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In his new series "Orleans," viewers will see a side of Larry Hagman they've never seen before.

The top of his head.That's right. The follically challenged actor has dispensed with the wig he's worn for a good number of years, most recently in the "Dallas" reunion movie a couple of months back.

But, according to Hagman, there was no big reason he decided to go with the natural look as Judge Luther Charbonnet in "Orleans," which premieres tonight (8 p.m., CBS/Ch. 2) with a two-hour episode.

"Oh, I don't know. I felt like - why don't I just look like what I am," Hagman said. "It's easier that way."

While there are great similarities between "Orleans" and Hagman's last series, "Dallas" - both are named after the Southern cities in which they're set, both involve a prominent family - there are also great differences.

Whereas "Dallas" was a straight soap opera, "Orleans" is sort of a hybrid. It has continuing story elements, but it's less broad and considerably more moody.

"I think the goal is to do something in `Orleans' that has a tradition in television history but also has an edge and has differences," said John Sacret Young, the show's executive producer/co-creator/writ-er/director - a man whose credits include the critically acclaimed "China Beach." "Ground-breaking may be too big a word, but to do something . . . that has some spin and color to it."

"Orleans" has comedic moments, but it's no comedy. It has dramatic moments, but it's not a traditional drama. It has continuing storylines, but it's not really soap opera.

"It's really dark stuff and really interesting," Hagman said. "And it's different. That's what I wanted to do. Something different. You turn on the television now, everything is generally all the same.

"All the sitcoms and all the drama shows, it always comes out nice in the end. These, you don't know what's happening half the time. I don't know if that's going to catch the fancy of the American public, but certainly it's an opportunity to do something different, and that's why I did it."

Hagman's character, Judge Luther Charbonnet, is the patriarch of the family. He's colorful and cantankerous - sort of a principled good ol' boy.

His three children are Clade (Brett Cullen), a police lieutenant; Jesse (Michael Reilly Burke), a newly minted district attorney; and Paulette (Colleen Flynn), his estranged daughter who is the manager of a riverboat casino.

Tonight's two-hour pilot involves murder, attempted murder, blackmail, a justice system gone wrong - and an illicit love affair between Jesse and his first cousin, Rene Doucette (Lynette Walden).

The show is also considerably more risque than "Dallas." There are times when it resembles "NYPD Blue" in terms of language, sexual content and brief nudity. (Network executives have given the pilot - and promise to give most if not all of the other episodes - a TV-14 rating, one of the strongest advisories possible.)

And "Orleans" gets off to a bit of a rocky start in its opening scene, which features Judge Charbonnet presiding over an indecency trial involving a group of strippers. It's played for humor, but the sequence is somewhat oddly out of sync with the rest of the show, which takes on a much more serious (and less tasteless) tone.

Young, not surprisingly, disagrees with that assessment of the "Orleans" opener.

"The idea of the show is that it will show a spectrum of moods. And we wanted a little bit to grab the audience - to get them involved," Young said. "And, also, in every episode there's going to be something that's a little wacky, as well as something that has some action and some character. It's New Orleans, so the rainbow of colors you get is going to be like that, in a way, in almost every episode.

"We didn't see it as unrepresentative, we saw it as one flavor that's going to run through the show."

And fans of Hagman shouldn't tune in to "Orleans" and expect to see him in every scene. His character is pivotal, but he probably has less screen time than some of his children. Not that Hagman is complaining.

"I'm surrounded by really talented and good people," he said. "I'm not ambitious. I've made it and I don't want to be the focal point of the thing. This is a group effort. It's repertory theater. . . . And I want the young ones to make some money for me, too."

And he admits to having some trouble getting a handle on the character of Judge Luther Charbonnet.

"J.R. was easy for me, because I based it on myself, of course," Hagman joked. "The judge has to be a good guy and he has to be interesting. And good guys are often not terribly interesting."

But "Orleans" does show promise of being an interesting show. As Hagman himself observed, that won't necessarily make it a commercial success, however.

It's got a chance - but the odds are no better than even.

ALL IN THE FAMILY: The Charbonnets of "Orleans" are actually based on the family of Baton Rouge native Toni Graphia, the show's executive produ-cer/creator/writer. Her father - a prominent Louisiana judge - was the inspiration for Judge Luther Charbonnet.

Not that the two are exactly alike. The two didn't meet until Hagman had already filmed several episodes of the show.

And, according to Hagman, the two are, "absolutely, totally opposites. He's nice."

As for Graphia, she's actually a bit worried that she's revealed too much about herself in "Orleans."

"I think everything you write has some aspect of your real life. But, usually, it's a little more heavily veiled. This certainly is, like, really putting it all out there.

"Probably my cousin Mikey will now know that I was really in love with him. It's hard to deny that now."

BACK TO SOUTHFORK? Not surprisingly, CBS Entertainment President Leslie Moonves said he was "very pleased" with November's "Dallas" reunion movie, which did very well in the ratings.

"We definitely are looking at doing more of those. Obviously, it worked," Moonves said.

He did, however, express concern about the show returning in the wake of the sudden death of writer/producer/director Leonard Katzman, who passed away after the movie was completed.

"And it depends on what happens with `Orleans.' . . . So we haven't even gotten into the logistics of doing more," Moonves said. "But, obviously, it's something we're looking into."

Hagman, for his part, is ready, willing and able.

"I would like to see `Dallas' maybe twice a year. That'd be nice," he said. "I don't know if they want to fool around with me having two characters on CBS at the same time.

"That'd be kind of dicey, I suppose, but it would be very, very nice for me," he said with a laugh.

GREAT RECOVERY: Hagman, who made headlines when he underwent a liver transplant nearly a year and a half ago, looks, sounds and acts great.

"I have a lot more energy. I work out every day. I take long walks, do the stairs," he said. "Because, after that kind of operation it takes a little time to try to get it back. You have to exercise and stuff like that. And then working itself keeps you active.

"I'm real lucky and very grateful."

Hagman has made some concessions to his health, however. While the work on "Orleans" involved some very long hours, all those hours didn't involve Hagman.

"I don't shoot overtime. Come 12 o'clock, I'm out of here. So these kids (the rest of the cast) had to shoot until 6 o'clock in the morning," he said. "This is my health. I'm not going to sit there and let it hurt my health, because if it hurts my health it hurts the show. So I just draw the line at midnight."

But the rest of the cast didn't seem to be complaining.

"We don't have problems with overtime, all of us," said Brett Cullen. "Because we're not as rich as Larry. . . . But the bottom line is that the overtime we put in on the show was because we were trying to make it better."

"Oh, some of it was superfluous," Hagman interjected.

"Oh, come on Daddy," Cullen (in character) shot back.

STRANGE TOWN: "Orleans" was shot entirely on location in New Orleans. And Hagman, for one, sounded somewhat ambivalent about that.

Oh, he loved the warm weather during the fall and winter. (Although he said he will refuse to shoot any episodes there during the summer, should the series get picked up for next fall.)

And while he extolled the city's virtues - music, food, ambiance - he also talked freely about its failings.

"It's a strange town. It's full of corruption," Hagman said. "And it's a very dangerous town, too. People carry guns, including me.

"It's really dangerous. We had three kids murdered down there three blocks from where I live in the (French) Quarter. It's kind of a weird town - heavy-duty alcoholism and theft and murder. It's really fun."

If Hagman didn't exactly sound like a spokesman for the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce, he's not worried.

"Oh, what I have to say is mild compared to what they have to say," he insisted.

GUN-TOTING ACTOR: Hagman wasn't kidding about carrying a gun. He's licensed and said he carries a gun with him "all the time, not just when I'm in New Orleans."

He drew a big - if rather uncomfortable - laugh from the critics that he'd had to use his gun "one time on the freeway."

"You'd be surprised how dangerous those freeways are," he said.

According to Hagman, some 10 years ago a bunch of young men in a car demanded money from him, followed him, cut him off and bumped his car with theirs.

"I was really scared. So I whipped out my pistol, which is a little .22 about that big, pointed it out the window and fired a couple shots, and they kept on going," he said. "But mind you, that was 10 years ago. Now, I would have been riddled from AK-47s. I don't do that anymore."

CROWDED TOWN: When "Orleans" was shooting on location, it was just one of four TV series in production in New Orleans at the time.

Not only did that make it difficult to find qualified crew members, but it wasn't unusual for the casts and crews to bump into each other from time to time while out shooting.

"I'd go to the wrong set sometimes," Hagman said. "I'd go there and report for work sometimes and they'd say, `You don't even work here.'

"They knew who I was, however."

KEEP DREAMING: An "I Dream of Jeannie" theatrical movie is in the works, but don't look for an appearance by Larry Hagman - who starred in the TV series.

Sidney Sheldon, who produced the series and is producing the movie, did ask, but Hagman turned him down.

"Actually, Sidney had me over for dinner for the first time in 20 years and asked me to be in the movie," Hagman said. "And I said, `What kind of part?'

"He said, `Well, it's just a small part.'

"And I said, `With a small salary?'

"And he said, `Yes.'

"And I said, `Thank you. Goodbye.' "