Sunday, December 2, 2012

Larry Hagman - A Las Cruces Appreciation

Larry Hagman, who died Friday, arrived in Las Cruces in 1970 to make a Hollywood movie.

When he showed up on the set and spotted the red sports car that would be used a lot in the film, he immediately suggested we go for a ride around the county in it. A lowly assistant to the director, I worried that we didn’t have permission. But he was one of the film’s stars.

We had a great ride. And toward the end, when he learned that it was my girl friend’s birthday, he gave me a joint for later. Recreational use of marijuana was a bigger illegality then than now, so I appreciated the gesture.

The film, spawned by an uneasy marriage between sexploitation studio and a serious and talented director named Ted Flicker, the movie made little money and was soon forgotten.

At the time, though, it featured two of the era’s biggest TV stars, each playing a character best-known for viciousness, greed, and dishonesty: Hagman, then known for "I Dream of Jeannie" but soon to be mega-famous as J.R. Ewing on "Dallas," played the conservative president of a southwestern university, and Joan Collins, later star of "Dynasty," played his wife.

(In the film, young man angry at Hagman because of a lost scholarship gets back at him by seducing his daughter, wife, and mistress. Initially called "High in the Cellar," the film’s name got changed by the studio first to "Up in the Cellar," to avoid such a brash reference to drugs, and later to "Three in the Cellar," to take advantage of the greater success of an earlier but utterly forgettable film by the studio, "Three in the Attic.")

The Hollywood cast and crew kept Las Cruces amused for a month or so; And I got to know and enjoy Larry Hagman and his wife Mai.

Larry was truly funny; and although he often played somewhat nasty right-wing figures, he was about as liberal, tolerant, and generally relaxed as anyone could be. The first time I saw him, he was telling a story about someone accusing him of being gay, and the punch-line was him telling the would-be gay-basher, "Well, if you are and you think I am, then come and give me a big kiss. Otherwise, it’s none of your business."

I’ve seen a few other stars on location. Many have their own trailer, and hide there from everyone else except when needed on the set. Larry and Mai had a trailer – or, more precisely, a Volkswagen bus or Dodge van with a great sound system – but he was always out throwing frisbees with NMSU students.

The van sticks in my mind because of the many evenings on which we rolled out to La Posta in it, smoking Larry’s good dope. The food there never tasted so good. Too, in those days there was still a pretty strong distaste among most folks for dope-smoking young rebels; and as one of those, I enjoyed the irony of sitting around a big table in the restaurant, stoned out of my mind, while various conventional citizens came up and introduced themselves to the famous actor, who managed to act suitably un-stoned.

[Disclaimer: I’m not suggesting anyone smoke marijuana, particularly anyone young, although certainly the stuff should be legalized before Prohibition helps bankrupt us and further enriches the drug cartels. Forget working for the Chinese, we’ll be working for the drug cartels in a decade or two.]

Larry was a talented actor and a wonderfully candid and funny man. I not only enjoyed our talks, but I appreciated his "un-Hollywood" nature. Mai, who was a wonderful woman, was as non-Hollywood-Glamour as anyone could be. If Larry had a big ego, I never saw it. He was just a regular guy.

Ironically, while he was as unlike his character as could be, Joan Collins – from my more limited contact with her – seemed every bit as bitchy as her on-screen character. I remember driving her to the El Paso Airport, in a Winnebagos we had rented for the shoot, listening to a steady stream of complaints about the director (whom I liked and respected), the conditions, and other members of the cast.

But Hagman was a delight, to everyone he met or worked with here.

[The foregoing appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News today, Sunday, 2 December. ]

What I probably didn't manage to say clearly enough was that Larry Hagman, aside from being the consummate professional, was just a wonderfully warm, fun, imaginative, caring, curious, creative, and tolerant human being.   That made it ironic that he so often played complete S.O.B's such as J.R. Ewing (and President Camber in the film made here).

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