An estimated 300 million viewers in 57 countries had seen J.R. get shot by an unseen assailant, a season-ending plot twist that is credited with popularizing the cliffhanger in television series.
Mr. Hagman, who became a television star in the 1960s in the sitcom “I Dream of Jeannie,” died Nov. 23 at a Dallas hospital, said a spokesman for actress Linda Gray, his longtime co-star on “Dallas.” He was 81.
A year ago, Mr. Hagman announced his second bout with cancer. He had spoken candidly about decades of drinking that led to cirrhosis of the liver and, after a cancer diagnosis in 1995, a life-saving liver transplant.
As an actor, Mr. Hagman came with a serious pedigree. He was the son of Mary Martin, a legendary star of Broadway musicals best known for originating the role of Peter Pan in the 1950s.
On “Dallas,” his J.R. Ewing character was “the man viewers loved to hate,” according to critics, a scheming Texan in a land of plenty. Much of the show’s run paralleled the nation’s fascination with big money and big business in the 1980s, and the role made Mr. Hagman an international star.
“Here is a man born to play villainy,” Los Angeles Times TV critic Howard Rosenberg wrote soon after the show’s debut. “His performance on ‘Dallas’ is a salute to slime.”
A Texas native, Mr. Hagman often said he played the character as a composite of “all those good old boys” he had known growing up “who caught more flies with honey instead of vinegar.”
He approached it as “a cartoon,” he once said of the role that earned him two Emmy nominations. “It was outrageous comedy to me.”
By his own admission, Mr. Hagman drank his way through “Dallas.” Champagne was “his poison” — he would uncork a bottle by 9 a.m. and keep the bubbly flowing all day. He once poured bourbon on his cornflakes.
“The drinking sometimes made it harder to remember lines, but I liked that constant feeling of being mildly loaded,” Hagman said in 1995 in People magazine.
When Mr. Hagman arrived in Hollywood in the 1960s, he had already appeared in a half-dozen Broadway plays and spent two years on the daytime television soap opera “The Edge of Night.”
From five television pilots, Hagman chose to read for the part of astronaut Tony Nelson on “I Dream of Jeannie.” Created by Sidney Sheldon, the show plugged into the nation’s space mania and owed a creative debt to another hit series, “Bewitched.”
Jeannie was played by Barbara Eden, who complicated the life of the uptight Nelson after he aborted a mission on a desert island and unleashed her character — a magical and alluring genie — from a bottle.
“I liked the premise of ‘Jeannie,’ ” Hagman wrote in his book. “It was good, wholesome, escapist fun, with a healthy dose of sexual tension.”