Jim Slotek: Hagman and Bendes

Seeing 80-year-old Larry Hagman still acting evil on the rebooted version of Dallas reminds me that just because Death’s door is open, doesn’t mean one need enter just yet. Hagman is battling cancer these days, 17 years after the hard-drinking, colorful character underwent a liver transplant to stave off another bout of certain death. His continued existence also reminds me of one of the single weirdest celebrity experiences of my life.

The year was 1985, Dallas and Dynasty were jostling for #1 in the ratings, and I
was in L.A. covering television for the Toronto Sun. CBS had organized a Dallas party at Hagman’s beachfront Malibu home, which he referred to as “the house that Jeanne built” (from his I Dream Of Jeannie days).

His neighbours on either side were Linda Ronstadt and Burgess Meredith. (In fact, I was told Meredith had saved the day at a previous Hagman press party, lending out the washroom in his guest house after Hagman’s septic tank malfunctioned).
My cronies at the time were the Edmonton Journal’s Bob Remington and then Canadian Press writer Kirk LaPointe (now the CBC Ombudsman). Both can vouch for my story.

Drinks in hand, we were young and characteristically cynical about the behavior of our colleagues, who were lined up facing his bookshelf, jotting his reading material in their notepads for the color piece they expected to write about his lifestyle. Everybody already knew that Hagman and his spouse, Maj Axelsson, traditionally spent one day a week not speaking to each other (which actually sounds sensible to me, speaking as a married man), and that his mother, Mary Martin lived with them (though she wasn’t there that night).

For our part, we three went exploring and found Hagman’s video room, including a satellite receiver (pretty cutting edge technology for the time, requiring a dish the size of an Arecibo radio-telescope out back). We’d just started playing around looking for things to watch, when Hagman entered the room, drink in hand, fleeing the crush of overly-inquisitive guests at his own party.

Three guests he could deal with, and he insisted, “I think you boys should watch a movie by a real director.” From his shelf, he pulled a VHS copy of the 1971 movie Beware! The Blob!, directed by Larry Hagman.

The movie opened to cheesy music and a blurry close-up of a kitten meowing in a field of tall grass.

“Pretty boring opening, huh?” Hagman said. “Well, don’t worry, that little fucker gets it in about two minutes.”

My attention wandered, and so did I. I checked out an art installation on the wall of his video room. An engraved plate in the middle read, “The Remains Of Hans Schneider.”

The wall-installation consisted of several pieces encased in clear plastic, including one (the title piece) with a chicken wishbone set atop a block of
what would turn out to be hardened human ash. Another, titled The Three Lines Of Larry Hagman, had ashes laid out like lines of coke, and a phony, partly-rolled 10 dollar bill with J.R. Ewing’s face where Jefferson’s would normally be.

“That comes with a story.” It was Hagman’s voice from over my shoulder. Seems when Hagman and his wife moved into “the house that Jeannie built,” the place had been entirely vacated and emptied, save for an urn of ashes marked “Hans Schneider.” I can’t remember how much of an effort Hagman claimed to have made to locate Hans’s relatives. But he came up empty.

However, Hagman had a friend who was a somewhat mordant modern artist, a son of Czech immigrants whose name – Barton Ledice Benes – remains burned into my mind. Benes, who would go on to become an AIDS activist artist, was thrilled to have such material to work with.

Other things happened at the party. A New York Post reporter was apparently caught rifling through Hagman’s underwear drawer. The reporter’s ironic name: Tim Boxer.

I also have a vague memory of Kirk LaPointe and I singing O Canada in French on the shuttle home.

But my introduction to the work of Mr. Benes remains as vivid today as
then. The artist died last month at the age of 69. The New York Times noted that, while he was acclaimed, he often had difficulty finding galleries willing to exhibit his work. It also mentioned that his Greenwich Village apartment was known as “the tomb,” and that it was floor-to-ceiling with
“thousands of artifacts like tribal masks, animal skeletons, taxidermy, religious relics, voodoo dolls and a stockpile of celebrity ephemera.” Said ephemera was reported to include a human toe, “a giant hourglass holding the mingled ashes of two of Mr. Benes’s friends, partners who died of AIDS,” and Larry Hagman’s gall-bladder.

It turns out I already knew about the gall-bladder, or at least guessed. In 1995, when Hagman received a liver transplant as a result of alcohol-related sclerosis, news reports mentioned that his gall bladder was also removed, and was donated to an artist friend of Hagman’s.

The “artist friend” wasn’t named. But he didn’t have to be.

Here’s to you, Barton Ledice Benes. And
here’s to Larry Hagman, who proves that the good may die young, but TV bad guys live forever.

Jim Slotek appears here occasionally

Contact us at: dbawis@rogers.com

An award-winning newspaper columnist, movie critic and comedy script-writer, Jim Slotek has interviewed literally thousands of celebrities for the Toronto Sun and various entertainment magazines. His script work runs the gamut from an acclaimed documentary on Mexico’s Day of the Dead (El Dia, La Noche y los Muertos), to CBC variety specials (the Gemini Awards, the NHL Awards, CBC Canada Day Special).

2 Responses to “Jim Slotek: Hagman and Bendes”

  1. all i can say is, wow. what a great read. loved it!

  2. Brad Werner Says:

    Nice read. I loved reading it as well. I work for the museum Barton’s art is being moved to. Can’t wait to see it for myself.

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