As J.R. Ewing on Dallas, he played TV's most charming scoundrel, but the man behind the grin (and those eyebrows) was just plain charming.

By Karen Valby
Updated November 30, 2012 at 05:00 AM EST

In late September Larry Hagman arrived at the legendary Southfork Ranch for his first day back to work on the second season of TNT’s Dallas sequel. When he got out of the car, he tipped his cowboy hat and gave a little wink. The cast and crew stopped what they were doing and gave the 81-year-old man, who in J.R. Ewing created an irrepressible dog of a villain whose twinkling charisma may never again be matched, a rousing ovation. That afternoon Hagman ripped into scenes with Josh Henderson, who plays his son on the show. In between takes out under the 95-degree heat, Henderson would hold a sun umbrella over Hagman’s head. Not because the man was sick, or old, but because he was king.

”J.R. is still a threat,” Hagman crowed to me during a break. ”Oh, my dear, I love him. He makes my accountant so happy.” That was just two months ago, which made the terrible news of his death on Nov. 23, from complications of a previous bout with cancer, all the more stunning. Surely this was a rotten dream from which Hagman’s legions of friends and fans — let alone his wife of nearly 60 years, Maj, their two kids, and their five granddaughters — would soon awake.

Hagman was diagnosed with cancer in October 2011, just as the new Dallas was going into production. ”The first thing I wanted to do was work,” he told me last spring on a sunny afternoon in his Santa Monica penthouse apartment. ”Get my mind off this s—. If I hadn’t worked, I’d start to worry, and I never worry about anything. My motto is ‘Don’t worry. Be happy. Feel good.’ So work saved me.”

And so he endured chemotherapy and radiation treatments in the mornings and showed up to set every afternoon. ”He was [here] all the time,” Patrick Duffy, his costar and best friend for nearly four decades, told me this summer. ”And not shuffling around doing the ‘Why me?’ moaning thing. He was typical Larry — this incredible personification of a joie de vivre.”

The only thing that matched Hagman’s exceptional work ethic was his delightful eccentricity. Over the course of the past year, while working on two feature stories about Dallas, I spoke with the main players from both the original and new versions. And every interview ended like this: Did you hear this one about Larry? For instance: He thought all politicians should try LSD at least once. He liked to change costumes several times during a dinner party. He didn’t speak on Sundays. He drank three bottles of champagne a day (though everyone agrees he was never nasty or messy) until he quit cold turkey after his 1995 liver transplant. He always carried a flute. On the old Dallas, his trailer was a refurbished bread truck he decorated like a hippie’s cave, with a hammock strung across the middle. On the new Dallas, it was a 100-percent-solar Airstream; its red rose walls were covered with art. (”Pictures of me, of course!” he said. Including a large photograph of the actor dressed in a white robe wearing a jester’s cap.)

When I visited with him at his art- and world-souvenir-filled apartment, he was an extraordinarily charming host. Hagman liked talking about how rich he was, and made good fun of his healthy ego. However, he became most animated not in stories about starring on I Dream of Jeannie or how the resolution to the ”Who Shot J.R.?” cliff-hanger was watched by 83 million people in 1980 but when he pointed out a picture of his mother, Mary Martin, hanging in the dining room or showed off his enormous bathtub, which he boasted could fit a dozen people. He got me a glass of water at one point, and there above his kitchen sink was a picture of him smiling alongside his best friends, Linda Gray and Duffy. When I left, Hagman insisted I take a few of his autographed J.R. bucks — fake $10,000 bills he’d printed up with his face on the seal. He gave them to everyone, including the Queen of England.

So of course it broke everyone’s heart, except for his, when such a bon vivant was diagnosed with cancer. There’s a scene toward the end of Dallas‘ most recent season where J.R. visits his seriously ill brother, Bobby, in the hospital and pleads with him to wake up. Hagman is brilliant — poignant and restrained. ”Wake up, you hear me?” J.R. tells Bobby. ”I don’t know who I’d be without you.” Duffy wore earplugs during the scene so that he wouldn’t start crying at hearing such tenderness from his friend spoken aloud.

This summer Hagman got a clean bill of health from his doctor. Gray, who said she’d become his Nurse Ratched, had him on a strict vegan diet. He’d put back on some of the weight he’d lost during chemotherapy. ”He’s cancer-free and he couldn’t look better,” marveled Cynthia Cidre, executive producer of the new Dallas, in June. ”So we pray for him every day.”

On set this fall Cidre spoke about a 15-episode second season — scheduled to premiere on TNT on Jan. 28, 2013 — in which J.R. would figure prominently. ”Larry is still as popular and as good as he always was,” she said. ”So let’s make sure he’s in every show and as much as possible.” Now she must mourn the loss of a friend and colleague while reworking scripts that will honor such an irreplaceable character.

Back on that day in September, Hagman was looking forward to so much. He’d ordered a Tesla electric car and was expecting it by Christmas. He voiced a silly, secret hope that the writers would let J.R. sire another child. He was excited to spend another season working with his best friends. ”Honey, I love life,” he said. Don’t worry. Be happy. Feel good.