I first saw Larry Hagman in the flesh back in the ‘60s. And he was an amazing sight to see.
I was staying in a friend's house, a few doors from Hagman's Malibu Colony's beachfront home. Early in the afternoon on Independence Day, the famous star stepped onto the sand and began to lead a parade of pals playing tin whistles along the beach.
He was carrying a Viet Cong flag.
Hagman was violently opposed to America's unpopular involvement in Vietnam in a nation savagely divided by that marathon war. And although he was was a big star, he had no hesitation in telling the world that he was opposed to the conflagration — and damn the consequences.
It was also time when friends like Jane Fonda, who lived a few houses down the beach with her then-husband the French director Roger Vadim, virtually destroyed her career because of her opposition to that war. She was labeled a "traitor." Hagman –immensely popular in heartland America — was an "eccentric."
Hagman, who died of throat cancer over the weekend at the age of 81, was a rebel all his life. His longtime friend and “Dallas” co-star Linda Gray called him "the Pied Piper of Life." He was a lifelong maverick who relentlessly stood up for his beliefs — even though he risked damaging his career.
That's the way he lived life. No compromises.
Larry liked to do some interviews at his Malibu Colony beach house. One year he sat in the patio hot tub, which overlooked the Pacific Ocean, and told me that he liked to get naked in the tub with his buddies. He explained: "That's the way Julius Caesar and those Roman leaders did it. Their philosophy was that when a man strips off all his clothes or togas, he gets rid of all his inhibitions. And naked no man is able to conceal a weapon — or hide his true intentions."
While he was comfortable with his fame, he was also outraged about the invasion of his privacy. At the peak of the "Dallas" insanity, he became the constant target of supermarket tabloids, and he got uncharacteristically angry when he recounted how one night a helicopter hovered over the beach house with a photographer with a long lens who was shooting into his bedroom window.
During the peak of the “Dallas” popularity, we were invited back to his house — along with a bunch of TV critics to talk about the show.
Few stars of his status invited the press to party at their home. It was a raucous, crowded event. The booze flowed freely, and the guests spilled out onto the private patio and sand as Hagman and his wife Maj mingled easily with the guests.
Suddenly there was an emergency. The fabled colony's septic tank in Hagman’s bathrooms overflowed.
He seemed unperturbed by this catastrophe. Excusing himself from a group of us, he went to the phone and calmly telephoned the local septic pumping agency. He barely missed a beat as he dialed the local plumber: "Gene (the boss of Gene's Pumping)," he said in his best J.R. Ewing voice, "get the hell over here — and fast. We need a clean-out. Now. Please."
Gene and his truck showed up minutes later — did his work efficiently restoring bathroom facilities as Hagman continued his role as the genial host — as if the sewage disaster was just a minor inconvenience.
He, of course, knew how to throw a party. He loved to drink and party, and it cost him dearly. It destroyed his liver, although he was able to get a transplant in 1995. After that, he worked ferociously to persuade people to donate their organs. It became one of his most passionate causes. He also became a non-drinker, although he developed cancer of the throat in his late 70s.
Flash forward with me two decades to Ojai, Calif., the oasis community in Ventura County 90 miles from Hollywood. I had driven to Hagman’s magnificent mountain-top estate for lunch. He proudly showed me around the place and its energy saving solar panels. He called the place "Heaven." It was a spectacular 25,000-square-foot aerie designed and built by Maj.
Locals knew the estate well. Hagman generously donated his home for an assortment of fundraising musical events and charity auctions that were near and dear to his heart.
At that time, he provided me with a marvelous al fresco lunch –and chatted easily about his life and his legend. It was one of the last extensive interviews he ever gave.
Wearing a crisp navy short-sleeved shirt, white slacks, blue clogs and a straw panama hat (see photo on previous page), he proudly showed me the house and talked extensively about his charmed life. "Ah, J.R., " he said. "He was wicked — but so much fun. I would have loved to hang out with him."
I asked him about “Heaven.”
"We lived in Malibu for 26 years,: he said. “Then our old friends started dying off, and it wasn't the same crowd anymore. Times were changing. People were tearing down $10 million houses and building new ones for $20 million. It was bizarre. I was at our friend (and “Dallas” co-star — she shot J.R.!) Mary Crosby's house. It was perfect. So I told Maj: "Find us a place like this."
At the end of our lunch I asked him what he considered the most important things in life.
He paused and pulled off his Panama hat: "My mother used to say there are only three things you have to do when you do a show. Hang up your clothes, know your lines and be reasonably sober. Well, I never hung up my clothes – -stars don't have to do that. And I did one of the others. But you must laugh at life, because it's so short. Have a good time, try to to make people happy. Don't worry. Feel good. Be happy. As boring as it is, that's my motto."
Not long after that interview Hagman began treatment for the cancer that took his life.
His illness, and because of his wife's decline into Alzheimer’s, he put the magnificent estate — which houses his career treasures along with the souvenirs and paintings of his famous mother, Mary Martin, up for sale.
Hagman has now left his "Heaven" on earth. But I'm sure he hasn't stopped laughing.