How Larry Hagman created TV's best villain

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Before Tony Soprano, Walter White, and Dexter Morgan made TV antiheroes as deliciously bad and likable at the same time, there was a ruthless, power-hungry, slickly charming, cowboy hat-wearing oil tycoon named J.R. Ewing.

And to think, J.R. wasn't even the main character when "Dallas" first debuted in 1978.

But Larry Hagman, who passed away Friday from complications from cancer at the age of 81, turned J.R. from a mere sideshow villain to the primetime soap's main event. J.R. became the antihero everybody loved to hate.

Before "Dallas," Hagman was best known as good guy astronaut Tony Nelson on the '60s comedy, "I Dream of Jeannie." When "Dallas" premiered as a five-part miniseries, it focused more on Bobby Ewing (Patrick Duffy) and Pamela Barnes (Victoria Principal). But producers quickly saw how popular the devilish J.R. was -- thanks to Hagman's charismatic portrayal.

Watch an episode of "I Dream of Jeannie":

"Everybody always wants to know where I got the idea to play J.R. as such a smiling son of a b----," Hagman told People magazine in 1988.

"Hell, I grew up in Texas, so I knew all those old boys down there and how they operate. You attract more flies with honey than with vinegar."

Hagman did base J.R. partly on a man he knew who "kept a nice happy façade going so people always thought he knew something. But I'll never tell his name. It wouldn't be fair to him. And he carries a gun."

Speaking of guns, Hagman and his character became even more popular after the "Who Shot J.R.?" cliffhanger in 1980. The murder attempt had the entire country waiting with bated breath to find out J.R.'s fate.

Watch the infamous cliffhanger scene: 

"Ronald Reagan was campaigning against Jimmy Carter, American hostages were being held in Iran, Polish shipyard workers were on strike, and all anyone wanted to know was, who shot J.R.?" Hagman marveled in his memoir "Hello Darlin.'"

Hagman appeared in many movies and TV series over the years, but he was indelibly J.R. Ewing to millions of fans. Many cheered when he signed on to reprise the character in TNT's 2012 remake of the classic drama.

And J.R. will live on. Hagman reportedly shot six episodes of Season 2 of the series, set to premiere Jan. 28, 2013.

While the despicable J.R. could get away with anything, Hagman could not. In June 2011, Hagman revealed he had cancer.

"I do want everyone to know that it is a very common and treatable form of cancer. I will be receiving treatment while working on the new 'Dallas' series. I could not think of a better place to be than working on a show I love, with people I love."

Fans everywhere returned the love on Twitter. Check out some of the memorials posted about J.R. and Hagman:

What are your favorite J.R. Ewing and Larry Hagman memories? Remember the actor and the character in the comments below.

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