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JR R.I.P: Larry Hagman, a true one-off, dies at 81

The heavy-drinking, larger-than-life star of 'Dallas' succumbs to cancer after reprising the role that made him famous around the world. Susie Mesure pays tribute to a legend

The actor Larry Hagman, known worldwide for playing the hard-drinking, Stetson-wearing oil tycoon J R Ewing, has died aged 81.

He passed away in hospital in his home town of Dallas, where he had reprised his famous role in a new series of the US television series that defined 1980s excesses and was the first show to become a global phenomenon.

His family said Hagman died from complications arising from cancer, adding: "Larry was back in his beloved home town of Dallas, re-enacting the iconic role he loved most".

Hagman appeared in a new 10-episode series of Dallas earlier this year, and writers will have to deal with his death during the second series, already in production, which is due to run next year.

Friends and fans rushed to pay tribute to the actor's colourful life, which he shared with his wife of almost 60 years, Maj Axelsson, a Swedish designer he met while in Britain with the US Air Force.

Linda Gray, who plays J R's ex-wife Sue Ellen in Dallas, said Hagman was the "Pied Piper of life and brought joy to everyone he knew". She added: "He was creative, generous, funny, loving and talented and I will miss him enormously. He was an original and lived life to the full."

The actor certainly milked his fame. At the height of his celebrity, he used to travel the world dishing out fake $100 bills with his face on them.

He once said: "Well, I think they broke the mould when they made me, and being humble is one of my great assets". But his global renown was never the be all and end all.

"My happiness comes from being a husband, father and grandfather of five, not from stardom, which is a fluke," he said.

Hagman was infamous for living life in the vein of his television character. He would drink five bottles of champagne a day while on set, but recently told this newspaper: "I was never a drunk".

He added: "I just took little slugs throughout the day. Nine o'clock in the morning to nine o'clock at night is 12 long hours. You can ingest a lot of alcohol in that time, but it was never too much."

He was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver in 1992 and three years later he had a liver transplant. His biography, Hello Darlin', revealed he kept a photo of the organ donor above his mirror, and would start every day with a prayer for him.

In October last year, Hagman discovered a tumour on his tongue, which turned out to be cancerous. Six weeks of chemotherapy and radiation followed, and he went into remission in March.

His death will leave a question mark over his Dallas character for the second time. In 1980, the show's third series ended by leaving viewers guessing who had shot J R in a stunt that helped to popularise the use of cliffhangers to keep audiences hungry for more. The episode set worldwide viewing records, with around 350 million people in 57 countries tuning in.

The actor, who was born in Fort Worth, Texas on 21 September 1931, also appeared in a number of films including Nixon and Primary Colours.

His mother, Mary Martin, was an actress and his father, Ben Hagman, was a lawyer.

Barbara Eden, his co-star in the long-running TV series I Dream of Jeannie, said: "I can honestly say that we've lost not just a great actor, not just a television icon, but an element of pure Americana.

"Goodbye Larry, there was no one like you before and there will never be anyone like you again."