The love-to-hate-him character is by now a staple of TV. But rarely has there been an actor who so palpably enjoyed being love-to-hated as Larry Hagman, who died Nov. 23 at age 81 in the city of his hiss-applauded conniving oil tycoon J.R. Ewing--Dallas. A TV star (I Dream of Jeannie) before he became a soap-star villain, Hagman, the son of Broadway star Mary Martin, tapped a once-in-a-lifetime gusher of gleeful villainy. J.R. was written as a callous, cocky bastard, the evilest mind ever to occupy a ten-gallon hat. Yet what made him a TV icon was the swaggering, lusty, funky delight that Hagman brought to J.R.'s schemes. He embarked on deceptions as happily as if he were digging into a plate of barbecue, and it was that infectious pleasure that made audiences want to see him brought down--and also to never, ever stop.
J.R. and Hagman very nearly obliged them. Dallas ran from 1978 to 1991, bracketing the flush Reagan '80s. But its pop-cultural peak was the third-season cliffhanger, when J.R. took a bullet and "Who Shot J.R.?" became a national obsession all summer. The shooter turned out to be his sister-in-law Kristin, pregnant with his child, but who couldn't it have been? That America was so rapt by the fate of a rat-bastard millionaire shows how well Hagman physically embodied what storytellers since Milton, with his Lucifer, have known: nothing beats a charming villain.