ensemble cast and their salacious antics, viewers were hooked. But it was the shot heard round the world that made Dallas and Larry Hagman a household name. The advertising slogan for the episode “Who shot J.R?” drew in viewers and captivated audiences. Rumors swirled over the identity of the shooter. But while fans of the show saw Larry Hagman’s J.R. Ewing character as a villain, Hagman himself didn’t agree.

Larry Hagman as John Ross 'J.R.' Ewing in a pool, frowning, on 'Dallas'
Larry Hagman as John Ross ‘J.R.’ Ewing | CBS Broadcasting Inc./Getty Images

‘Dallas’ wasn’t supposed to last long

While viewers are probably familiar with the soapy drama that aired until 1991, that wasn’t the plan from the onset. CBS initially planned a five-part miniseries that was to take the place of the show’s pilot episode, but by the time it aired, there weren’t any plans to continue. But lucky for fans, the miniseries was popular enough for the network to add a full season.

The series follows the oil and cattle ranch rich Ewing family as they spar with each other and their enemies. Full of drama, intrigue, and scandal, Dallas made several of its cast members household names, including Patrick Duffy, Larry Hagman, and Victoria Principal. The show ended in 1991, and 33 million viewers tuned in for the final time, solidifying Dallas as one of the greatest dramas of all time. 

Was J.R. Ewing a villain?

RELATED: ‘Dallas’: Sue Ellen Wasn’t Supposed to Last Past the Pilot

J.R. Ewing emerged as the character viewers loved to hate. With his shady dealings and dirty schemes, Ewing attracted plenty of enemies. He was even shot a few times throughout the series, but that didn’t stop Hagman or creator David Jacobs from thinking J.R. was a bad guy. According to Mental Floss, Hagman had some thoughts about his character: “J.R wasn’t that bad. He was a businessman, which is bad enough right away. But I don’t know. He took care of his family. I wouldn’t call him bad; he was just an oilman.”

Jacobs agreed, “Dramatically he was neither hero nor villain but a combination, the villain-as-protagonist.” Hagman modeled his Ewing character after an oilman he once knew. He grew up in Texas and worked for an oilman digging swimming pools. The man had four sons that fought bitterly over the business when the father died. The son that took control was the inspiration for J.R. Ewing.

Hagman’s career

Hagman worked in a few theatre productions before receiving a draft notice and enlisting in the Air Force in 1952. After his return, he worked off-Broadway and had a handful of television roles before his big break as Air Force Captain Anthony Nelson in the comedy I Dream of Jeannie. The show ran from 1965 to 1970 and was one of the most successful comedies of the 1960s.

Before accepting the role as J.R. Ewing, Hagman had to choose between that and a role for a new show, The Waverly Wonders. Luckily, Hagman chose Dallas, and the rest is history. He was nominated for two Emmy Awards and four Golden Globe Awards over the course of the series. He appeared in every single episode of Dallas and would eventually go on to make appearances in the Dallas made for TV movies, spinoff series Knots Landing, and the Dallas continuation series of 2012.   

After Dallas concluded, he still worked in TV and tried his hand in new roles but nothing was ever as popular as the scheming J.R. Ewing. Hagman passed away in 2012 from acute myeloid leukemia and family, friends, and cast members remember him as a loving, intelligent, and funny man and friend.