PASADENA, Calif. -- The last time I saw Larry Hagman was at his Malibu beach house, and he was just about to pass out drunk.
He was at the height of his fame as J.R. Ewing on "Dallas," and he was sitting there with a big white Stetson on his head and a drink in his hand, staring out at the Pacific Ocean as a band played Bob Wills' "Faded Love."
"Another ------ day in ------ paradise," Hagman said to me.
When I turned to answer, he was out cold. A woman wearing a flag-of-Texas bikini bottom assured me that Hagman was OK and asked me to help her make him comfortable by putting some pillows under him on the couch.
That was the Hagman who wound up on death's door in 1995, waiting for a liver transplant to save him. Tonight, viewers can see for themselves how far he's come back with the premiere of "Orleans," a moody, multi-layered drama set in New Orleans by producer-writers Toni Graphia and John Sacret Young ("China Beach").
Hagman stars in the CBS series as Luther Charbonnet -- district court judge, gambler, deal-maker, fixer and patriarch of a New Orleans family that includes one son who's a homicide cop, another who's an assistant district attorney and a daughter who runs a riverboat casino and craves power.
None of the Charbonnets is exactly rock-steady. The attorney-son, for example, is sleeping with his first cousin, who is about to marry someone else. In fact, he tries to have sex with her while she's trying on wedding gowns.
If that makes "Orleans" sound like Dallas-on-the-Bayou, so be it: There's certainly some "Dallas" and J.R. Ewing in this series. But "Orleans" is more than just another prime-time soap opera wannabe. Tonight's two-hour pilot has a dark and quirky drama in its bones and a strange moral center that appears as a pleasant surprise at the end.
"It's not comedy, kid. It's not comedy, that's for sure. It's pretty dark stuff, and it's different. That's why I'm doing it -- I wanted to do something that's different," Hagman said yesterday. "I feel like I've been given a new lease on life, and I don't want to waste it. Maybe this show will be it for the rest of my tenure on this Earth."
The 66-year-old Hagman came to Pasadena for a press conference and interviews looking like anything but someone who was about to end his tenure on this Earth. In fact, he looked better than he has in years.
He's sporting a new wardrobe and image these days. Gone are the cowboy boots and big, white hats. In their place: a blue blazer, gray slacks, blue shirt, flowered tie, black oxfords and gray hair combed to the side and allowed to overgrow the collar. The look is somewhere between judicial and professorial. And, oh yeah, I almost forgot, Hagman carries a gold-handled walking stick.
"Purely an affectation," he says of the stylish cane. "Purely an affectation."
The capacity for affectation and exaggeration is toned down, but it is definitely still there with Hagman. So is the joy he seems to take in candidly free-associating his way through interviews instead of doing the usual publicity shuffle. With Hagman, it is almost as easy as simply turning on the tape recorder, sitting back and keeping your mouth shut.
He starts out saying all the nice things about New Orleans that actors are supposed to say about the cities in which they film and live.
"It's a lot of fun down there. It's a tourist town. They got a lot of things to do if you're a tourist. It's an alcohol town, which I'm not involved in any longer, as you probably know. It's a great town."
But that Chamber of Commerce talk doesn't last very long before he's saying: "Let me tell you, though, actually it's a strange town. It's full of corruption, and it's very dangerous, too.
"I mean, people carry guns -- including me -- and it's really dangerous. We had three kids murdered down there three blocks from where I live in the Quarter. And it's kind of a weird town -- heavy-duty alcoholism and theft and murders."
"Wait a minute, you carry a gun?" he's asked.
"I carry a gun all the time," he says matter-of-factly.
"Not just in New Orleans?"
"I don't want to get too personal here, Larry, but do you have a permit for this gun?"
"Of course, I have a license. You don't think I'd carry a gun without a license? I wouldn't break the law, would I?" he says, clearly enjoying the back-and-forth.
"OK, have you ever used the gun?"
"Yeah, one time on the freeway. I was hassled."
"Hey, you'd be surprised how dangerous those freeways are," he says, launching into the description of an incident that took place in Los Angeles.
"I was hassled by some kids in a car stopped at Sunset Boulevard. These kids came up next to me and said, "Hey, J.R., give us some money."
"And I said, 'Oh, yeah, sure, OK. Ha, ha, ha.' And they said, 'No, we mean it.'
"And I turned onto the freeway, and they went behind me. And, then, they got in front and slowed down. And, then, behind and started bumping me. And, you know, I was really scared.