Le Monde, France
Larry Hagman (“J.R.”): The Bad Guy We Love to Hate
By Pierre Sérisier
Translated By Christophe Beauchamp
24 November 2012
Edited by Jane Lee
France - Le Monde - Original Article (French)
Larry Hagman, who died Friday from throat cancer at the age of 81, did a great service to television. In his role as J.R. (John Ross), the eldest son of the Ewing family of Dallas, he portrayed a despicable personality, capable of crystallizing all of our resentment or even hatred. He portrayed a character of which one could hang a picture to a wall and throw darts at, just to insult him at leisure. J.R. was not the incarnation of evil, he was simply a representation of what is flawed and unlikable in us. One could compare him to a modern Uriah Heep. His character was in the same league as those created by Charles Dickens.
But whereas the enemy of David Copperfield stirs repulsion in us, the eldest son at the Southfork Ranch provokes attraction and fascination. About 90 million people, which is approximately 80 percent of American households, watched the first episode of the third season of the CBS series in 1980 to find the answer to the following question: “Who shot J.R.?” Because in the end, John Ross is a “malicious good guy,” the kind of character that had to be invented, one that carries the drama as a whole, one whose personality is in constant opposition to that of his brother Bobby, the nice guy. A few years ago, Patrick Duffy agreed that throughout his career, he had probably played the roles of good guys too often.
The role of John Ross Ewing made Hagman a star. Before and after “Dallas,” he took on roles in some other TV shows such as “I Dream of Jeannie” and a TV series derived from “Dallas” taking place today and in which he and Patrick Duffy appear in their former roles. But J.R. will remain the role of his life, even more so than for Columbo or John Steed because Peter Falk and Patrick Macnee experienced a much more diversified acting career.
In hindsight, one may consider that “Dallas” brought significant changes to storytelling and writing style in the TV industry. That nighttime soap appeared in 1978 and turned out to be a major success at the beginning of the second season thanks to its overarching story line, which at the time was a substantial risk to take for the network that broadcast it. The risk involved the fidelity of TV viewers and their capacity, from one week to another, to remember the main chain of events that took place in the previous episode.
To guarantee such fidelity, scriptwriters used cliffhangers, which consist of twist endings, building enough suspense so the TV viewer feels compelled to watch the following episode. In order for that trick to work though, characters with simplistic, even caricatural, traits were required. Such characters are easily identifiable by the public, especially those who are able to embody feelings such as pity, kindness, compassion, anger or antipathy. This is where J.R.'s full potential lies.
So that he could appeal to TV viewers for an extended period of time, he had to be placed in a world that was appropriate to him. Plots in “Dallas” were articulated around three broad topics, sex, money and power, all of which determined the leadership of J.R.'s family. Those three topics mesh particularly well with dramatic plots and therefore with the development of John Ross' personality. It should be noted that Hagman had a physique that perfectly matched his role. He had blue eyes, an inquisitive and harsh glance and a hesitant smile blending contempt and self-confidence. He also had an imposing presence that exuded self-satisfaction.
Interestingly, the character — such as it was created — was popular in the United States, but also in other countries, and not necessarily for the same reasons. If he was despised for his lack of morals and his manipulative temperament among CBS TV viewers, in France he was perceived as a caricature of America. He symbolized greed, the uneducated inheriting great wealth, the unscrupulous businessman, etc.
There was then a cultural gap between French and U.S. societies. In France, the first question one would be asked was what one studied in college, or which intellectual journey one had taken in order to be fully integrated into society. In the United States, the only question worth asking was the number of millions one could make in one year. That fascination for money was still viewed in France as a form of moral weakness, as a sign of a lack of sociability and even as a refusal to integrate into society in order to become rich. However, things have changed since then.
Thirty years later, one could think that we miss “The Prisoner” or “Columbo” and that they belong to the “sweet years” of our childhood. What about J.R.? We do not miss him. We remember him, obviously. How could we forget him? But we do not really want to see him again. He is one of those unpleasant acquaintances who belongs to the past.
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