Barbara Eden blinked her way into the hearts of TV goers from 1965 to 1970 as the iconic star of “I Dream of Jeannie,” along with her master Major Anthony Nelson (Larry Hagman), Major Roger Healey (Bill Daily), and the perpetually confused Dr. Alfred Bellows (Hayden Rorke).
For 139 episodes, Eden and company would conjure up a magical TV viewing experience, each and every week and was the epitome of escapist fare, as the real world was in the midst of Vietnam, race riots and the burgeoning counter culture revolution.
For gay and lesbian audiences, the show resonated, not only because of the likeability factor of its star, but because at that time in history we could relate with being kept a secret and hiding away from the world-at-large. If only our closets were as finely decorated as Jeannie’s bottle.
Since the series went off the air in 1970, it has constantly been in reruns, and its actors went off to embody other characters, such as “Harper Valley P.T.A.’s” Stella Johnson for Eden, J.R. Ewing of “Dallas” fame for Hagman and Daily’s turn as Howard Borden on “The Bob Newhart Show.”
Fans who still were dreaming of seeing Eden don her harem outfit and putting her hair into a ponytail once again were given the chance to catch up with two TV reunion movies, “I Dream of Jeannie: 15 Years Later” in 1985 and 1991’s “I Still Dream of Jeannie.” Albeit, without Hagman who was busy being the opposite of his “Jeannie” role as the dastardly love-to-hate-him J.R., however, fans of the show were treated to a reunion between Hagman and Eden when they acted opposite one another on “Dallas” in 1990.
The 76-year-old actress recently put pen to paper to write her memoirs, “Jeannie Out of the Bottle,” which chronicles her life on and off the screen.
In celebration of this momentous occasion, The Castro Theatre will be the site of a gala tribute to the 1951 former Miss San Francisco, as “I Dream of Barbara Eden” will feature a noon screening of “7 Faces of Dr. Lao,” and then at 8 pm, there will be performances by The Garden of Eden Belly Dancing Superstars and Arturo Galster belting out “Harper Valley P.T.A,” and there’s even a Jeannie Look-A-Like Contest.
How could Sunday, July 10 get any dreamier, you may ask? Well, how about an appearance by the lady herself with Eden slated to do an onstage interview, as well as signing copies of “Jeannie Out of the Bottle” in the Castro Mezzanine.
I had the dream come true experience of interviewing Eden, and it should come as no surprise that she is as wonderful as her television counterpart.
TPMH: What was your favorite aspect of playing Jeannie?
Barbara Eden: Well, I guess I liked her; that was the best thing. I loved working with Larry, Bill Daily, Hayden Rorke, and of course, Sidney Sheldon. It was just a really wonderful time in my life, and I enjoyed the whole experience.
TPMH: Obviously, your character was magical, but was she based on anyone you knew?
Barbara Eden: Oh my, she was based on a million people I knew, well not a million, really. She was based on animals (laughs), people and things; working on her character was culled from lots of my past experiences. Women, of course, that I knew; dogs that I knew and loved, little birds and their expressions. She was so open, and only animals are really that open.
TPMH: Did you have any say in the direction of the show, in particular, the marriage between Tony and Jeannie?
Barbara Eden: No, we weren’t happy with that at all, and we were right. Just the whole idea of the show went down the drain, it was ridiculous. He was a human, she was an entity, and he knew she was an entity, he knew he was human, but she didn’t know the boundaries at all. And that is what made it funny; that was the comedic center to the show, and to marry them for goodness sakes; we’re back to, “Honey, I’m home!”
Having had said that, I loved the episode that we did; she was a robot who couldn’t be photographed (laughs).
TPMH: And how fun was it for you to play her evil sister Jeannie II?
Barbara Eden: Oh, darling I loved her (she answered as the character)! She took care of that little wimp, she had no boundaries. It was refreshing for me.
TPMH: Aside from “Jeannie,” has there been a film or TV role that you absolutely loved playing?
Barbara Eden: I’ve had several that I loved; it’s hard to pick one out. There was a TV movie called “Your Mother Wore Combat Boots,” and it’s kind of fun and I really enjoyed doing that. And then of course “The Vision Of Murder” movies, I enjoyed those because it was a departure from anything I had done.
I loved the “7 Faces of Dr. Lao,” both of the movies that I did with George Pal, including “The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm.”
And, the Irwin Allen movies, I enjoyed working with him; he was a character! He wouldn’t say action, he had a gun and he’d shoot it up in the air (laughs). God I hope they were blanks! But, Peter Lorre, every time he’d jump ten feet and swear.
Oh, Stella Johnson in “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” I loved doing the movie, because it was so successful; the movie made a lot of money for the people who backed it. It was a very small film, but it surprised everyone. I was sad that the TV show was only for one season.
TPMH: What did you make of not being able to show your belly button in primetime?
Barbara Eden: Oh, it didn’t mean a thing to me; I really didn’t care one way or the other, the whole thing was a hoot when it happened! It was just an accident about the belly button thing.
There was a writer from “The Hollywood Reporter,” and his name was Mike Connolly, and he’d come on the set and he was just teasing me he’d say, “I don’t believe you have one!” And I’d say, “Nickel a peek,” and it was just a joke and he wrote about it, then the stringers across the country started picking up on it and writing about it again and again and again. It snowballed, and finally, George Schlatter, who was producing “Laugh-In” at the time, went to NBC and said he would like to premiere my navel on “Laugh-In.”
And, George told me in later years, “I walked into this meeting and I have never seen so many suits sitting around an oak conference table talking about your belly button.” He said it was the silliest thing he had ever seen, and of course they said no. Then it really became the cause célèbre, and I was just an outsider looking on that whole thing and giggling.
EDGE: Are you still in contact with Larry Hagman?
Barbara Eden: Yes, well we just came back from Australia together – Larry, Bill Daily and I. And I loved working with him on “Dallas,” I got him good and bankrupted him.
TPMH: What was the experience like of writing your new book?
Barbara Eden: It was very, very difficult for me; it took me a long time to be persuaded to do it. Mainly I did it because I met Wendy Leigh, who really did the tough work of organizing all my thoughts and experiences. I met her and I decided that we would work well together, and we did; she’s just great.
So, that’s what really persuaded me to do it, otherwise it’s not easy to tell people everything honestly about your life. And, if you’re going to write your memoirs, you know you may as well be honest about it and tell people about everything.
And I’m glad I did and I hope that some parts of it help people; everyone’s life has challenges, has a roller coaster quality about it, but as long as you know that the roller coaster comes up, as well as comes down, you’ll have a happy life.
TPMH: What is your favorite aspect of your life and career that were happy to share with readers in the book?
Barbara Eden: I really enjoyed sharing the early beginnings with people in the book, a lot of people don’t know about that, San Francisco, and down to L.A. to the Hollywood Studio Club, and working with some fine actors. I enjoyed telling people about that.
TPMH: It sounds like the Castro Theatre event is going all out to honor you, what are you looking most forward to at the event?
Barbara Eden: I think Marc Huestis does a wonderful job with whomever he is honoring, it’s just very exciting and I’m looking forward to it. I’m looking forward to the fun the most, and I always like the Q&A, I enjoy talking to people.
TPMH: And how does it feel to be getting this type of homecoming?
Barbara Eden: It’s lovely; I haven’t ever had one. I’ve worked in San Francisco when I did my “Visions Of Murder” movies, we filmed there, but I guess no one really knew I was there when we were shooting. So this makes me feel good.
TPMH: Why do you think the show has resonated with a core gay and lesbian audience?
Barbara Eden: Well I didn’t know it did. Really? It just seems to be universal; it’s never been off the air all over the world. I just had never thought of a certain group liking it more than others, but that’s wonderful to know.
TPMH: You look fantastic…what are your beauty secrets?
Barbara Eden: My goodness, well thank you. I try to stay healthy and happy; I think that’s the most important thing. I do the spinning bicycle classes three times a week, when I’m not working, and I work with a trainer with weights.
So, that’s mostly to keep me healthy, not to build muscles or do anything like that. You sweat a lot and you feel like you’ve done something (laughs).
TPMH: What do you attribute “I Dream of Jeannie’s” long lasting appeal to?
Barbara Eden: I think one of the things is that it’s not as dated as other shows, because we are all in uniform. And also, the space program is still highly relevant today, and you take something so technical, like the space program, and put fantasy next to it, meld it in the recipe; it’s fun because it’s fantasy and something that’s really going on that’s awe inspiring at the same time.
I think that makes for some good viewing.
This interview was first published on Edge Media’s websites