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TNT's Dallas says goodbye to J.R. Ewing tonight, recalling the history of TV's greatest scoundrel



In a modern TV universe where even the heroes have blown up senior citizen homes and stuck machetes in people's heads, it's tough to imagine how a guy who mostly slept around on his wife and spread rumors about his enemies could become TV's greatest villain.

But that's exactly what Larry Hagman achieved playing John Ross "J.R." Ewing Jr. on the many iterations of the nighttime soap opera Dallas. Since 1979, Hagman developed a legion of fans with his charismatic, celebratory portrayal of J.R., considered one of the most popular bad guys in the history of television.

Though Hagman died in November, acknowledged as king of the character actors, fans get a final chance to say goodbye to J.R. at 9 tonight, as TNT's Dallas reboot airs a funeral for J.R. coming at the end of five new episodes Hagman filmed before he passed away from cancer.

According to this Washington Post story, the show recalibrated scenes Hagman filmed using digital technology and sly editing to reprise one of the show's most celebrated storylines, "Who shot J.R.?" This time, the gunshots actually killed the renown womanizer and schemer, giving all his old enemies a chance to show up at the funeral and chew a bit more scenery in memory of times gone by. Click here to check out the new opening credits for tonight's episode, reconfigured as a tribute to Hagman and J.R.

In truth, one reason I have been slow to embrace TNT's remake is because Hagman's J.R. seemed a diminshed character to me from the outset. At age 81, the actor had alreay survved a bout with throat cancer during filming of the first season, and there were times when his J.R. already seemed a bit of a shadow, hovering at the edge of scenes while writers tried to build Josh Henderson's JR III into the show's central bad guy.

It was a marked difference from the days when Hagman's deviltry was the biggest drawing card for the show, which ruled CBS' schedule for a dozen years. Reportedly, Hagman was the only actor to appear in all 357 episodes of the series; a testament to both the character's enduring popularity and the performer's devotion to playing him.

Back then, producers were less willing to create a series where the villain was the central character, so Patrick Duffy's good-guy brother Bobby Ewing was always positioned as the blander, principled Yin to J.R.'s megalomaniacal Yang. Even then, the virtuous son proved far less interesting to everyone but the show's crusty pariarch, John Ross "Jock" Ewing Sr.

J.R. and Dallas have been credited with sparking many TV innovations since then, from presaging TV's current obsession with anti-heroes to birthing the cliffhanger episode by introducing the "Who Shot J.R.?" mystery in the last episode of the second season (requiring fans to wait months until the show's fall return for the answer, which was somehow far less interesting than the question).

Today's most successful dramas have made villainous characters stars -- from womanizing jerk Don Draper in Mad Men, to serial killer Dexter Morgan in Dexter and drug dealing ex-high school chemistry teacher Walter White in Breaking Bad. So the Dallas reboot's stories of virtuous Ewings fighting bad guy Ewings still feels a bit dated, even with good-looking young actors in visible roles.

Still it's likely worth a look tonight for a tip of the Stetson to a character which remained compelling across a host of series, TV movies and more; fitting tribute to an ace TV actor who never wearied of inhabiting his greatest creation. 

[Last modified: Saturday, March 30, 2013 2:04pm]


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