05/04/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT
He's the phallus of Dallas, Satan in a Stetson, Genghis Khan as a good of boy. Sure, he's a rat, but a rat as big as Texas, the Paul Bunyan of black hats. His show, broadcast in the U.S. for 11 seasons and in 99 countries all told, is the pop epic of the '80s, the decade with a gelt complex. Dallas ranked as America's No.1 show for three years, made the Top 10 seven times and pioneered a new territory of entertainment—since invaded by Dynasty and Knots Landing—where the people are shoddy and the livin' is sleazy. J.R. is that land's outlandish king, TV's greatest antihero, Attila the Oilman. He swindles his best friend. Shuts his wife in a sanatorium. Ruts with her sister. Hits the sister with a prostitution rap. Plots to marry his niece to a closet homosexual. And the nastier he grows the more we want him to get away with it. Why?
Some say it's because J.R. offers a vicarious encounter with the things we want most: money, power, sex, unbridled freedom, the courage to be bad. But there is a more compelling reason: Larry Hagman. "They write J.R. mean," Hagman says. "I make him human." With a magician's deftness, he draws subtly colored scarves of feeling out of his alter ego: harshness edged with timidity, shrewdness laced with bafflement, iciness that can break up into delight. Delight is the motor that drives J.R., as Hagman imagines him. Like a kid with his hand in the cookie jar, he loves what he is doing—and loves knowing something most of us don't. His dark secret: "Once you give up integrity, the rest is a piece of cake."
Hagman acquired zest and Texas with his chromosomes—his mother is Mary Martin, the Texas beauty who was Broadway's sweetheart (South Pacific, Peter Pan) in the '40s and '50s. He won stardom on his own as Barbara Eden's affable master on Dream of Jeannie and now lives with his Swedish-born wife of 34 years in Malibu. Folks there find him amiably odd. At 57, he leads local parades in a magenta gorilla suit, owns 2,000 hats and packs a small battery fan to blow fumes back in smokers' faces. He can afford his eccentricities. A tough negotiator, Hagman has haggled his Dallas fees up to well over $4 million a year. J.R. would approve.