In 1991, a Bedouin tribe delayed its annual migration across the Sahara because its elders were not prepared to miss the last episode of Dallas. Such was the grip that the lavish American soap opera had in even the most unlikely places and no character exerted that grip more tightly than JR Ewing, the oil baron unforgettably brought to scheming, malevolent, adulterous, Machiavellian life by Larry Hagman. Here was the devil in disguise, and the disguise was a ten-gallon hat.
Hagman's death at the age of 81 comes shortly after he reprised the role that made him world-famous. The opening episode of the new series, broadcast in September on Channel 5, largely justified the trepidation of those of us who loved the original show.
Sleeping dawgs should surely be left to lie. But there was a genuinely electrifying moment when JR, seemingly in a catatonic state in a nursing home, was roused by the prospect of some old-fashioned internecine Ewing warfare. The reptilian eyes flickered, as if he had been given a revivifying sip of essence of evil. Hagman, we knew, had been dreadfully ill. Decades of alcohol abuse, followed by liver and then throat cancer, had taken a terrible toll.
Yet in that one brief scene, it was clear that in the old man's relationship with the camera there was as much charisma as ever. JR was one of the great screen villains, and most of the credit for that belonged to Hagman. The lines he was given were often corny and the plot developments invariably ridiculous, yet somehow he turned all that to his advantage.
In many ways, it was a highly skilled pantomime act; always less than believable, never less than rivetingly watchable. It was also perfectly suited to the times. Dallas began in the 1970s and ended in the 1990s, but it was defined by, and indeed helped to define, the 1980s. JR was almost as emblematic of the decade of Reaganomics as Ronald Reagan himself, coincidentally an old friend of Hagman's mother, the actress Mary Martin.
Moreover, the character became not just figuratively but also literally synonymous with event television, the phenomenon now diminished by the proliferation of channels, but which back then meant tens of millions of people watching the same programme at the same time.
In 1980, the question of who shot JR in the concluding episode of the second series of Dallas assumed global significance. A session of the Turkish parliament was suspended so that legislators could get home to find out the answer. And in America, President Jimmy Carter joked that if only he knew who had pulled the trigger in the CBS serial, he could sell the information and finance his re-election campaign.
His political opponents also capitalised on the mystery, distributing campaign badges that bluntly stated: "A Democrat Shot JR". The extent of the mystery owed everything to JR's amorality. In other words, practically everyone in the show was a suspect. He had swindled all the other big Texan oilmen by selling them his wells in south-east Asia just before the wells were nationalised.
Nor were there any bounds to his duplicity in his personal life. Candidates for the honour of shooting him "were queuing up in the corridor", wrote Clive James, the television critic who took regular delight in poking fun at Dallas. "It is even possible that Miss Ellie [JR's saintly mother] shot him, since she has been showing increasing signs of madness, singing her dialogue instead of saying it," James added. "Don't be surprised if the sheriff turns up with a wornt for her arrest. There could be a tornt of wornts."
In the event, the culprit turned out to be JR's sister-in-law and mistress, Kristin, played by Bing Crosby's daughter, Mary. Hagman hugely enjoyed the melodrama. Although as Martin's son he had been raised amid the whiff of greasepaint, and although the 1960s television sitcom I Dream of Jeannie had made him a star in his own right, as an astronaut with his own personal genie, Dallas catapulted him into the celebrity stratosphere.
Here in Britain, he was a popular guest on Terry Wogan's BBC One chat show, and on Saturday, Wogan shared his own memories of Hagman with The Sunday Telegraph. "I remember him, in his pomp, coming to Royal Ascot and distributing fake $100 bills to the crowd, with his face on them instead of Benjamin Franklin's. He was a great character and an extraordinary man, so ebullient and larger than life even in recent months, when he'd been so ill."
"We had him on the show with Linda Gray [who played JR's wife, Sue Ellen], and although their relationship was not abrasive like it was on screen, he was very much the boss. She followed him around."
Gray is reported to have been with Hagman when he died in a Dallas hospital on Friday, an instance of life imitating art (Maj, his actual wife of almost 60 years and mother of his two children, suffers from Alzheimer's). And there were other dimensions of Hagman's art reflected by his life.
His parents divorced when he was five, but his father was a Texas attorney, who had plenty of dealings with oilmen. And Hagman, like JR, certainly had some prodigious appetites, although he stopped drinking in 1992, and three years later also gave up smoking, having been diagnosed with liver cancer. He then underwent a liver transplant, and in recent years became a vegan. The man who had once gone for 15 years drinking up to five daily bottles of champagne, ended up living on five "disgusting" vegetable smoothies a day.
Yet, as Sir Terry attests, none of this eroded his zest for life. A flag emblazoned with Vito celebratio est (life is a celebration) flew above his home in Malibu, California, and he was never less than faithful to that credo, albeit in decidedly eccentric ways. He would sometimes shop in his local grocery store wearing a gorilla suit. He expressed the wish that after his death his remains be spread across a field planted with wheat and marijuana, eventually yielding a huge marijuana cake containing "a little of Larry".
Whether or not this comes to pass, for most of us the enduring taste of Larry Hagman will lie in his portrayal of JR Ewing, as evocative of the 1980s as Margaret Thatcher, Arthur Scargill and the New Romantics.
But what was also so remarkable about JR was that he meant different things to different countries. In fact, he was seized upon by the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu as the perfect example of capitalist decadence.
Ceausescu allowed his people to watch the show, but instead of it convincing them that Western values were warped, they saw the fast cars and swimming pools and felt miffed at what they were missing. When eventually Ceausescu was toppled in 1989, a Romanian businessman even created a Dallas theme park, to celebrate the role of JR and his cronies in bringing down Communism. It might have been only the slightest of walk-on roles, but even so, for a mere television character, and the actor who played him, it remains quite a legacy.