On what was probably my favorite day of my five-year stint as Newsday’s TV critic, I met Larry Hagman for coffee at a rather nice Manhattan hotel facing the south end of Central Park.
On the way in I bumped into Tucker Carlson and chatted with him briefly in the lobby about politics and news, and on the way out, I almost collided with Tony Bennett, who was wearing a suit that probably cost more than my car and had no escorts or entourage.
“Mr. Bennett,” I said with a courteous nod, “how are you?”
“Just fine,” he said, flashing a megawatt smile. “And you, sir?” It was one of those “I love this town” moments, but Bennett was just the icing on the cake.
Hagman was the cake. It was November 2004, and he was out promoting a Dallas reunion special on CBS and a DVD box of the world-famous serial. I had met Hagman once before — briefly, along with dozens of other TV writers at a party CBS tossed at his Malibu home during the height of the series’ popularity — and I brought that up immediately, hoping to make a connection.
This was the storied press-tour bash at which his plumbing backed up and his next-door neighbor, Burgess Meredith, invited over everyone who had to go. Hagman immediately asked me if I was the critic who stole his ashtray. He had a mischief about him.
Did someone really swipe an ashtray? I asked him. Among other things, he said, again with an impish twinkle in his eye.
We covered a good deal of ground in 45 minutes or so. He recalled being out of work and anxious about being able to meet the payments on his $115,000 Malibu house (and yes, you are reading the number of zeros correctly) when he got pitched two scripts, one for a prime-time serial about a family of Texas tycoons, the other for a sitcom, The Waverly Wonders. His wife, Maj, lobbied for Dallas, which he grabbed just for the opportunity to play “a real bastard” for a change of pace. Waverly Wonders, meanwhile, became a very minor footnote in Joe Namath’s career.
I observed that Hagman was wearing a big cowboy hat, just like J.R. Ewing, and a Western-cut suit, but no boots. Indeed, he was wearing comfy brushed-leather, rubber-soled oxfords, probably Hush Puppies. He said to me that one of the few things he didn’t like about his years on Dallas was having to wear cowboy boots. He said he hated wearing them because they hurt his feet so badly.
I asked about his health. He was 73 at the time and, though his longhorn eyebrows had turned white, he looked fit. He said he was doing fine, though he had problems with his liver the year before. He said he was eating better and exercising but, most of all, he had finally stopped drinking. “That makes a big difference, let me tell ya,” he said.
I knew he’d had a serious problem, so I alluded having some experience of that in my own life.
Hagman suddenly reached over and put a hand gently on my arm. He looked me directly in the eye.
“Are you a friend of Bill?” he asked quietly, almost conspiratorially. I knew who he meant. Not Clinton. Bill W., the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. He looked a little disappointed when I told him that I wasn’t, that I just knew someone really well who was.
It was probably the most intimate moment I ever had interviewing a celebrity. When I got up to go, he shook my hand warmly and thanked me for my time. I wasn’t a big fan of Dallas back in the day, nor am I now, but I will always have pleasant memories of the actor who made it an international sensation, the nice guy who played mean so well.