Actor’s wide-ranging genius balanced comedy, drama
It’s claimed that Larry Hagman despised I Dream of Jeannie, the hit show in which he starred from 1965 to 1970. It’s a shame if so, because Hagman, who died last weekend at 81, was really good on it. He was likable as Major Anthony “Tony” Nelson, an astronaut who finds a genie in a bottle—gorgeous, magically all-powerful and unshakably devoted to him—which somehow turns his life into a door-slamming farce.
But he wasn’t only likable—as an actor, he was up to the demands of that farce. Although Barbara Eden, who played Jeannie, Bill Daily, who played Tony’s goofy fellow astronaut and pal Roger Healey, Hayden Rorke, who played their perpetually baffled superior Dr. Bellows, and others on the show were highly amusing, Hagman, son of musical-theatre great Mary Martin, was the energy that kept the silly, occasionally surreal stories buoyant. He was a really gifted physical clown, very able to take a pratfall or a wide-eyed double take, or to let out a hilariously panicked bleat.
A product both of the vogue for fanciful sitcoms and of the enthusiasm for the space program in the mid-‘60s, the show grew its farcical situations out of frantic Tony’s efforts to keep Jeannie’s existence a secret, and to explain away the bizarre results of her magical shenanigans. As kids, a lot of us wondered why he bothered, but Hagman’s comic desperation was so infectious that it didn’t matter.
I grew up watching I Dream of Jeannie, and so remember Hagman much more vividly from that than from the role he reportedly liked better, that of snaky Texas oilman J. R. Ewing from the prime time soap opera Dallas. It was there that he made his most famous mark on pop culture, as the object of the “Who Shot J. R.?” cliffhanger. Though I well remember the craze, I wasn’t a Dallas viewer, so while my glimpses of the show suggested that Hagman indeed enjoyed playing J. R.’s rottenness to the gleeful hilt, he’ll always be the hapless Tony Nelson to me.
Hagman was also a director, of many episodes of Dallas and In the Heat of the Night and other shows, but of just one feature film, a favorite of mine: 1972’s Beware! The Blob! This facetious, and genuinely funny, sequel to the 1958 sci-fi classic The Blob has the title amorphous mass coming back to life, this time to gobble up hippies and barbers and stoned egg farmers, eventually enveloping a bowling alley/skating rink.
In outline, it’s a standard creature-feature sequel; what makes it special are the set-piece ensemble scenes, many with an improv-comedy flavor, performed by a cast that includes Robert Walker, Jr., Godfrey Cambridge, Carol Lynley, Dick Van Patten, Cindy Williams, Marlene Clark, Shelley Berman, Del Close and an uncredited Burgess Meredith, among many others—in short, by one of the better casts that Hagman ever got to work with. The lovely leading lady, Gwynne Guilford, is the mother of the rising young star Chris Pine.
Long unavailable on video, Beware! The Blob! may be watched in its entirety on YouTube, and I highly recommend…with one caveat for sensitive souls: The cutest kitten in movie history cavorts under the opening titles; within minutes it’s blob-chow. Later, the same thing happens to a cute little dog.