NEW YORK — Larry Hagman, whose portrayal of one of television’s most beloved villains, J.R. Ewing, led the CBS series ‘‘Dallas’’ to enormous world popularity, died Friday in Dallas. He was 81.
The cause was complications of cancer, his family said. Mr. Hagman had been in Dallas filming an episode of the TNT cable channel’s reboot of that series, which had made him the man audiences loved to hate from 1978 to 1991.
In October 2011, shortly before filming began on the new ‘‘Dallas,’’ Mr. Hagman announced that he had a ‘‘treatable’’ form of cancer. It was the latest of several health problems he had experienced since learning that he had cirrhosis in 1992.
In 1995, he received a liver transplant after doctors discovered a tumor. ‘‘As J.R., I could get away with anything — bribery, blackmail, and adultery,’’ Mr. Hagman said after receiving his diagnosis last year. ‘‘But I got caught by cancer.’’ Nonetheless, he said, he relished the opportunity to reprise his best-known role.
For a time in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Mr. Hagman could lay claim to the title of most famous actor in the world. ‘‘Dallas,’’ a soapy saga of a ranch-owning Texas oil family, was a hit in 57 countries. The rich villainy of J.R. revived Mr. Hagman’s career after his co-starring role in the hit 1960s sitcom ‘‘I Dream of Jeannie’’ had typecast him as a lightweight comic actor.
The celebrated signature episode of ‘‘Dallas,’’ which resolved the question ‘‘Who shot J.R.?’’ — a mystery masterfully marketed by the network and the show’s producers — set viewing records, with an estimated 350 million people all over the world tuning in for the answer. (The shooter turned out to be Kristin Shepard, played by Mary Crosby, the scheming adulterous sister of J.R.’s wife, Sue Ellen, played by Linda Gray.)
Few actors enjoyed their fame as much as Mr. Hagman, who portrayed the oilman- robber baron J.R.
Mr. Hagman was born in Fort Worth His mother was the actress Mary Martin. His father, Benjamin Hagman, was a lawyer whose clients included wealthy Texas oil men; Larry Hagman’s memory of those tycoons would later help shape his portrayal of J.R. Ewing.
His parents were divorced when he was 5. He was brought up in Los Angeles by his maternal grandmother.
Mr. Hagman came to Hollywood in 1964, and first attracted notice that year with a small but important role as the interpreter for the president (Henry Fonda) during a tense phone call with the Soviet leader in the nuclear-war thriller ‘‘Fail-Safe.’’ Shortly after that, he found his breakthrough role: Tony Nelson, an astronaut whose life is both plagued and enlivened after he finds a beautiful genie (Barbara Eden) in a bottle, on ‘‘I Dream of Jeannie.’’
Mr. Hagman once said that his approach to life was the same as his approach to acting: ‘‘Be as outrageous as you possibly can.’’ In Malibu, where he lived for many years, he was known as an amiable eccentric.
One of his strangest habits was not speaking on Sundays. His silence had no religious connotation, he said, adding, ‘‘You’ve got to try it to appreciate how nice it is.’’
Perhaps even more strange, at least by Hollywood standards, was that Mr. Hagman had the same wife for more than 50 years: He had been married to the former Maj Axelsson since 1954.
He leaves his wife; a son, Preston; a daughter, Kristina; and five granddaughters.