Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Road Not Taken

Just found out Larry Hagman died. He's best known for I Dream of Jeannie and Dallas. Both fun shows. Both dumb shows. Well, dumb can be fun, can't it? Remember Cousin Otto's New Year's Eve party? The one where your Aunt Hazel got so drunk she tried to play the harpsichord with your Uncle Lester's buttocks after he passed out over the pool table? Not too intellectually stimulating that, yet you laughed so hard you fell backwards into the goat cheese stuffed tomatoes. So let's not get snooty.

I plan to write about I Dream of Jeannie (as well as Bewitched) sometime next year. For now, let me say Hagman was perfect as Major Anthony Nelson, a sober-minded participant in the greatest scientific endeavor of his age--he was an astronaut in the 1960s--who tried to remain a sober-minded participant in the greatest scientific endeavor of his age even after coming in possession of a sexy, supernatural vase-bound domestic. As for Dallas, Hagman was perfect as JR Ewing, a greedy, lecherous industrialist who tried to remain a greedy, lecherous industrialist even after getting plugged full of lead by Bing Crosby's daughter. Even though Jeannie was a sitcom and Dallas was, charitably, a drama, Hagman may have been funnier, intentionally funnier, in the latter.

In his autobiography, Hagman referred to his success as a fluke. By "success" I'm assuming he meant fame and fortune. But what about artistic success? He was no Robert Duvall. But then Robert Duvall would have had a difficult time being Robert Duvall on Dallas. Was there perhaps a higher, more nobler fluke that skipped right by the rich and famous Hagman? A movie early in his career may offer a clue.

Fail-Safe came out in 1964, a couple years after the Cuban Missile Crises. In it, a malfunctioning Pentagon computer orders an attack on the Soviet Union. Unable to stop it (computers crashed even back then) President Henry Fonda offers to make it up to the Russians for the destruction of Moscow by dropping the Bomb on Manhattan. All's fair in love and nuclear war. Fonda dominates the following clip (as does the impending demise of the Big Apple), but keep an eye on Hagman as the interpreter who has to relay the opinions of the Soviet Premier to the President. This lowly White House functionary has been instructed by his boss to capture every little nuance of the Premier's comments, to not just interpret but to inhabit the Russian leader, right down to the accent. Actor Hagman is essentially playing a actor, and he's superb. Is the fear we see in his eyes his or the Premier's? Probably both.

SPOILER ALERT: This movie doesn't really have what you would call a happy ending:

Here's Larry Hagman many decades later at a Q&A session with Jeannie co-stars Barbara Eden and Bill Daily:

As Larry Hagman himself said, thank Gawd Jeannie came along  


  1. Nice post! I liked Jeannie better than Dallas. I think maybe Larry was a little something for everyone. Good memories, haven't thought of Fail Safe in years!

    1. I think I liked JEANNIE better, too, Patricia. I actually did like DALLAS for the first couple of years it was on the air, but lost interest soon after the whole "Who Shot JR?" brouhaha played itself out. I also think Jim Davis's passing--he played JR and Bobby's father, Jock Ewing--hurt the show.

      Hagman seems to have preferred DALLAS to I DREAM OF JEANNIE. He often threw fits on the JEANNIE set, which he owns up to in his autobiography. I suspect he was disappointed that a movie career didn't come out of FAIL-SAFE. He doesn't come right out and say that in his book, it's just my own speculation, a speculation that's been re-enforced by the second YouTube on this post. By the time he did DALLAS, he may have been resigned to the fact his career was in TV, and just gave it the best he had. In recent years, he seemed to have reconciled with his I DREAM OF JEANNIE experience, doing a lot of public appearances with Barbara Eden and Bill Daily (notice him wearing an Air Force uniform at that Q&A?)

      Hagman was a fine actor. Like most actors, he had to go where the work is.

  2. the black and white of "fail safe" was, i think, particularly powerful. hagman perhaps should have had something else come out of that. be that as it may, i loved jeannie. not so much a fan of dallas.

  3. It's hard to imagine that film in color, rraine. It was made in the early 1960s, when color more and more dominated the screen, yet some of the best films of the era was in black-and-white: FAIL-SAFE, DR STRANGELOVE, TO KILL A MOCKINBIRD, THE HAUNTING, REQUEIM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT, THREE DAYS IN MAY, HUD, THE AMERCANIZATION OF EMILY, ZORBA THE GREEK, JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBURG, THE LONGEST DAY, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE. Those are just off the top of my head. I'm sure there are others. In fact, even as it was falling out of popularity, I think black-and-white cinamatography might have, artistically, peaked in that era. Bette Davis--oops, I forgot WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?--once said you couldn't have good acting in a color movie, the picute was too pretty. I disagree, but it sure did add something.

    1. That's "picture" not "picute"

      Ms. Davis, if you're reading this somewhare in the great beyond, my apologies

    2. I also should say--if it's not clear enough-- that it's the black-and-white that "sure did add something."

  4. When "jeannie" went to color and the smoke was different depending on her mood. classic use of new tech. Barbara Eden was the star of that show. Failsafe is at the very edges of memory, at least the movie is. The book I read while in 5th or 6th grade, that stays with me.
    I didn't appreciate Hagman's anti-smoking crusade maybe because I was smoking at the time. But it was a bit over the top, evangelical. i won't say he was a fine actor. he was serviceable in the roles he picked but was never "star" material.

    1. Barbara Eden was the star, Mike, but almost every episode was from Major Nelson's (Hagman) point of view. For reasons I'll go into in a later post, he often got more screen time than Eden.

      I never read the novel FAIL-SAFE. Is it still in print? If you watch the second YouTube clip, Hagman talks about how the movie FAIL-SAFE was held back so it wouldn't compete with DR STRANGELOVE. There was more to it than that, perhaps more than Hagman was aware of. The author of the novel STRANGELOVE was based on (which incidentally was non-humorous; director Stanley Kubrick turned it into a comedy) sued the author of FAIL-SAFE, claiming the latter plagerized the former. It was settled out of court, but it strengthened Kubrick's demand that FAIL-SAFE be put on the shelf while his own movie was in theaters.

      I dimley recall Hagman (who was a notorious alcoholic) being against smoking, but it seems to me that Rob Reiner was the more evangelical of the two.

      Obviously, we disagree as to how good an actor Hagman was. As for "star" material, he WAS a star! He was one of the biggest TV stars of the 1980s. Only Bill Cosby was bigger. True, he wasn't a movie star, but a lot people with that label are, in my opionion, merely "seviceable."

  5. I liked "I Dream Of Jennie" but Barbara Eden was the star or the more interesting charter and maybe he was envious ?
    Dallas was fun in the first year or two but it got boring for me. Never watched Dynasty, which was out at the same time ?
    I think your right about how he wanted a "Movie" career and not a TV one.
    One reason could be that in the US it was either or... where in the UK you never know who will pop up on the stage, tv or a movie, acting is acting where ever you are. In the US it is Movie Star that is the most important ! or gets the best parts, more money and more fans ? Although I think that could be changing ?

    cheers, parsnip

    1. Well, parnip, Barbara Eden's costume probably made her a more interesting character for millions of adolescent males watching. But I suggest you watch an old episode of JEANNIE sometime. Hagman often carries the episode, not because Eden was a bad actress (if anything, she's underrated) but because of the nature of comedy and the way the show was structured. As I said to Mike, I'll have more to say about this in a future post (I might have to write that future post pretty soon. I'm tempted to write it right here in the comment section). As for envy, it's my understanding Hagman and Eden got along very well with each other, though I suppose it's possible to get along with someone you're secretly envious of.

      You views of Dallas match mine, parnip. Surprise! Dynasty was a much more lurid knockoff of Dallas.

      As for the whole movie star vs TV star debate, a man who refers to his own success as a "fluke" seems to me to be after something more than money or fans. TV stars sometimes make more money and have more fans than a movie star. Unfortunatley, they also have to play the same role year in and year out. Had Hagman been a movie star, he would have played a bigger variety of characters, perhaps had meatier roles. Just speculation on my part.