Wednesday, November 28, 2012

He Wouldn't Have Made A Great Mormon

To: Abbottsville Fourth Ward
From: Donna Banta
Subject: Larry Hagman, 1931-2012

As an English major at BYU, I sat through countless classroom discussions in which devout believers claimed that whomever we were studying would make "a great Mormon." I heard this theory applied to Emerson, Thoreau, Dostoyevsky, Emily Dickinson, Orwell, Hemingway, Eugene O'Neill and Mark Twain.

In the broader BYU community the range of potential converts expanded to include various headliners of the day, such as President Jimmy Carter, President Ronald Reagan, Alexander Haig, Walter Cronkite, Johnny Carson, the cast of Three's Company and Barry Manilow.

But there was one celebrity of the late '70's and early '80's that, in my recollection, never earned this accolade: Larry Hagman.

I was a junior at BYU when the TV series Dallas premiered and propelled the wheeling and dealing J.R. Ewing into the American consciousness. The show was immediately denigrated by the campus devout as a filthy, disgusting, demoralizing program that no virtuous LDS coed would ever be seen watching.

My roommates and I never missed an episode.

It was--and perhaps still is--the best of bad TV. Classic soap opera schlock in an outrageous fashion era, with frame after frame of big hair, big diamonds, shoulder pads, ruffled tuxedo shirts, and silk breast pocket handkerchiefs. It helped that it was set in the locale of conspicuous consumption at the moment America was poised to embark on its own era of conspicuous consumption.

Did Americans love greedy, scheming, corrupt capitalists bent on depleting the planet's oil reserves? We must have. How else does one explain the past 30 years of U.S. fiscal policy?

But it was also the cast and characters. Larry Hagman played the villainous J.R. with just the right hint of irony. He was evil, to be sure, but there was also a smile and wink implied at the end of every line. Linda Grey was superb as Sue Ellen Ewing, J.R.'s long suffering alcoholic wife who dressed in couture and somehow managed to make the DT's look elegant. Also worth noting were J.R.'s various paramours. A lengthy list that included a former Stepford Wife (and cast member of Gilligan's Island), a Bond girl, a Miss USA, and a Ford Model. It seemed at the time that all the talent wanted to get into bed with good ol' J.R.

Then there were the over the top plots. A shooting that had the entire country on edge during the rerun season. Annual Ewing Barbecues and Oil Barons' Balls that culminated in either a corporate takeover or a brawl, or at the very least a few drinks tossed in some faces. Big gaudy weddings where the attendees collectively held their breath when the preacher asked if "anyone has just cause to believe these two should not be married." Calamitous pregnancies that were rushed to emergency rooms where hunky doctors asked distraught husbands, "If it comes down to me having to make a choice." Kidnappings, nervous breakdowns, bouts of amnesia, and hotheads barging into offices with the secretaries running behind saying, "I'm sorry, sir I tried to stop him." Awesome.

Even when it was at its worst it was good. Who can forget that disastrous "it was all a dream" device employed in Season 10 to resurrect Patrick Duffy as Bobby Ewing? Universally panned, the bad plot only served to draw bigger publicity via continual spoofing. The best example being the finale of Newhart when Dick (played by Bob Newhart) is knocked unconscious outside of his Vermont inn then, in the next scene, wakes up next to Suzanne Pleshette on the set of The Bob Newhart Show.

Linda Grey as Sue Ellen
My roommates and I claimed we never took Dallas seriously. It's true we laughed our asses off most weeks. But I admit I got sucked in now and then. How could I not be sucked in when Sue Ellen, disgusted with her husband's philandering, secretly bought a lingerie company. Knowing of J.R.'s aversion to "trashy" women, she then deviously employed his current mistress as the company pinup girl. -- I should mention that Sue Ellen also had her own string of male paramours that included an Armani model and Chippendale dancer. -- This was a world away from a BYU singles' dance.

In real life, Larry Hagman was a family man, married to his wife Maj for 59 years. He was a member of the Peace and Freedom Party and an advocate for solar power, the legalization of marijuana and other left-leaning causes.

With Henry Fonda in Fail Safe
He also played rolls outside of the series, Dallas. He starred in I Dream of Jeannie opposite Barbara Eden, of course, but he also gave a fantastic performance as the president's Russian interpreter in the film, Fail Safe. After Dallas, he did more impressive work in films such as JFK and Primary Colors. He was in the midst of filming a sequel to Dallas when he died in Dallas, Texas on Friday, November 23, 2012. At his bedside were his wife and his family, also Linda Grey and Patrick Duffy.

Larry Hagman said that the real success of Dallas was that more people now associate Dallas, Texas with the television series than with the Kennedy assassination. Likewise, there are pundits who claim that Dallas was so popular in Eastern Europe that it led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. I'm not sure that Dallas deserves much credit for ending the Cold War, any more than Dallas, Texas deserves much blame for the Kennedy assassination.

But Dallas sure contributed to the future liberation of this former BYU coed. And I agree with my devout friends. Larry Hagman would have made a lousy Mormon.

Although I'd have paid big money to see him play Satan in the temple movie.

May he rest in peace.


  1. I'm from more of the I Dream of Jeannie era. As a teen it was cool to fantasize about a gorgeous genie catering to my every whim. Didn't watch much TV during the Dallas years, but was certainly aware of its existence. Good that it gave some Mormons an optional way of thinking.

  2. I Dream of Jeannie was a cute show too, and I can see the appeal you describe. In my day, Dallas brought glamour to Provo, UT, and lord knows we needed it. :)