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The first thing that greeted you when you walked into Larry Hagman’s palatial £3.5 million flat was something he called his ‘box of curiosities’. In there, he proudly displayed a handful of items which held him together after his 1995 liver transplant: a piece of coal from the Titanic (a gift from a fan) and, rather bizarrely, a vial of Aids-infected blood donated by a friend.
It was a collection that summed up Hagman – quirky, eccentric, off-the-wall and definitely one of a kind.
I met him many times over the years in my role as this newspaper’s Hollywood correspondent and I interviewed him twice in the last 16 months of his life: once to talk about his return in a remake of Dallas – a show he admitted ‘defined’ him – and again earlier this year to talk about his fight against cancer. It was a battle he faced with typical humour and optimism.
In person, he was a big teddy bear of a man who, despite being one of the most instantly recognisable faces on the planet, was refreshingly ego-free. He greeted me wearing a pair of beaten-up tartan slippers and made me a cup of ‘good British PG Tips’ in his kitchen.
There was no entourage, no pretence. He answered every question honestly, even the tough ones about his wife being ravaged by Alzheimer’s, and his own battles with alcohol, drugs and then cancer.
‘I think the reason the fans loved me as JR is that what you see is what you get,’ he said with a twinkle in his eye. ‘That’s how I’ve always tried to live my life. I dance to my own tune but I have always treated everyone the same, be they the Queen of England or a Dallas oilfield worker.’
His fridge was stocked with kale, spinach, ginger root and coconut milk, and large jars of vitamins and supplements lined the shelves. He turned vegan in the last year of his life in the belief that it would help his body stave off the cancer.
‘I basically live on five smoothies a day,’ he said. ‘I’m totally vegan. I blend this green concoction – kale, cucumber, broccoli, string beans, avocado. There is absolutely no milk, butter, cheese. Meat is out. I don’t want those hormones and steroids in my body.
‘Getting better is like a job. I am focused solely on what I have to do to make my body stronger. I am going to fight this thing as long as I can and give my body the best fuel it can get.’
He died in Dallas – ‘My city,’ he called it – where he had been filming the second series of the new show. The series is due to be screened in Britain next year.
He credited the revamped Dallas with giving him a new lease of life, chuckling as he told me: ‘I’ve had a great life and if I go tomorrow I’ll have no regrets. But, hell, none of us wants to go, and being back at Southfork, surrounded by my friends, it’s like coming home. I’m loving every second of it. There’s a spring in my step that hasn’t been there for a while.’
While the cancer caused him to shed 30lb, he was buoyed by calls from friends such as Hollywood star Michael Douglas, a fellow throat cancer sufferer.
Being on a strict vegan diet was an irony not lost on a man long famed for his hard living. Legend has it that in the Eighties, Hagman would wash down his bowl of cornflakes with one of the five bottles of champagne he would drink each day, before turning to bourbon once the TV cameras stopped rolling. It left him with cirrhosis and cancer of the liver before his transplant.
Hagman’s house was filled with treasures – a collection of JR’s famous ten-gallon hats and belt buckles, paintings by friends including Sir Anthony Hopkins, and artwork gathered from his travels.
But it was a simple framed black and white photograph of a young man which sat by his shaving mirror which he valued the most – the 28-year-old donor whose liver gave him a new lease of life. Hagman said: ‘I look into his eyes every morning and say thank you for giving me another chance at life. I promise him every day I will make the most of every second.’
Eccentric to the end, he would often spend Sundays not talking (‘Everyone needs a little silence in their life, time to reflect’) and carried a hand-held fan for blowing away offending cigarette smoke.
Neighbours knew him as amiably batty. He once shopped for groceries wearing a yellow chicken outfit and he played frisbee on the beach in a karate outfit.
He had a collection of eco-friendly cars including a golf cart that ran on recycled cooking oil. He was a huge advocate for solar energy and had a mobile home with the number-plate BE HAPPY which he took on the road to spread his eco-message.
HAGMAN flew a flag from his Malibu home which read ‘Vito Celebratio Est’ – ‘Life is a celebration’ – and he told me: ‘People spend so long being miserable, they need to wake up and enjoy the time we have. Everywhere I go, people love me because I’m JR.
‘These young stars today with their airs and graces, they need to remember it is an honour and privilege to make money from acting. As JR said, “You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.” ’
Hagman was rumoured to be getting paid $1 million to reprise the role of JR. He also earned a fortune at memorabilia shows signing fake $10,000 bills emblazoned with his motto, ‘Don’t Worry. Be Happy. Feel Good.’ He gave me a signed bill during our last meeting and, when he learned I’d had my own fight with cancer, immediately handed me a scrap of paper with his mobile phone number and email address on it.
‘Call me any time,’ he said sincerely. ‘We cancer folk have to stick together.’ Then he gave me a Texas-sized grin, winked and added: ‘Let’s have a drink together. I’m 81 so you’re safe. You wouldn’t have been in the old days!’ That summed up Larry Hagman – kind, charming and a gentleman with a twinkle in his eye right up to the end. - Mail on Sunday