Nearly 55 years ago, Barbara Eden enchanted television audiences playing a 2,000-year-old genie on NBC’s I Dream of Jeannie alongside Larry Hagman. Pink smoke coming out of a bottle. Miracles happening with a blink of her eyes. How can we forget?
The show, created by Sidney Sheldon — who would later go on to be a prolific author of such page-turners as The Other Side of Midnight and Bloodline — thrust Eden and Hagman into the limelight. The series ran for five seasons before the pink dust finally faded from that ornate genie bottle and Eden’s character —fittingly named Jeannie — had a happy ending with the beloved astronaut who found her.
Still, the fanfare fueled Eden’s and Hagman’s future projects — she would go on to headline TV’s Harper Valley P.T.A., among other things; he turned even more heads on Dallas.
Eden heads to Palm Springs for An “Intimate Evening with Barbara Eden” on Dec. 3 at Oscar’s Palm Springs. She admits she’s excited to be in town to discuss her legendary role and reveal some of its backstory in the Q&A setting, complete with TV clips and more. She’s quick to point out, too, that her pal, Mary Jane, hails from Palm Springs and that the gals have been known to binge-watch one of today’s more popular outings — The Crown.
Eden shares more with Palm Springs Life.
It’s great you’re going to be here. Let’s dive into Sidney Sheldon, the creator of I Dream of Jeannie. What was it like working with him?
It was a beautiful experience and wonderful to work with him. I am so happy he came into my life. I have no idea how he knew about me. I was reading Variety and Hollywood Reporter about how they were testing for this role of a genie and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, that sounds like so much fun!’
That’s how you originally heard about it?
Yes. I found out they were testing Mediterranean types — Miss Israel, Miss Syria, Miss Turkey, Miss Italy, and Miss Greece. Not only were they luscious brunettes, but they were also very tall. They were all beauty contest winners. I thought, “That’s not for me.” But then my agent sent me a script and asked me if I wanted to do it. I told him I thought it was great and he said, “They want you.” I remember saying to him, “Are you sure they know what I look like?” [Laughs]. I went down and had tea with Sidney at the Beverly Hills Hotel and the rest, as they say, is history. I can only guess how he happened to choose me. I had done a lot of comedy sketch work at the beginning of my career. Somebody must have told him about me.
Are you surprised by how popular the show still is?
Oh, yes. Everyday. Apparently, it has never been off of the air. I wish I owned a part of it. [Laughs] It’s all over the world. I get letters from Japan, China, and Russia.
“…my agent sent me a script and asked me if I wanted to do it. I told him I thought it was great and he said, ‘They want you.’ I remember saying to him, ‘Are you sure they know what I look like?’ [Laughs].
What do you feel people connected with and still connect with?
I think it’s a very positive force. First of all, the story is thousands of years old. A classic. To do it the way Sidney did it — he made everybody happy. He could take you out of yourself and you could live in another world for a little while. It’s true to this day.
Who were some of your other greatest influences in life?
Everyone I’ve worked with I’ve learned from. Every actor, every writer, every director. You always learn along the way. My acting teacher in San Francisco, Elizabeth Holloway, has a huge influence on me. She worked with Carol Channing and when my mother saw Carol singing Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend, I was in eighth grade. She came home and told me she wished I could see this girl because she was so full of energy. So the next best thing was to work with whomever Carol worked with and that was Elizabeth.
What wisdom did she impart?
She was very spiritual but not overtly so. She studied Ernest Holmes and used his teachings. My mother read Ernest Holmes, too. I still get the [Science of Mind] magazine. Sidney, by the way, and his wife, Mary, also read him. But you don’t talk about that stuff a lot, but I could see how those teachings were used in the acting lessons.
What was the best thing about working with Larry?
His talent. He was just a little nuts, but he was a very good man. He was his own worst enemy. I don’t know how much I’m telling you that you know or don’t know, but the man was so talented. I loved working with him. We were on the same wavelength. The minute we started talking to each other when we were shooting, it was real. A lot of times with other actors you have to struggle to believe them, but I never had to struggle to believe Larry. And he believed me. It worked.
I’m not sure if it transfers over in real life with actors but it certainly does in the moment. He knew I was genie, and I knew he was the master. I worked with him on Dallas and it was the same way.
What are your thoughts on the entertainment industry today?
Change is what makes things get better, doesn’t it? I’m not fond of a lot of the reality shows. But that doesn’t mean that they’re not good entertainment for some people. We’re prolific now — my goodness. There’s so much product now. It’s good for the actors. They all have jobs. I’ve been … what do they call it? Binge-watching … The Crown with my friend Mary Jane when she visits me from Palm Springs.
Would you be open to an I Dream of Jeannie reboot?
People are always talking about it. I think it would have to be done in a different way. The style would have to be a little different. But of course, I would like to be a part of it. I could be the aunt or the grandmother.
So, did you even like the color pink, which was the color of your costume—and that smoke?
Oh, I adore it.
Well, that’s good. Imagine if you didn’t?
I choose it, actually. Mary Wills, the designer, brought in the costumes. Sidney hired her as she was an Academy Award-winning designer. She asked me what my favorite color was and I said, bright pink. And she thought about the hat and the veil. And the bottle. I was asked what color I wanted the bottle to be and I told her purple, because I love purple. I wear purple whenever I can.
Well, if you had a wish from an actual genie, what would it be?
I hate to say it because it sounds so cliché, but world peace. If we could just get a long together.
What’s some of the best advice you’ve been given about life?
To be true to yourself. Don’t try to be someone else other than who you are —except when you’re acting.
“An Intimate Evening with Barbara Eden” takes place at 8 p.m. Dec. 3 at Oscar’s Palm Springs, 125 E Tahquitz Canyon Way in Palm Springs. For tickets and additional information, visit oscarspalmsprings.com.