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 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 Tony’s frantic 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…
Monster-of-the-Week: …1972’s Beware! The Blob! This facetious, and genuinely funny, sequel to the 1958 sci-fi classic The Blob has the title amorphous mass, this week’s honoree, coming back to life, this time to gobble up hippies and barbers and stoned egg farmers, eventually enveloping a bowling alley/skating rink.
Long unavailable on video, Beware! The Blob! may be watched in its entirety here, 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.