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Larry Hagman's Legacy: Bigger 'N 'Dallas'

Larry Hagman, the actor who played the iconic J.R. Ewing in the TV series Dallas, died Friday after a battle with cancer in the city where he was filming the series’ revival for TNT. (The show starts its second season Jan. 28.) Hagman was 81, and he had a lasting impact on folks around the world, including KERA’s Rick Holter.

J.R. Ewing and I go way back.

We met thanks to my dad. Before J.R., Dad had never hung around with an oilman or a tycoon. He was a Maryland dairy farmer who made a weekly Friday night visit to Dallas back in the ’70s and brought his brood along for the ride.

Maybe it was the hat, or the ranch that seemed as big as a time zone or, god forbid, those eyebrows. Maybe it was that soaring theme song or that silly, swooping opening montage of the city and the oil derrick and the cowboy. Or maybe it was the good kid/bad kid family soap opera with roots that reached all the way back to King Lear.

There was something about J.R. and the Ewing clan (they were always a clan, never just a family) that riveted us, that fleshed out Dallas a good 15 years before I even dreamed of moving here.

Has there ever been a single character that so defined a place? Sure, Ralph Kramden and Lucy Ricardo and Spike Lee were all about New York City, and Mary Tyler Moore seemed so Minneapolis, and Don Johnson couldn’t have worn those candy-colored T-shirts anywhere but Miami.

It was J.R. alone, though, who had the power to take a town still laboring under the “city that killed Kennedy” curse and transform it. And not just in some farmer’s living room.

When my wife and I made our first trip to Europe, years after the original Dallas series sputtered to an end, a Paris cab driver sprang to life after learning where we were from. His relationship with English was pretty tentative, but that didn’t stop him from regaling us with stories about “Shay-Arr! Bob-eee! Suwellan!” all the way to the airport.

Of course, Dallas is a different place now. (In fact, it probably never was that place – there’s more oil under Pennsylvania than this part of Texas.) Today, the rest of the world knows this city for sports teams and architecture and a certain former president, not to mention suburbs that sprawl out even farther than the Ewings’ little ol’ ranch.

But when Larry Hagman dusted off those eyebrows for the revival of Dallas this summer, something just felt right. He might’ve grown up just outside Fort Worth, but this guy was Dallas. And now that he’s gone, neither Dallas or Dallas, will ever be the same.

Rick Holter is KERA's vice president of news. He oversees news coverage on all of KERA's platforms – radio, digital and television. Under his leadership, KERA News has earned more than 200 local, regional and national awards, including the station's first two national Edward R. Murrow Awards. He and the KERA News staff were also part of NPR's Ebola-coverage team that won a George Foster Peabody Award, broadcasting's highest honor.