Monday, 26 November 2012

So Long, Major Nelson

Larry Hagman in a promo pic for I Dream of Jeannie 
On Saturday morning, I learned the news that we lost one of America's most underrated actors. I can't quite process the fact that Larry Hagman, one of my first teenage crushes, Major Nelson himself, is gone. Yeah, sure, he was J.R. Ewing on Dallas, and he himself would probably want to be remembered more as the love-to-hate Ewing than slapstick Major Tony Nelson of I Dream of Jeannie fame. (He once said in an interview that Dallas was undoubtedly the highlight of his career). But, as a woman who, as a teenager, watched I Dream of Jeannie religiously in the early 2000s, and became enchanted by the show and Larry Hagman's special brand of humour, he will always be Tony Nelson to me.

I had the privilege of meeting Larry at a fan event in August 2011. It's hard for me to believe that the healthy, easygoing, fist-bumping man I met that day would be dead just over a year later. I will now treasure even more the personalized autograph I have of Larry, and am thankful I had the chance to tell him how huge a fan of I Dream of Jeannie I am.

You may be wondering: why such a big fan of Larry Hagman? Why the love for an antiquated 1960s sitcom, and why do you love Tony Nelson so much? After all, he was in many ways the straight man, the man who had to deal with Jeannie (Barbara Eden), Roger (Bill Daily) and Dr. Bellows' (Hayden Rorke) hijinks, and keep the existence of his beloved Jeannie a secret. Why such intense love for Larry? I'll tell you why. The show never would have gelled without the chemistry Eden and Hagman shared. Think about it... Jeannie without Tony? It wouldn't have worked! Frustrated with director Gene Nelson during Season 1 of the series, Hagman was almost dismissed from his role. Eden, the only cast/crew member with foresight, said the show would go off the air without Larry. How right she was. The effortless, playful, natural rhythm of the two lead actors is what kept the show on the air for 5 years, amidst frequent and repetitive under par scripts and budget cuts. But audiences kept tuning in-- yes, of course to see Eden's beautiful bod. But, also, because they knew that at its heart, I Dream of Jeannie is a love story of Jeannie and Tony.

Tony may not have been able to admit his feelings fully until the fifth season, but we always knew... Tony adores Jeannie! She adores him! She makes him happy! She prevents him from becoming a workaholic astronaut, and shows him how to have fun! The moments where Hagman as Tony would melt and tell Jeannie how he really feels about her are the ones avid fans tune in for and watch over and over again! This is all thanks to Hagman's skill as an actor... he made moments in one of the cheesiest, most fantastical TV shows ever made believable!

In addition to his skills as an actor, Hagman also constantly fought to make I Dream of Jeannie better. The great slapstick moments of the show were usually the improvised brainchild of Hagman to enhance a mediocre script. We can't help but laugh at when Tony trips as he walks through a door, or falls over when Jeannie unexpectedly blinks herself out of a room. But, a lot of the time, those weren't in the script. Hagman and Bill Daily would work on their feet in between shots to add slapstick to a humourless moment in the script. I love watching those moments. Hagman was a fearless physical comedian! How many times is he praised for that? Not enough.

Sure, Hagman got to show his dramatic chops on Dallas, but, in my opinion, Dallas has dated worse than I Dream of Jeannie. The air force uniforms in Jeannie are still worn today, and Eden rarely veered from her Jeannie outfit. Therefore, I Dream of Jeannie's comedy is still fresh and enjoyable today, whereas reruns of Dallas are sometimes painful for the dated 1980s fashion and the outrageous plot points.

We also forget that Hagman had roles in legendary director Sidney Lumet's Fail Safe (1964) and The Group (1966). Hagman was a serious, legitimate actor. It's all to easy to forget that when audiences only know him from his TV roles. The son of legendary stage actress Mary Martin, Hagman had acting in his bones, and was also at home on the stage, including a special tour of the play Love Letters with Barbara Eden. Also, take a look at him in the 1971 TV movie A Howling in the Woods, again, costarring Eden. His character is a far cry from Major Nelson. Hagman's performance is captivating and chilling.

As a teen reading about the real lives of the I Dream of Jeannie cast, it sometimes broke my heart to know that Hagman, once he landed Dallas, turned his back on I Dream of Jeannie for many years. It seemed like he wanted to erase those 5 years as our beloved astronaut from his memory, and enjoy his new-found wealth and happiness playing TV's most famous yet loveable villain. He refused to reprise his role of Major Nelson for 2 I Dream of Jeannie TV movies in 1985 and 1991, and almost completely lost contact with his Jeannie costars.

However, when Barbara Eden did a guest-starring arc on Dallas in the early 1990s, I feel like nostalgia finally started to kick in for Hagman, and he started to talk publicly about his experience and contribution to one of the most beloved sitcoms of all time. He also started to do TV interviews frequently with Eden and Bill Daily, and spoke quite fondly about his experience. I think becoming a grandfather also proved to soften Hagman's view of the show, when his grandkids started watching the show. He would play a game with them on the phone where he would pretend he was talking to Jeannie. He also did many fan events with Eden and Daily over the last 8 years or so, and spoke with much humour and enthusiasm about memorable moments on the set and his favourite episodes. How glad I am that he seemed to finally understand how beloved the show (and his role) was.

My heart goes out to Hagman's family (including his wife of almost 60 years, Maj) and his actor colleagues for the grief they are no doubt experiencing. But, I am also thankful that, with every episode of I Dream of Jeannie now available on DVD, new generations will discover the joy of the series. Teenagers will undoubtedly continue developing crushes on the young, funny, and handsome Larry Hagman.  I can say for a fact that in the stressful years of university, watching I Dream of Jeannie was always a bright spot. For 30 minutes I could escape into a completely unrealistic world, and be enchanted by the onscreen magic of Barbara and Larry. I didn't care if I was watching a show that was almost 40 years old. I loved these characters and I laughed, and nothing else mattered.

Thank you, Larry, for your perfect portrayal of Tony Nelson, for the years of laughter you have provided in my life, and will doubtlessly continue to provide to me and to countless future generations. So long, Major Nelson.