My Larry Hagman Story
Here is my Larry Hagman story. Get comfy. This will take a while.
The year is 1980 and I am the Head Writer on Pink Lady, an infamous variety series that was forced by high-level corporate interests on All Concerned: Its producers, its staff, some of its stars, certain folks at NBC who didn't want to put it on…and on the American public, most of whom opt not to watch. Working on it presents every conceivable problem one can have making a variety show and a biggie is that guest stars do not wish to guest. Or at least, the ones you'd want for promotional purposes don't want to guest. Even before the show airs and anyone has any idea if it's good or bad, we cannot secure a guest star whose name means anything.
A man named Fred Silverman is running NBC that week, trying frantically but nobly to enrich the disastrous ratings levels he inherited upon his arrival. Mr. Silverman did not want to put Pink Lady on the air but was so ordered by those above him. Seeking to make the best of things, he adds his clout to our endless pursuit of guest stars. This means going after performers not on NBC shows since there are so few of those viewers will tune in to see. He sets his sights on Mr. Hagman, the star of Dallas over on CBS. Hagman is very popular, though not as popular as he'd be a few months later.
Silverman himself gets on the phone to try and arrange a Hagman guest shot on Pink Lady. Failing to navigate through a sea of agents, he decides to call the star directly. You can do that when you're Vice-President of Programming — I think that was his title — at NBC. Time is of the essence so he phones him on a Sunday. The following is the story as told to me by Mr. Hagman and if it isn't true, it oughta be.
Larry Hagman lives in a big house in Malibu where he observes certain rituals which some might call superstitions. One is that he does not speak on Sundays. He whistles. He can whistle in a manner that goes up in pitch at the end. That one means "yes." He can whistle in a manner that goes down in pitch at the end. That one means "no." He has a few others but those are the key ones — The whistle for "yes" and the whistle for "no." Those who know the star know all about this and Fred is well aware. He starts the call by saying, "Larry, I know you don't talk on Sundays but please listen to this…"
He tells him about the show and how all we want is a day or two of his time. The pay will be $7500, which is more or less standard for a Big Name Star in this kind of gig — or at least it was then. Hagman will be in a sketch or two and he will not be alone in these as Sid Caesar is also a guest. At he mentions Sid Caesar, Silverman unknowingly scratches a long-held itch of Mr. Larry Hagman. Larry grew up watching Sid's old Your Show of Shows, thinks Caesar is the greatest genius ever on television, and once fantasized about being Carl Reiner or Howie Morris — a second banana supporting player to Sid Caesar.
When Fred asks, "Will you do it?," Larry Hagman gives his whistle for "yes." Fred mishears it as the whistle for "no" and offers $10,000.
Hagman gives the whistle for "yes." Fred mishears it as the whistle for "no" and offers $12,500.
Hagman gives the whistle for "yes." Fred mishears it as the whistle for "no" and offers $15,000.
Hagman gives the whistle for "yes." Fred mishears it as the whistle for "no" and says, "Well, I can't go higher than that but I'll tell you what I can do. You have your own production company, right? I'll arrange for it to get two commitments to produce TV-movies for NBC. There's good money in those and if one of them becomes a series, that could mean millions."
Hagman says, "You've got a deal!" There are some situations for which one will break one's vow of silence.
Fred's happy. We're happy. Larry is happy. Who is not happy? The producers of Dallas are not happy. They're shooting a key episode that coming week and are horrified when their star announces that on two days — Wednesday and Thursday — he will be walking off their set at 6 PM so he can come over and do our show. They want him to be able to stay later if they need that, then they want him to go home and rest and learn lines for the next day. Wednesday evening, he will rehearse with us. Thursday evening, he will tape with us.
There's apparently no point in getting angry at him so they get angry at us, like it's unprofessional of us to make an offer to their actor. I have nothing at all to do with schedules nor did I hire Larry Hagman but one of their Production Managers phones me to complain and to say things like, "How would you like it if we hired one of your stars to moonlight while you're shooting?" I tell him (a) he's quite welcome to any or all of them and (b) if he doesn't like it, he should call Fred Silverman at NBC. In a semi-threatening tone, he tells me we'd better not keep Hagman up late. "He has to be in makeup for us by 6 AM each day."
Wednesday evening, Larry Hagman walks into our rehearsal at around 7 PM. He is utterly charming and human and just about the nicest guy you could ever want to meet. He is so thrilled to be working with Sid Caesar but he is also genuinely polite and gracious to everyone…and very humble. Well aware he is new to this "variety show thing," he asks everyone if he's doing this or that right, if we're okay with how he's reading certain lines, etc. He even comes up with one great joke to add to a routine.
During breaks, he and I get to talking and I tell him — true story — that I was in a "test" audience once that was shown the pilot to his earlier TV series, I Dream of Jeannie. I was among those in the test group that voted to put the show on the air. He loves me for that and thanks me like I am wholly responsible for his career. He also likes that I don't ask him what's up in the current Dallas storyline…though he did let me in on a secret. He'd just come from filming a scene in which his character, J.R. Ewing, was shot and may die. "It's going to be the cliffhanger at the end of this season. Everyone will have to wait until September to find out if J.R. lives or dies and who shot him." I am not a watcher of Dallas but I have to ask, "Okay, so who shot him and are you coming back?"
He says he doesn't know who shot him. "I don't think the producers have figured that out yet or if they have, they ain't telling." As for coming back next season, he says that all depends on how contract negotiations go. In other words, how much they pay him. It is at this moment that he tells me and some of the others who work on the show, the story of how he agreed to do it — Fred Silverman, the whistling, the commitment for two TV-movies. The commitment is one reason he can say, "If they [the Dallas folks] don't meet my price, I'll star in one of those TV-movies, we'll make sure it becomes a series and I'll do just fine."
We hurry Larry through rehearsals, well aware he has to get back to Malibu (a 30-45 minute drive) and learn lines and sleep before he has to be in Burbank at 6 AM but he doesn't seem to care. We tell him at 10 PM he can go. Still, he sticks around, discussing his scene with Sid and then chatting with us. I mention a movie he was in that I had recently seen — Fail Safe with Henry Fonda — and that elicits a half-hour of anecdotes, all of them riveting, about how green and nervous he felt on that set with all those seasoned actors. He segues to tales of his mother, the great Mary Martin, and what it was like to grow up in her world.
We talk of Jeannie and of his hat collection. The man collects hats. He has come to us wearing what he says is his favorite. It's a baseball cap imprinted with the logo of a company in Texas that sells, presumably for purposes of artificial insemination, bull semen. I can't imagine what else you'd use the stuff for. Sun screen?
Hagman calls that cap the supreme metaphor for show business. He also likes the looks he gets when people who are talking to him suddenly read his hat. He says, and this is clearly a reference in some way to his upcoming negotiations to return to Dallas next season, "Life is a whole lot more fun when you can keep other people just a little off-balance."
The stories go on and on. Every ten or fifteen minutes, I hear the voice of that Production Manager and I say something like, "Well, Larry, I know you have that long drive back to Malibu and an early call tomorrow…" Larry nods and grins and starts another anecdote. I finally escort him to his car and we stand there in the parking lot for another half-hour until, just past Midnight, he grudgingly heads home. I have no idea how he managed to get there, sleep, learn lines and be on the set the next morning at six but he did that. He filmed there all day, then came to us with a full load of energy to perform.
He was perfect in every capacity: Charming, funny, gracious to all, etc. At one point, we encountered a production delay that added at least an hour to our evening and forced all to sit around and wait. Not a peep of complaint was heard from Larry Hagman.
His key sketch, the one he'd been looking forward to, was just him, Sid Caesar, one other actor and two allegedly naked women. The actor was Jim Varney, who was later famous for his "Hey, Vern" routines. The ladies were not naked but you only saw their legs and were supposed to presume that somewhere above the top of your screen, each was indecently attired.
Caesar and Hagman play two businessmen going out to discuss contracts and terms at a restaurant. It turns out the restaurant has strippers and as Hagman tries to talk about financial matters, Caesar struggles to take his eyes off the young ladies and to focus on what Hagman is saying. Hagman is brilliantly deadpan throughout, making like the dancers aren't there. Caesar cannot take his eyes off them, especially as items of clothing fly from the stage and land upon him. It's a very short sketch but it's pretty funny and Larry Hagman is thrilled to have done it. Afterwards, he tells all, especially Sid, over and over what it means to him to appear in a sketch with the great Sid Caesar.
I again walk Larry to his car and we stand out in the parking lot for another half-hour as he tells me about his love of Caesar and of that style of comedy and how he wishes he had grown up to be Howie Morris. (As I will learn later when I work with the man, even Howie Morris wished he had grown up to be Howie Morris.) Larry finally heads back to Malibu around 1 AM, which I'm sure thrilled the crew over on Dallas no end.
Time passes, as it has a way of doing. I finish the sixth episode of Pink Lady (all anyone was contracted to do) and move on to another show. J.R. Ewing is shot on the final episode of Dallas that season and all of America wonders whodunnit. Those who are aware that Larry Hagman is renegotiating his contract are equally intrigued to know if J.R. will live or die. Larry does sign. J.R. comes back. It turns out J.R.'s mistress Kristin shot him. And at some point, Fred Silverman leaves NBC.
One day, I am over at the studio of that very same network, walking through a corridor and I hear a voice say of me, "I know that man." It is Larry Hagman. He doesn't recall my name — I wouldn't have expected him to — but he does recall me. I wouldn't have expected that, either. He hugs me and tells the folks he's with all about this sketch he got to do on our show with Sid Caesar and how it was a childhood fantasy come true. In the course of the chat, he casually mentions, "I had such a great time that it doesn't even bother me I didn't get paid."
"Didn't get paid?"
No, he tells me. He was supposed to get these two TV-movies to do for his production company but NBC kept stalling his lawyers on when…and then after Silverman departed, the network said, "What commitments? Nobody here knows anything about any TV-movie commitments to Mr. Hagman." He literally did not receive anything for doing our show.
I tell him, "That's awful" and I say I'll call Marty Krofft (he was the producer) and maybe we can get him paid some amount in some way. Legally, he must at least receive union scale.
Larry interrupts and tells me not to bother. "If you saw the deal I made to come back to Dallas, you'd know why this doesn't bother me. They're paying me millions." He insists I drop the entire matter saying, "I just told you that on account of I find it so funny the way they love you one moment in this town and the next, it's like "who the f are you?'" And he says it with a twinkle that reminds me why he is able to play J.R. Ewing so well. Then he adds, "Hey, you know what I would like? I don't have a copy of that show. If you could arrange that, I'd call it even."
I assure him that will be arranged and he gives me his address saying, "Now, if you lose that, just call the National Enquirer and ask them. They send a nice man around every night to go through my garbage." We part and I go home and phone Marty Krofft who arranges for a videotape to be messengered to Hagman's home.
End of that story. Here's the sequel…
A few days later, Marty's secretary Trudy phones and tells me, "Larry Hagman's assistant just called. He wants to send you something to thank you. Is it okay if I give them your address?" I tell her it's fine and I figure I'm about to get an autographed photo or a note or something. Two days later, a delivery man brings a large, cylindrical package to my door. It's from one of the most expensive stores in Beverly Hills and I want to say it was Abercrombie and Fitch. Maybe it wasn't but I'm going to say it was Abercrombie and Fitch.
Helping me open it — because she was there at the moment — is a young lady named Bridget Holloman, who was one of the dancers on Pink Lady. In fact, she provided one set of the legs Sid Caesar had ogled in that sketch. The box, we discover, contains a quite-lovely white Stetson-style cowboy hat. There's also a handwritten note. It says, "Thanks for being one of the good guys" and it's signed "Larry."
What a nice, thoughtful gesture. I certainly wasn't expecting anything from him, particularly something like this. But I don't wear hats and I certainly don't wear hats like this. Bridget, on the other hand does. She looks good in everything but she really looks good in this white Stetson except, of course, that it's a size or two too big for her. Fortunately, the box also contains a slip that says that if it doesn't fit, bring it back to the store and exchange it. I tell Bridget the hat is hers. "Take it back and get one that fits." Three days later, she goes to do that.
I'm working at home when I get a frantic call from her — from a pay phone at the store in Beverly Hills. At first from her tone, I think she's been mugged or beaten up or that something horrible has happened. "Calm down, Bridget," I tell her. "Take a deep breath and tell me what happened."
She takes a deep breath and says, like she's telling me the Earth has been invaded, "It's…it's a fourteen hundred dollar hat!"
She says they cheerily took it back and told her she had a little over $1,400 in store credit. This is around 1983. That was even more money then than it is now and it's a lot of money now. "What do I do?" she asks me. I tell her she can pick out another hat or anything else she wants or she can see if they'll let her take some or all of it in cash. I say, "Maybe you can buy a pair of $20 earrings and take $1,380 bucks in change." What she does is to buy a cheaper (and to my eye, almost identical) hat and take the rest in currency.
The almost-identical hat costs her under $200 and it makes a good point. If Larry Hagman wanted to send me a white cowboy hat, he could have spent $200 and I would have been perfectly pleased and impressed by the gesture. But he didn't. He spent $1,400.
Bridget wants to give me the change or at least split it with me but it's almost her birthday so we make a deal: She'll keep the cash but for the next six months, whenever we go to a restaurant, she pays. I kind of enjoy that when our server brings me a check, I can point to the cute blonde lady and say, "She's paying." I get some awfully odd looks.
Larry Hagman was right. Life is so much more interesting when you can keep other people just a little off-balance. I'm sorry his is over. There may be other stories about him that paint him as another kind of guy but this is my Larry Hagman story and I'm sticking to it.