Barbara Eden is an actress who’ll be forever associated with one iconic role. Yes, she played the title character in the comedy show I Dream of Jeannie. And it made her one of the hottest stars of the 1960s. Obviously a lot of time has passed since then, but you may be surprised to see what Eden looks like now.
I Dream of Jeannie had a downright wacky premise. Eden’s Jeannie was, as the name implies, actually a genie in a bottle – just a very attractive one. And an astronaut called Tony Nelson, played by Larry Hagman, freed her and accidentally became her master. The two characters had a will-they won’t-they relationship for five whole seasons.
Alas, as soon as the relationship switched from “will they” to “they will” it sounded the death knell for the show. Jeannie and Nelson were married at the end of season five, despite Eden herself strongly advising the producers that it wasn’t a good idea. Ratings immediately dropped, and I Dream of Jeannie was cancelled.
Over the years Eden has had plenty to say about what happened behind the scenes of the show. Though it’s remembered as being quite wholesome fare, problematic things happened on set once the cameras stopped rolling. And much of that was down to Larry Hagman, Eden’s extremely erratic and difficult co-star.
You see, Eden published an autobiography, Jeannie Out of the Bottle, in 2011. And she went into a lot of detail about what life on the show had actually been like. She remembered being cast in the first place, writing “I’m still stunned that [show creator] Sidney Sheldon didn’t cast a tall, willowy, raven- haired Middle Eastern beauty queen as his Jeannie instead of a short American blonde like me.”
However, Eden herself had been a beauty queen, so she certainly wasn’t lacking in the looks department. She had in fact been Miss San Francisco before moving to Los Angeles to pursue a career in show business. And she had had plenty of acting experience prior to winning the role of Jeannie, too.
Funnily enough, Eden had even acted alongside Elvis Presley in the 1960 movie Flaming Star. Plus she’d popped up in a lot of famous TV shows – I Love Lucy, Perry Mason and The Andy Griffith Show among others. But it was I Dream of Jeannie which really put her on the map.
In her autobiography, Eden recollected that her level of fame made Hagman jealous. Sidney Sheldon had informed her that, “it was always only Jeannie the public was interested in.” Eden wrote, “On a good day, I understood and sympathized with Larry’s frustration and anger. On a bad day…well, I’ll tell you about those bad days, and you can judge for yourselves.”
Eden continued, “Larry himself has made no secret about the fact that he was taking drugs and drinking too much through many of the I Dream of Jeannie years and that he has regrets about how that impacted him.” And there were some bewildering scenes of bad temper on Hagman’s part.
For instance, in one scene Eden remembered a group of nuns visiting the set. She alleged, “Larry takes one look at the nuns, grabs an axe (which one of the technicians happens to have in the studio that day), and swings it around his head so ferociously that he could easily have killed someone.”
As the actress went on to explain, “As he swings it, he lets out a torrent that includes every single foul swear word I’ve ever heard, and some I haven’t – right in the stunned nuns’ faces. If that isn’t enough, he starts hacking at the cables frenetically until someone grabs the axe, frog-marches Larry off the set, then escorts the shaken nuns out of the building.”
What’s more, Eden recollected a time when “Larry, in frustration and anger at what he saw as the show’s shortcomings and the second- string status of his character, Major Tony Nelson, relieved himself all over the I Dream of Jeannie set.” There were also incidents involving guest stars.
That’s right: Sammy Davis Jr. appeared on the show once and was allegedly subjected to insults from Hagman, who apparently took exception to the singer wanting his lines read to him. Such was the situation that the two men almost got into a brawl together. And this was all the more surprising given that Davis. Jr was used to crowds slinging insults at him during gigs but kept calm.
There were even dangerous animals on set sometimes, adding to the madness of it all. For instance, Eden remembered in her autobiography a time when she and Hagman had to act opposite a lion. Because she had worked with lions before she considered herself “somewhat of a lion expert” and tried to advise Hagman on what to do.
So Eden told Hagman to let the lion smell him and then stroke its fur gently, thus not stressing it out. According to Eden, Hagman told her “Dream on, Barbara. I’m not making friends with any f***ing lion.” Thus while Eden was careful around the lion and let it bond with her, Hagman didn’t do any of that.
Anyway, Eden remembered, “The lion is led right up to the couch, takes one look at Larry, and lets out an almighty roar. Whereupon Larry bolts off the set, out of the studio, and into the street, while the crew runs out after him, terrified. Meanwhile, I am left alone on the set with a nine-hundred- pound lion in my lap, purring contentedly.”
As if all that wasn’t enough, there was drama over Eden’s I Dream of Jeannie costume. The television executives of the 1960s didn’t think audiences would accept an outfit that was too revealing. So Eden’s legs and, more curiously, her belly button had to be covered up.
Eden remembered the situation to Willie Giest on the Today show in 2015. She said. “Executives at NBC got very frightened. George [Schlatter, the show’s producer] said he had never seen so many suits sitting around a table in his life discussing someone’s anatomy. They became very strict about the navel.”
And the actress was actually pregnant at the time. After the pilot for I Dream of Jeannie aired Eden learned she was carrying a baby after seven years of trying. This posed a problem costume-wise as well, so she went to Sidney Sheldon and let him know he could cast somebody else as Jeannie if he wanted to.
But obviously he didn’t. Eden remembered in her book, “Sidney came up with an almost foolproof technique for disguising my pregnancy by draping me with a multitude of veils and instructing that I be shot only from the waist up, or from a distance. Consequently, I worked on I Dream of Jeannie right up until the eighth month of my pregnancy and filmed eleven episodes of the show.”
In May 2011 Eden talked to newspaper The Washington Post and remembered, “The pink costume was comfortable. It was like wearing coveralls, although I did rip it a few times. The hair I had to get used to. They practically nailed it on top of my head because my real hair was only four or five inches long.”
In that same interview, Eden said she bore no ill will towards Hagman. She said, “He’s wonderful, thoughtful and loving. He truly is but he’s also a perfectionist and he wants things to be just right from his point of view and it frustrated him horribly that the scripts weren’t what he would do, the way he wanted that carried over in his relationship with the crew, never with me though.”
In fact, Hagman seemed to be genuinely protective of Eden on the I Dream of Jeannie set. In her autobiography Eden remembered an incident with a “senile, tyrannical old movie director” causing her to burst into tears and hide away from the rest of the set. Hagman ended up being the one to find her.
Eden wrote, “He [Hagman] puts his arms around me gently and says, ‘Don’t cry, Barbara. That’s my act!’ Bless his heart! I am simultaneously touched and surprised – touched that Larry is being so kind to me, and surprised that he is being so honest about his on-set emotional breakdowns, which sometimes actually did culminate in him crying in front of all of us.”
Now, Hagman passed away from throat cancer, aged 81, in 2012. And Eden told the show Eyewitness News at the time, “Larry had many, many facets to him, his personality. He was very empathetic, he was full of life, and he was a little devil. And I loved him very much.”
Of course, Eden has now outlived her co-star. And she turned 89 years old in 2020, when it was noted that she looked fantastic for her age. When she celebrated her birthday, fans descended on her Instagram account to tell her how young she looked, and ask what her secret was.
And in fact, Eden had actually shared some of her age-defying secrets with the world already. You see, in 2013 she donned an unaltered Jeannie costume once more for that year’s Vienna Life Ball. There, she told People magazine that she credited spin class with keeping her looking so young and thin.
Yes, Eden told the magazine, “I spin three times a week. Then I work with a trainer for half an hour with weights. It’s important to lift weights for your bones. I used to be in the front of the class. I don’t do that anymore. I stay in the back, because I can’t really keep up, but I do it for an hour.”
But the actress keeps busy in other ways too. She’s still acting – her most recent movie was 2019’s My Adventures with Santa, in which she played Mrs Claus. And she’s also appeared on game shows such as Let’s Make a Deal and the reality TV show The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.
In November 2019 some of those who knew Eden as a person sung her praises to Closer magazine. Author Geoffrey Mark told the publication, “I like Barbara. She’s intelligent, she’s warm, she’s generous with her time and she’s wonderful with her fans. And when she’s with you, you feel loved.”
Mark went on, “I think [Eden’s] very confident in herself. She’s enormously hardworking and probably the reason she’s able to do all of that is that she always paid attention to her personal life. Which has not always been happy, but she paid attention to it. She didn’t take it for granted.”
Indeed, Eden’s personal life has not always been happy. She dreamed of having a family, and this started to happen when she gave birth to her son Matthew in 1965. But a second pregnancy ended in tragedy. Before the due date, it was discovered that the infant had died inside the womb. And even then, Eden had to carry to term for a stillbirth.
After that, Eden’s marriage broke down and Matthew ended up living with his father. Eden saw him only a few times a month, but she didn’t know at the time that he’d started using drugs. Unfortunately Matthew would fight drug addiction for the rest of his life, going in and out of rehab clinics.
As Matthew got into his 30s, Eden thought he was getting better. The young man became a bodybuilder and planned to get married. But unbeknownst to his mother, Matthew had begun using again. In June 2001 he was found dead in his car, having passed away from an overdose of heroin.
Obviously Matthew’s death was devastating for Eden. In 2011 she told the website PopEater, “The pain never goes away. I didn’t go to support groups. I did before he had the overdose. I went to Al-Anon so I was very involved before his death because I was trying to find ways to help him. I felt helpless for many years.”
Naturally Eden wrote about her son in Jeannie Out of the Bottle as well. She remembered that when he was born, “We called him our lucky-charm baby. We had a child at last and we loved him more than words could say. Our joy was boundless, and our hopes that he would live a healthy and happy life were unlimited.”
Of her son’s tragic passing, the actress wrote, “I’ve often been asked how anyone can cope with losing a child, and the answer is that you don’t. You can’t. There’s no way. You don’t know how you will get through it, how you can survive. But you just do. There’s no other choice.”
Furthermore, in a 2017 interview with the Daily Express newspaper, Eden spoke about how she was doing so long after the tragedy. She said, “You never lose that hurt. I live with it every day. The pain may be less sharp with the years but it never goes away. You go on. You choose life. But you hurt.”
The actress went on, “The thing about having a child who is addicted is you must not be secretive about it, you must not be ashamed or let that get in your way. You have to let people know and in letting people know you realize there’s a whole world out there of people with the same problem.”
That aside, Eden also spoke about I Dream of Jeannie in the same interview. She remembered watching herself in more recent reruns of the show, saying. “I look at Jeannie and say, ‘Who is that? Such a cute little thing!’ Hard to believe that’s me.” And she tellingly added, “I don’t feel old.”