On November 23, television and film actor Larry Hagman died at the age of 81 from complications arising from throat cancer. Hagman was best known for his turns as the laughable Air Force Captain Tony Nelson on I Dream of Jeanie (1965-1970) and as the villainous oil baron J.R. Ewing in the prime time soap opera Dallas (1978-1990). As J.R. lied, schemed, swindled and blackmailed his way through the show, audiences loved him for it, and Hagman became one of television’s biggest stars throughout the 1980s. Dallas became such a cultural touchstone, that it has been noted as having a noteworthy and corrosive effect on communist regimes in various Eastern Bloc countries.
The final episode of the 1979-1980 season of Dallas ended with the mysterious shooting of J.R., leaving viewers to wonder all summer long who shot the villain everybody loved to hate. After all, pretty much the entire cast was a suspect. “Who Shot J.R.” was a meme before we even knew what they were, dominating pop culture for months, and assuring Hagman a place in television history. It also kicked off the tradition of the season-ender cliffhanger we see so commonly on TV today.
(True story: a friend of mine was in U.S. Army intelligence in the 1980s, and was tasked with monitoring radio traffic in East Germany. It turned out that the Bloc troops were watching bootleg tapes of Dallas and were just as fascinated by who shot J.R. as Western audiences were a few years before. My friend was sorely tempted to break radio silence and shout out who the culprit was, just to ruin it for them. That probably would have kicked off WWIII, however.)