American actor, director and producer, Larry Hagman, best known for his role as "J.R. Ewing" from the TV series Dallas poses for a photo in front
American actor, director and producer, Larry Hagman, best known for his role as "J.R. Ewing" from the TV series Dallas poses for a photo in front of a backdrop with an image of downtown Dallas, during a reception at the University of Texas at Tyler, following his presetation of "Confessions" on Nov. 10, 2012. Hagman, who for more than a decade played villainous patriarch JR Ewing in the TV soap Dallas, has died at the age of 81, his family said Saturday Nov. 24, 2012. (AP Photo/Dr. Scott M. Lieberman)

Ventura County residents who knew him best said actor Larry Hagman was a generous man, both in spirit and in deed, someone who never let his celebrity status go to his head. Instead, he was kind and down-to-earth, someone who cared about others and who was always willing to donate his time and money for worthy causes, they said.

Hagman, who played J.R. Ewing on the TV show "Dallas" and earlier portrayed Tony Nelson in "I Dream of Jeannie," died Friday, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services reported. He died at age 81 in a Dallas hospital of complications from his recent battle with cancer, the news service reported.

"Larry was back in his beloved Dallas re-enacting the iconic role he loved most," his family said in a written statement. "Larry's family and close friends had joined him in Dallas for the Thanksgiving holiday. When he passed, he was surrounded by loved ones. It was a peaceful passing, just as he had wished for. The family requests privacy at this time."

In Ventura County, among the many things Hagman loved was public radio.

"Larry was a long time listener to KCLU," said Mary Olson, general manager of the public radio station based at the California Lutheran University campus in Thousand Oaks.

Hagman and his wife, Maj, "were very, very supportive of the station," Olson said, recalling how Hagman drove to the station for a special ceremony one morning despite having gotten little sleep the night after flying in from a trip.

"He was a completely down-to-earth guy," Olson said. So much so that Olson eventually forgot Hagman was famous.

Olson was only reminded of Hagman's star power at a birthday party was thrown for him at a restaurant in Santa Monica. Surrounded by celebrities as she took the elevator up to the restaurant, Olson thought, "Oh, that's right, he is a star."

Unlike some other celebrities, Olson said, Hagman was deeply devoted to his wife. He married the Swedish-born Maj Axelsson in 1954 while he was in the Air Force.

Hagman lived for many years on a mountaintop above Ojai, a breathtaking 42-acre ranch called Heaven.

The Hagmans first came to Ojai in the 1960s when they took their two children, Heidi Kristina and Preston, to there to camp.

Hagman really liked Ojai, saying it reminded him of New Canaan, Conn., where he grew up.

"Ojai has got a special quality," Hagman said in an interview in the late 1990s with The Star. "I don't really know what it is, but it's a unique little town."

Hagman bought the property above Ojai during the original "Dallas" TV show run. Construction began in 1987 and lasted more than four years.

Ventura County Supervisor Steve Bennett recalled how Hagman held numerous fundraisers for Bennett there.

"He was a really generous man who got involved with local issues," Bennett said.

Hagman was known for his involvement with the arts in Ojai, Bennett said, as well as for opening up his home for a program to help educators.

In addition, Hagman held a fundraiser for Save Open-Space and Agricultural Resources (SOAR), an initiative to protect farmland and open space from development by setting boundaries around local cities.

Hagman was drafted into the U.S. Air Force in 1952 and was stationed in London for most of his service in the military.

Margaret Nesbitt, a columnist for The Star who lives in Port Hueneme but was born in Wales, recalls meeting Hagman at a London studio while he was still in the Air Force during the 1950s.

Nesbitt said his name meant nothing to her at the time. Everyone was there to see a performance about his mother, Mary Martin, who was a well-known American actress, Broadway star and singer.

Nesbitt recalled how she was introduced to Hagman and his newlywed wife at a party held afterward.

She said they were charming and very hospitable to everyone there.

Though she would never meet Hagman again in person, the two eventually would live in the same area halfway around the world - Ventura County.

Nesbitt said she followed Hagman's career as he rose to fame on "I Dream of Jeannie" and later on "Dallas."

"I was not surprised that he was so successful," Nesbitt said.

Hagman was known for his sense of humor, both on and off the screen.

Olson recalls how Hagman once threw a party at his home in the county.

"Larry walked out in this really bright purple suit with a gold shirt and a wild tie," Olson said, adding, "He just had a fabulous sense of humor. This was at his house. Larry walks out in a bright purple suit. I mean, bright purple. With a gold shirt and a wild tie."

Olson started to laugh and said to Hagman, "Nice suit."

Hagman said he'd seen it in a store window while riding in a carriage, as he recalled, in New Orleans.

When he went inside the inquire about the suit, the shop's owner told Hagman the suit was not cheap, that "it cost $99."

The shop owner, who did not recognize Hagman as a celebrity, went on to tell him he would not accept a credit card or check for the suit, insisting to be paid in cash.

Hagman tried on the suit.

"He said it fit him as if it had been made for him," Olson said, adding, "How many other well-known people would show up at a party wearing a purple polyester suit with a gold shirt and blazing tie?"

Hagman and his wife put the nine-bedroom Mediterraean-style estate above Ojai for sale some years ago, as they wanted to be closer to Los Angeles to work on the sequel series to "Dallas" for TNT.

Hagman announced that he had cancer just as work on the show began.

© 2012 Ventura County Star (Camarillo, Calif.)

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