In his lifetime, Larry Hagman’s eccentric approach to the ordinary business of day-to-day existence amazed even the most jaded of Hollywood observers. By the time he died last week he had become the stuff of legend.
Locals at his supermarket would hardly bat an eyelid when he turned up dressed head-to-toe as a chicken or toured the aisles in a gorilla costume.
Larry, who died at the age of 81 in Santa Monica, had become obsessed with vegan shakes by the end, but for most of his life he had been a devotee of drugs and alcohol, once commenting that he enjoyed the sense of being ‘mildly loaded’ while on set.
There was more than a touch of the wild Larry in the portrayal of stage villain JR Ewing in Dallas that brought him global fame: the temper, the demented grin, the hint of mania.
But Larry, an authentic Texan, was already a star by the time he stepped out from Southfork Ranch, and it was in the Sixties series I Dream Of Jeannie that I first saw the real Larry – a man more volatile, more tortured and even more terrifying than his Dallas alter ego could ever have dared to be. And certainly kinder.
As his co-star – I played the genie romantically obsessed with Larry’s character, Major Anthony Nelson – I watched his rages and his appetites with ever-increasing astonishment. The action began on the very first day of filming the pilot in December 1964.
I still remember it today: three of us – the series’ creator, writer and producer Sidney Sheldon, Larry Hagman and I – are in the company limo speeding the 30 miles from Malibu back to Hollywood after a long day on location at Zuma Beach, the scene of Captain Nelson’s first meeting with Jeannie.
Still in my flimsy pink chiffon harem-style pantaloons and minuscule velvet bolero, I shiver from head to foot, snuggle into my brown cloth coat, and wish I’d been allowed to keep my full-length mink from my days as Loco in the television series How To Marry A Millionaire.
The limo glides to a halt at a traffic light, next to a maroon Mustang convertible driven by an elderly man and his middle-aged wife. Larry rolls down the limo window, leans out and, to my amazement, yells at the couple: ‘Some day I’m going to be a star! Someday you’re going to know who I am!’
When I recover from my surprise, I think: ‘A star! Why in the blazes would he – or anyone else, for that matter – ever want to be a star?’
Larry is burning with a red-hot ambition to become a star, and, more important, passionately believing that I Dream Of Jeannie will make him one.
This is what Sheldon said many years later about Larry’s unbridled ambition: ‘Suddenly, Larry found himself in a show with a beautiful half-naked girl and there was no way that it would be his show. I tried everything, but it was only Jeannie the public was interested in, and through five seasons he became frustrated and very angry.’
'As he swings the axe he lets out a torrent that includes every swear word I’ve ever heard, and some I haven’t – right in the stunned nuns’ faces'
On a good day, I sympathised with Larry’s frustration and anger. On a bad day . . . well, you can judge for yourselves.
Overshadowed since childhood by his forceful mother Mary Martin, who starred in the Broadway production of South Pacific, Larry was determined to make his own mark on showbusiness. I Dream Of Jeannie, turned out to be a massive hit, and Larry did indeed become a star. But I was a petite bombshell – I’d starred with Elvis Presley in Flaming Star – and I was playing a half-naked girl.
One morning, while Sally Field is filming The Flying Nun on the next sound stage, a group of elderly nuns pay a visit to the set. Afterwards, someone comes up with the idea of bringing them over to the I Dream Of Jeannie set for a visit as well.
So here they are, about ten of them: sweet and gentle in their black-and-white habits, their hands folded, their eyes bright with anticipation at the thought of visiting another Hollywood set and meeting us.
Larry takes one look at the nuns, grabs an axe, which one of the technicians happens to have in the studio that day, and swings it around his head so ferociously that he could easily have killed someone.
As he swings it, he lets out a torrent that includes every swear word I’ve ever heard, and some I haven’t – right in the stunned nuns’ faces. If that isn’t enough, he starts hacking at the cables until someone grabs the axe, frog-marches Larry off the set, then escorts the shaken nuns out of the building. No visitors were ever allowed on the I Dream Of Jeannie set again. The crew members grew to hate his wild ways so much that once they put salt into his tea, instead of sugar, and when he spat it out, they laughed uproariously.
Larry’s insecurities came to the fore when the legendary singer Sammy Davis Jr made a guest appearance. People on the set felt that, in Larry’s mind, when it came to I Dream Of Jeannie, he was cock of the walk, and he definitely didn’t want any rooster on his territory. When Groucho Marx guest-starred, Larry didn’t have any problems with him, because Groucho was 80.
He would stop at nothing to express his distaste at the show, when Larry didn’t like a particular script, his solution was to throw up all over the set.
But when Sammy guested, it brought out the worst in Larry. When Larry strolled on to the set, you could immediately tell that Sammy was in for big trouble. Larry started by ordering Sammy around and telling him where to stand.
It came time to shoot Sammy’s most important scene, which required Larry to feed him his lines from off-camera.
As Sammy started saying his lines, Larry expressed his feelings about him by opening his mouth and letting loose a long, thick string of drool. I couldn’t help being mesmerised by the sight. Sammy, however, took it as a personal insult, which, of course it was.
He was incandescent with rage. He slammed off the set, shouting that he’d kill him. Someone else was found to read Sammy his lines and, afterwards, Sammy took me aside and asked: ‘How in the hell do you work with this guy, Barbara? He’s a total a*****e.’
Once, Larry relieved himself all over the I Dream of Jeannie set.
But there was worse to come. An accomplished flyer who loved to tour the Los Angeles skies in his private plane, Larry revelled in the power of his favourite hobby. One day he flew over Columbia Studios, where I Dream Of Jeannie, was filmed.
In his memoirs, he recalled: ‘I was upset about something. I opened the door and tried to p**s over Columbia studios. But I didn’t account for the wind, and the spray blew right back at me.’
Larry’s crazed antics were so extreme, he would stop at nothing to express his distaste at the show. On one unforgettable occasion, when Larry didn’t like a particular script, his solution was to throw up all over the set.
And when my mother visited the set, I braced myself for Larry to act crazy again. But to my relief, he was at his most charming. Then all of a sudden, he cut her dead, and didn’t speak to her again the entire day.
In some ways, Larry was like a talented, troubled child whose tantrums sometimes got the better of his self-control. Years later, Larry attributed his manic behaviour during the shooting of I Dream Of Jeannie, to withdrawal symptoms from giving up smoking and the amphetamine Bontril, which he was taking in order to control his weight.‘
The effects were devastating,’ he recalled in his memoirs. ‘Coming off nicotine is bad enough. Add amphetamine and you have serious problems. I had a breakdown. I was crying and vomiting all at the same time. Even the wax from my ears was coming out. I was exploding.’
At that moment, Larry made the decision to consult a therapist, who from then on was constantly on set. The therapist advised him to relax by smoking pot and drinking champagne. Henceforth, he started every day at the studio by drinking vast quantities of champagne, and in-between scenes, he sequestered himself in his dressing room, smoking pot and drinking yet more.
On I Dream Of Jeannie there was a senile, tyrannical director who barked ludicrous orders. Towards the end of one day, I run off the set and hide behind a piece of scenery. And I stay there, sobbing away, while my make-up pours down my cheeks and all the cast and crew run around looking for me.
Of course, Larry is the one to find me. He puts his arms around me and says: ‘Don’t cry, Barbara, That’s my act!’
I am touched that Larry is being so kind to me, and surprised that he is being so honest about his on-set emotional breakdowns.
After I Dream Of Jeannie I didn’t stay in touch with Larry, until I was cast in four episodes of Dallas. Despite some of the more bizarre past memories of Larry, I still thought of him fondly, and was gratified that he met with such stratospheric success in Dallas. The series would run for a record 14 seasons, from 1978 to 1991. Larry had been waiting to become a star for so long and was primed to enjoy every moment of his stardom.
However, I was a little surprised, not to say shocked, when my friend Dolores came to visit the Dallas set and was briefed by one of Larry’s people that she was not permitted to talk to him unless he addressed her first, nor was she allowed to look at him.
In 2006, we reunited in the play Love Letters, and I found the experience of working with him a delight. Larry was the centre of so many fun, wild, shocking – and in retrospect – memorable moments that will remain in my heart.
I had the pleasure of watching the Texas tornado in various productions. Amid a whirlwind of big laughs, big smiles, and unrestrained personality Larry was always, simply Larry.
We’ve lost not only just a great actor, not just a television icon, but an element of pure Americana. Goodbye, Larry, there was no one like you before and there will never be anyone like you again.
© Barbara Eden 2012. Extracted from Jeannie Out Of The Bottle by Barbara Eden with Wendy Leigh, published by Crown Archetype in America price $25. To order your copy, go to amazon.com