Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Book Review: Hello Darlin'

Larry Hagman is one of my all-time favorite actors. J.R. Ewing has been as much an integral part of my life as has Archie Bunker - portrayed, ironically enough, by Hagman's lifelong close friend Carroll O'Connor. Hagman's portrayal of J.R. and the phenomenon that was Dallas defined the late 1970s/early 1980s for many Americans.

But, if you are looking for tall tales about the Dallas years in Hagman's autobiography, you'll have to wait until page 181 [of a 272-page book]. The 13 years of Dallas zip by in Hagman's story with a few stories, opinions and recaps. Surprisingly, however, despite this you'll not be disappointed in this book. In actuality, the seemingly short-shrift given to Dallas is simply the way Hagman views his life: Dallas was but one of a string of unbelievably lucky breaks received by a man who has lived an extraordinarily lucky life and who is smart enough to know how lucky he has been.

Hagman doesn't hate Dallas - far from it. He may be the only actor so tied to a role who doesn't hate the association [O'Connor bristled at being constantly labeled as "Archie"; James Gandolfini won't even allow questions about The Sopranos from any journalist; then there's poor Fred Gwynne who - when he died - had Herman Munster's photo reprinted in newspapers across the country]. Hagman embraces J.R. and the series that created him. He loved nearly all of his castmates [the only one he speaks poorly of is the late Dack Rambo, whom Hagman said he actually liked during the series but hated after Rambo publicly called Hagman a "homophobe" who got Rambo fired from Dallas because of his openly bisexual lifestyle and his HIV diagnosis; charges Hagman angrily dismisses].

Hagman writes of trying to get Jim Davis to kick his five-pack-a-day cigarette habit [Hagman quit smoking in the 1960s and became one of the biggest anti-smoking advocates in Hollywood]; and of losing a similar battle with Barbara Bel Geddes until a near-fatal heart attack got her to stop in the mid-1980s. Hagman's fondness for Patrick Duffy is clear, as the close relationship he has maintained with Linda Gray. Unlike many Hollywood tales, the cast of Dallas was actually a tight-knit group - all of whom couldn't believe their great fortune to be a part of something like Dallas.

Indeed, Hagman is fully aware and grateful for the tens of millions of dollars Dallas has earned him. He can still remember being so low on money that he had to rent out his home to Peter Sellers for a month [while he and his wife, Maj, slept on a mattress in Peter Fonda's office]. But Hagman's life was noteworthy before Dallas and if his post-Dallas career has been quieter, his successful recovery from a liver transplant brought him continued renown.

And one of the most enjoyable things about the book is Hagman's seemingly endless encounters with other celebrities. Granted, with a mother as famous as Mary Martin was in her day, it's not unusual that Hagman met famous people long before he himself would reach the stage or screen. Still, Hagman's eclectic list of friends over the years - in addition to Fonda, Sellers and O'Connor - include: Ray Bradbury, Marlon Brando, Art Buchwald, David Crosby, Cary Grant, Joel Grey, Dennis Hopper, Margot Kidder, Richard Lewis, Steve McQueen, Peter Marshall, Lee Marvin, Burgess Meredith, Jack Nicholson, Charlotte Rae, George C. Scott, and last but certainly not least: The Who's Keith Moon. Reading of his adventures in drinking with Moon is worth the cost of the book itself.

The book is a quick - and funny - read. Typical is a story Hagman tells of the shitty amenities the cast of Dallas dealt with - even long after it had become a hit. One of the shittier places [pun intended] was the restrooms on set. When they put in a handicapped stall, it narrowed the other stalls to the point where no one could use them. So, everyone used the handicapped stall, as no one on the cast, crew or staff were disabled. One day, however, while Hagman was in the stall doing his business, there was a sharp bang on the stall door. "Who's in there!" the voice belonging to the 'bang' queried. "I am," said Hagman. "Who are you?!" said the voice incredulously. Hagman told him it was none of his business. This really pissed the guy off. The voice said that he was disabled and needed to use the stall NOW. Hagman apologized and said he'd be happy to vacate it as soon he was finished. This led the man to threaten to call security. When Hagman got out he saw a clearly pissed off man in a wheelchair. At this point, Hagman was recognizable the world over but this man didn't recognize him. "Hey asshole," the guy said as Hagman walked out. "What's your name?" Hagman replied, "Patrick Duffy. And go fuck yourself."

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