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Larry Hagman is a god

Hagman joins a shiny lineup of Lone Star luminaries at the annual Texas Film Hall of Fame

Chris Garcia

Larry Hagman wants to play a few more big roles before he retires from this acting thing. Such as Santa Claus. And God.

Picture: You die, go to heaven. Amble through the pearly gates. Greet your late pet Labradoodle Barney. Shake hands with old dead friends, catch up. Then take a private audience with God. You look up. Sitting in a cloud-wrapped throne, gazing down upon you, is ... J.R. Ewing. Peering from beneath the wide brim of a cowboy hat, guaranteed.

"Well, of course. I wear one all the time," Hagman says by phone from a home in Santa Monica, Calif., which some folks (actors, surfers) might consider heaven on Earth. (His other home is in nearby Ojai. He lives with Maj, his wife of 54 years.)

Hagman, who was born in Fort Worth in 1931, is coming back to Texas Thursday for the Texas Film Hall of Fame, into which he will be inducted by his former "Dallas" co-star Linda Gray. Luke Wilson, Billy Bob Thornton, Powers Boothe, John Cusack and others will turn one of the cavernous soundstages at Austin Studios into a gigantic celebrity sandwich during the annual gala, a fundraiser for the Austin Film Society.

Slip on your iron-on "J.R. for President" T-shirt and TV time travel to an era when prime-time soap "Dallas," "Love Boat" and "Charlie's Angels" polyestered-up the airwaves. Here, in the epoch of ring-around-the-collar and L'Eggs commercials (starring one Linda Gray, aka Sue Ellen Ewing), J.R. is a global cultural sensation, hated enough for someone on the show to shoot him, loved enough for a worldwide chorus to wonder, breathlessly, "Who shot J.R.?"

"I'm probably the most famous actor in the world," Hagman told a journalist a few years ago.

We follow this up with: Do you still believe that?

"Well, yeah," Hagman says in a lightly breaded drawl. " 'Dallas' was an international phenomenon, except of course in China. It was huge. I'm sure there are more famous actors now."

But none who got to play Maj. Anthony Nelson, befuddled roommate then husband of Barbara Eden's puckish genie, conveniently named Jeannie. And none who fronted one of the most successful television juggernauts in history.

Other hmmm-inducing facts about Hagman: He's a vegetarian. He voted for Barack Obama. He's big on alternative energy (and says he just spent $1 million on solarizing his homes). He used to be a drunkard, leading to a liver transplant in 1996. He inhaled, repeatedly and often. He remains in the 12-step program. Also: He's friendly, accessible, earthy, a little nutty and very funny.

Austin American-Statesman: What do you think of this hall of fame honor? Is it nonsense or does it mean something to you?

Larry Hagman: I think it's an honor, sure. Who else is being honored, by the way?

Billy Bob Thornton is one. Luke Wilson will be there, too.

Billy Bob is a wonderful actor. Luke Wilson? No kidding! I love him, too. Hey, that's great. That's good company to be in!

Linda Gray is inducting you. Are you still close friends?

Oh, very good friends. We have lunch two or three times a month. She's almost like family. My wife calls her "wife." They call each other wife. "Hi, wife!" I was married to (Gray) twice (on "Dallas").

You once said, 'I don't care about awards. I don't like accolades. I like the money in the bank.'

Yep. Generally speaking, awards are there to advertise something. But with this one, there's nothing to gain. If you win an Academy Award, it makes more money for the studio and makes you more marketable. It's a business thing. This is not business. This is just an award for being, I don't know ... for being the biggest (expletive) in the world. Wanna print that?

Yes, I do. Some of us weren't aware of your infamous wild period in the '70s, with drugs and colorful antics and zany friends. You were dubbed the 'Mad Monk of Malibu.' What was that all about?

I lived in Malibu and just had a wonderful time out there. It was a great place to live in those days. I'd have these parades. I'd take about 100 flags and stick them in the sand and when people walked by I'd say, "You want to make a parade?" And we'd get 100 or 150 people and parade down the beach. They'd say, "What's it for?" And I'd say, "Because it's Thursday!"

One of your best friends at the time was The Who drummer Keith Moon. That sounds like an odd pair.

He was a hell of a guy, wonderful. He was smart and funny and talented, but he blew his life out.

You almost did the same thing.

I guess so. I had a liver transplant because of alcohol. But (that time) wasn't really a wild period. I haven't changed.

Yet you've toned down the LSD, pot, peyote and booze.

Oh, yeah. I don't drink any more. I haven't had LSD in 40 years. Everybody smoked grass in those days. I dropped LSD when it was legal. Have you ever taken LSD?

Gulp. LSD isn't really my thing.

Mushrooms are much easier. LSD asks a lot of you. It's scary, but it's also very revealing. It makes you at one with nature and with everything else. It's a very unifying thing, if it's a good trip. It's possibly the most important thing I've ever done in my life.

Oh, my God. You've also said that LSD took away your fear of death.

Yeah, of course. Because you kind of die. Your ego dies. Whatever makes you you, you find out is just this little speck in the cosmos, but you're a part of the cosmos at the same time.

It sounds Buddhist.

Oh, yes, absolutely. It's a very enlightening experience. It tells you where you are in the universe and that all the other stuff is really not that important.

You've directed episodes of 'I Dream of Jeannie' and 'Dallas,' but people might be stunned to know you directed the 1973 B-flick 'Son of the Blob,' a sequel to 'The Blob.' It's actually screening April 15 in Austin (at the Alamo Ritz).

(Laughs) They're going to screen it? Oh, my God!

How in the world did you get that job?

In Malibu I had a next door neighbor named Jack Harris, who had produced the first "Blob" with Steve McQueen. We were in my jacuzzi and he said, "Hey, you want to direct 'Son of the Blob'?" I said sure. I cast it from the deck of my house in Malibu. People would walk along the beach and I'd say, "Hey, you wanna be eaten by the Blob?" Burgess Meredith and Carol Lynley and a whole bunch of people, friends of mine, played in it. I loved it! We shot it fast like television, eight pages a day. ... The blob was rubber balloons covered in red gelatin and stuff. They were big! The size of a small bedroom. That's a lot of gelatin. It wasn't a huge success or anything, but it's kind of a cult thing now. I think we made it for $87,000. We used to call it "S.O.B."

What was J.R.'s problem? Why was he such a jackass?

I don't think he was. He was just a Texas businessman. I modeled him on a guy I worked for when I was 15 or 16. I went down to live with my father in Weatherford. I told my mom (actress Mary Martin) I wanted to be a cowboy, so I moved down there. That was a revelation for me, because I'd been schooled in Europe and on the East Coast and Los Angeles, so it was kind of provincial when I got down there. I got off the train from Vermont with this bouffant of curly hair and my dad took me straight to the barbershop and made me get a crewcut right away, man. Then he said I had to play football. Well, (expletive), I'd never played football. I was on the B team, and the first game we played among ourselves I tripped over my own ankle and broke it. So I couldn't play, so my dad made me do the Golden Gloves, so I boxed for a year. Oh, my God. It was a culture shock, but I loved it. I worked for this guy named Jess Hall Jr., and I learned all about J.R. right there from him. How to be fun and have a good time. How to be ruthless.

Your J.R. is up there with great villains like Hannibal Lecter, except he didn't eat people. Fans love to hate him. Yet you say he wasn't such a bad guy.

Listen, "Dallas" was a microcosm of what was going on during that period of time. Big clothes, big money, big debt. So, hell, no, I don't consider him a villain. He was just doing what he had to do to succeed. He wasn't mean. He was a survivor. He was a product of the time in business. Ruthless.

Is it true that Robert Downey Jr., at his lowest point, asked to borrow a ton of money from you?

It was $250,000. He's come a long way. He's done a hell of a job, and he's a wonderfully talented guy. But he did need $250,000. I had rented him a house, and he came in barefoot and he smelled terrible, and he had walked through the desert from some rehab place in Arizona. He somehow conned his way into my house one night. I didn't even recognize him. He said, "Larry, I need help." I told him I'd love to help him but I want a consensus from all your friends to pitch in, too. I didn't know him that well. He was desperate, desperate. But he got his act together.

What's the one thing you want to do before you cash it in? I've heard you want to play Santa Claus.

Or God.

What would God look like?

Me!

Just like you? With a cowboy hat?

Well, he would look like all of us.

Would you do anything, put on makeup or a fake beard?

No. We don't even know if God is a man.

Some of us don't even believe in him — or her.

I don't! That's all a bunch of (expletive).

So how do you play him if you don't believe in him?

I'd play him as a black woman.

This story ran in the Austin American-Statesman on March 9, 2009.