EIGHINGER: If J.R. Ewing is TV's all-time best villain, who is behind him?

Posted: Nov. 27, 2012 5:08 pm Updated: Dec. 26, 2012 9:15 am

A great one was lost a few days ago when actor Larry Hagman died at age 81 after a long battle with cancer.

Hagman will forever be known as scheming J.R. Ewing, who first came to prominence as the always-conniving arch villain of the original "Dallas" TV series that spanned parts of three different decades (1978-91).

I was always more of a "Knots Landing" fan because it had a deeper cast of characters, but no one -- repeat, no one -- compared to the central figure type of impact Hagman had with his role as J.R.

J.R. Ewing is at or near the top of almost any list of all-time TV villains you can find, and rightly so, thanks in large part to the summer of 1980 when "Dallas" gave new meaning to the word "cliffhanger." The question of "Who shot J.R.?" was on everyone's lips, not only because of the show's incredible popularity, but because in those days there were only three networks -- not the hundreds of channels available today -- so there was even more emphasis on a program of such stature and a character such as Hagman's.

Hagman gave us a new kind of TV villain, the kind we absolutely loved to hate, a theme that has been carried on in many subsequent prime-time offerings. So, if J.R. Ewing is TV's all-time best villain, who is behind him? Here's my top five all-time bad guys (and woman) from the best of the prime-time type of soap operas we have come to love over the past 30 to 35 years:

1. J.R. Ewing, "Dallas": Wouldn't it be fitting if there would be some sort of Emmy Award given each year in honor of Hagman for the best TV villain?

2. Abby Ewing, "Knots Landing": Donna Mills' character may always be No. 2, but her portrayal of Abby underwent several different makeovers, unlike Hagman's J.R. Ewing, who was pretty much snarky from the word go. Each time, Mills' character emerged a bit more evil and more lovable (in a bad sort of way, of course). The irony in Mills being chosen for this role was that she had previously played mostly fair-haired "damsels in distress," as one publication portrayed her. After a season or two from which she first appeared on the show, she was well on her way to being the most hated female TV figure in America -- but one we had to watch every Thursday night.

3. Walter White, "Breaking Bad": Actor Bryan Cranston may have had a chance to eventually surpass Larry Hagman on a list of this nature, but "Bad" creator Vince Gilligan is ending the show after next year's fifth season. The metamorphosis of Walter White from a Barney Fife-ish character into Tony Montana has been a remarkable thing of beauty. The show has also managed to bring the methamphetamine sub-culture into the public eye like never before. Cranston has won three consecutive Emmys for outstanding lead actor in a drama series. That had only been done once before, back in the 1960s with Bill Cosby in "I Spy."

4. Gregory Sumner, "Knots Landing": William Devane's character was actually more evil than Donna Mills' in this show, but Sumner never received the critical acclaim that Abby Ewing did. Might have had something to do with camera appeal.

5. Blake Carrington, "Dynasty": I chose John Forsythe's oil tycoon figure, largely because Blake Carrington underwent one of the most dramatic transformations of any principal character in prime-time soap opera history. He was designed to emulate J.R. Ewing but wound up becoming a softy in the show's latter years. Forsythe did not like the bad-guy image and lobbied for the character changes.

John Mapes of the Biography Channel once said, "Any great soap opera needs a great villain. While viewers may identify more with the protagonist, the villains in a serial drama always spice things up, cause trouble, and make it more fun to watch."

None did it quite as well as J.R. Ewing.



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