Ultimate Cliff-Hanger

updated 08/21/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/21/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

DURING THE SUMMER OF 1980, millions of Dallas fans around the world were obsessed with figuring out who shot J.R. This summer, J.R. himself, 63-year-old Larry Hagman, is anxiously awaiting the next development in a scenario even more dramatic because it's real—and personal.

Recently diagnosed with liver cancer, Hagman is in his fourth week on the Los Angeles-area roster of 127 patients eligible for a transplant. At their mountaintop home in Ojai, Calif., Hagman and his wife of 40 years, Maj, are on alert for a signal from the beeper he now wears constantly. That signal will tell him that a liver is available and that he should head immediately to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, 110 miles away, where a team of almost 20 doctors and nurses will perform the operation.

Hagman's wait could be a few weeks—or a few months. To keep the cancer from spreading in the meantime, Hagman checked into the hospital overnight on Aug. 5 for treatment to block the blood vessel feeding the malignant tumor in his liver. At the same time, a catheter delivered a dose of chemotherapy. "It's extra insurance," says Dr. Leonard Makowka, the center's director of transplant services. "It keeps the odds in our favor."

Hagman, who has admitted that he used to drink heavily, was diagnosed with cirrhosis in 1992. A small tumor was discovered two months ago during a routine follow-up exam. Because the tumor was found at such an early stage, says Makowka, the actor's prognosis after a transplant will be "great."

Hagman has already met the surgical team and other transplant patients. His response, Makowka says, has been "very positive." That confidence is typical. Soon after the cancer was diagnosed, Hagman set out on a fishing trip to Vancouver, B.C., with former Dallas costar Patrick Duffy, a close friend. The mood, Duffy reported afterward, was upbeat. "I didn't stop laughing for four days," Duffy said.

Since his illness was disclosed, Hagman has received more than 1,000 letters from fans, says his publicist Richard Grant, along with calls from "virtually everyone he's known throughout his career." Now, all he needs is one more call.

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