J.R. wanted Bobby, Sue Ellen for new 'Dallas'

FILE - This May 16, 2012 file photo shows actors Larry Hagman, left, and Linda Gray attending the TNT and TBS upfront presentation at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York. Hagman and Gray, part of the original cast of "Dallas," return in an updated version of the series with a two-hour premiere Wednesday at 9 p.m. EDT. (AP Photo/Evan Agostini, file)

There's a new generation of Ewings on the new "Dallas" reboot, but it was clear when the cast was introduced at the most recent TV critics press tour in Los Angeles who the real star remains after all these years — Larry Hagman.

The 80-year-old actor returns as J.R. Ewing, one of the sneakiest bad guys to ever wear a Stetson. He's joined by former cast mates Patrick Duffy (Bobby) and Linda Gray (Sue Ellen).

When he was asked to reprise his role, Hagman told the producers "there's only one thing I need — Patrick and Linda. And they said, 'OK, you got 'em.'"

The three have become close friends these past 34 years.

Playing the next generation of Southfork trouble makers are Josh Henderson (John Ross Ewing), Jesse Metcalfe (Christopher Ewing) and Jordana Brewster (John Ross' girlfriend Elena).

"These kids are well trained, they know what they're doing and they're gorgeous," says Hagman, looking frail but sounding forceful on a variety of issues. "These boys have muscles; they have eight packs if there is such a thing."

Hagman sat after the "Dallas" press conference and handled questions the way J.R. used to handle rivals in the oil business. Asked if he gave any of the young cast members any advice, Hagman shot back, "never recommend a doctor or a mistress."

The native Texan has seen his share of doctors. A notorious drinker, he had a liver transplant when he was 65.

"That was scary," he says.

In the past year he has undergone treatment for Stage Two throat cancer.

"It makes you appreciate life," he says, "and take it easy and don't get too involved with the future." Gray talked Hagman into adopting a vegetarian regime after his liver surgery, something he's stepped up recently with a diet of spinach, cucumbers and garlic.

Would Texas oil man J.R. ever go vegan, he was asked.

"If there was any money in it," shot back Hagman.

So far his treatments are going well, allowing him to work on the new series — provided the days are short.

"They're very good to me. I only work either in the morning or the afternoon. I'm not one of those 10 hour guys."

Getting back into character was "like getting into an old pair of slippers," says Hagman. J.R. is such an iconic TV character, he figures, because "everybody's got a jerk like this in their family. A father or brother or uncle or cousin — that's what makes him so appealing, they can hate him because they know who he is."

Just don't call J.R. one of the one percenters.

Aware of the backlash against the rich in America, Hagman—a passionate Democrat — sees J.R. more as a "wildcatter. He's not one of these corporate guys, he's a guy who goes out and does it for himself."

Hagman says "Dallas" rescued him from a low point in his career. A comedy star on "I Dream of Jeannie" in the late ‘60s, offers had dried up for the one time Broadway player by the mid-‘70s.

He recalls getting two scripts: one was to play a high school gym teacher on "The Waverly Wonders" and the other was for "Dallas."

Hagman’s wife of 58 years, Maj, started reading the "Dallas" script. "After five minutes she said, 'Larry, this is the show —there’s not one redeeming character.'"

"Waverly," which eventually starred Joe Namath, lasted one month on NBC. "Dallas" was on for 14 seasons.

"Dallas" was a worldwide TV phenomenon, especially during the early years of its 1978-'91 run. The "Who Shot J.R.?" episode drew 83 million U.S. viewers, the second highest-rated TV episode in U.S, history (behind only the "MASH" finale).

In order to return for that cliffhanger, Hagman famously held out for a big pay raise, earning a reported $100,000 a week, making him the highest paid actor on television at that time.

"There was no way of knowing how big it would become," he says. "And if you think it was big in America, you should go to Europe. You know, they banned us in France."

Asked if he remembered why, Hagman shot this reporter his best J.R. look. "You know the French for gosh sakes — who knows?"

"Dallas" premieres Wednesday at 9 p.m. on Bravo and in the U.S. on TNT.

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Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version had the incorrect name for John Ross' girlfriend.