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Barbara Eden’s Magic - Beyond The Genie’s Bottle

At aage 92, she continues a long career through professional challenges and personal tragedies


By Ales Ben Block

In "I Dream of Jeannie" outfit. Photo: Getty Images,,Right Barbara Eden, photo: Harry Langdan

    Barbara Eden is a show business star after more than five decades still taking her talents around the world, attracting audiences who love her from her work on TV, in movies, in theater, in nightclubs and efforts for numerous charities.

    She has always entertained but there is much more to this woman than a happy faces and big smile.

   Eden has been famous since the late 1960s when she emerged on black and white TV from a colored bottle in a puff of smoke portraying a magical genie who could magically conjure up laughs, love and happiness.

   The surprise is just how close she came to turning down the signature role that made her famous.

   No one was more surprised in 1964 than Eden when she was offered the title role in, “I Dream of Jeannie,” the hit situation comedy that launched a career that so far has lasted more than five decades.

   Eden, then a little known contract player,  had read in a Hollywood trade paper that producer Sidney Sheldon was testing tall, exotic,  dark-haired beauty queen’s to play the 2,000-year-old djinn.     

     “I thought, well, that's not for me,” said Eden, with a giggle. “I'm the short blonde who is kind of funny.”

    Then her agent sent over a script and asked  what she thought. ”I said, I think it's great,” she recalled. “He said, ‘that's good, because they want you to do it. They've made an offer.’ And I said, ‘well, hold it. Do they know what I look like?’ I just couldn't believe it.”

    Then something happened that convinced Eden she had to turn down the role: “Coincidentally, the very day the show sold, was when my doctor said, ‘you're going to have a baby.’ (Actor) Mike (Ansara) and I had been married for (seven) years and really wanted a baby. We were so happy.”

   Eden didn’t want to break the bad news over the phone. So she called Sheldon and asked to meet in person. He was at a dinner party that evening at comic-writer Buck Henry’s home, but invited her over. “We went in the library and he said, ‘Okay, what do you want to tell me?’ He looked at me and said, ‘you’re pregnant.’ And I said, ‘yes. And I can't do your show.”

     “Of course, he was taken aback,” Eden recalled. And then he said,  “Well, let me find out what we can do about this? And thank God that he worked very, very hard getting those first 13 shows done. I looked like a walking tent but it all worked out. I'm so happy it did.”

   The NBC network had so little confidence in the comedy that it shot the first season in black and white, because it didn’t want to splurge on a color shoot.

   Instead it quickly became a hit. Eden starred for five seasons (139 episodes) as the Genie that astronaut Anthony Nelson finds on a beach, giving her a role that changed her life and career. The series continues to run today in syndication, on cable and streaming worldwide.

Eden and Hagman in final season of "I Dream Of Jeannie" were married. She said she knew it was a terrible omen. Credit: Sony Pictures Entertainment

  Eden, however, doesn’t make any money from its long-term success. She took a buyout on all future residuals near the end of the run that at the time seemed lucrative, but in hindsight was a costly mistake.

   At the time Eden knew the series was doomed when in its fifth season the Genie and the Astronaut (Larry Hagman) got married. She said she felt that was a mistake that took away the magic of the series.

Babara Eden at the podium to accept her award as a "Legend" from the Los Angeles Press Club

   The fame from playing Jeannie, however, has served her well. In the years since, Eden has starred in numerous other TV shows, made for TV movies, feature films, on stage, in nightclubs, for charity’s  and before members of the U.S. Armed Forces all over the world.     "When you think of the early days of television, Barbara Eden's 'Jeannie' is one of the first characters that comes to mind," L.A. Press Club President Lisa Richwine said. "Eden brought joy to generations of TV viewers, making her a true Hollywood legend who is still making an impact today.”

   A shorter version of this profile was originally written for an awards program when Eden was honored as a “Legend” by the Los Angeles Press Club at the National Arts & Entertainment Awards in early December of 2023.

   She was born Barbara Jean Morehead on August 23, 1931 in Tucson, Arizona Her father was Hubert Henry Morehead.. Through here mother, Eden was a descendant of Benjamin Franklin. Her parents divorced when she was  young.

   Her mother moved her to San Francisco where she married telephone lineman Harrison Connor Huffman. Her family was greatly affected by the Great Depression of the 1930s, so there was little money to go around.

   Eden was a shy child and struggled with a lazy eye problem. Her mother, Alice Mary Franklin,  to make up for their poverty began singing to and with Eden as a child and remained a strong influence on her daughter until her passing in 1986.


   Eden’s love of show biz was nurtured by studying music. She first sang for her church choir and later for local bands. Eden had great talent as a singer but one of her teacher’s told her she needed to add an element of drama to improve her presentation. That led Eden to study accting "because you've been brought up to be a very nice girl from a very nice family. But you have to get through in order to act and really show what you are inside.’ I think her quote was, ‘an actor should be able to be naked in front of the audience.’ Then she said, ‘go compete in in the Miss San Francisco pageant. Just, just do it. Put a bathing suit on in front of all these people.’ And so that's what I did. I never intended to win. And I was thrilled that I did. It did help me with my acting, my life. It helped me a lot.”

   “What she meant really was, uh, psychologically, um, you have to open doors to understand other characters. If you're going to act them, that doesn't necessarily mean literally being naked <laugh>, you know.

   Eden’s acting teacher suggested she enter a beauty pageant to boost her confidence. To her surprise she became Miss San Francisco. She went on to the Miss California Pageant but did not win.

   Her acting teacher also suggested Eden more to New York or L.A. to pursue a career. She chose L.A. because it was closer to her family.

    Eden was spotted playing in a local theater and signed as a contract player by 20th Century Fox. She earned a reputation for working hard and knowing her lines.

   Eden was spotted playing in a local theater and signed as a contract player by 20th Century Fox. She earned a reputation for working hard and knowing her lines.

    Her first agent suggested she change her name. She agreed if she could keep Barbara as her first name. He came up with Eden as a last name.

   She began her television career in 1955 as a semiregular on a CBS summer show hosted by Johnny Carson, who shortly after would go on to star in his long running late night talk show on NBC, where Eden made regular appearances.

  At Fox, Eden had minor roles in a number of movies including “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter,” and “The Wayward Girl.” He had leading roles in movies including “A Private Affair,” and “Flaming Star” with Elvis Presley.

Barbara Eden appeard with Elvis Presley in the 1960 movie Flaming Star with Elvis Presley

   However, it was the magic of playing the Genie who floats out of a bottle in a puff of smoke that made her a household name in America.

   Eden credits a Los Angeles Herald columnist, for boosting her career and bringing her national fame.

   "You  couldn't show your belly button,” recalls Eden.

   Mike Connolly would come on the set and make fun of Eden’s lack of a belly button.. “He'd poke me in the middle and say ‘Nickel Peak.’ And he began writing about it, and then the, the stringers picked it up across the country and suddenly people knew who Barbara Eden was,” she recalls with a laugh. “So thank you L.A. Press.”


   She said her biggest challenge as Genie was working with co-star Larry Hagman. He constantly complained about show scripts and was disruptive, at times urinating and throwing up on the set, even refusing to talk to Eden, at times.

Babara Eden and Larry Hagman, Credit: Sony Pictures Studios

    Sheldon sent Hagman to see a therapist who in 60s style told Hagman to smoke pot and drink champagne at work to calm his nerves.

   “Larry was his own worst enemy,” said Eden, “but when the camera rolled, we just clicked. I loved working with him when the camera rolled. The rest of the time I just didn’t get involved with the mess going on.”

   After “Jeannie,” Eden appeared in movies, and on TV with Hagman, even when he was the star of “Dallas.”

   Eden even went on a tour with Hagman down under. “Larry was a character, you know, he just was a character,” she says. “He had a liver transplant, I guess, you know, that. And he wasn't supposed to drink. And I know in Australia, everyone knew that. And he'd sit there with a great big glass of wine. I think someone told him red wine was good for him, but it was a huge glass. And as I said, he, was his own worst enemy.”


   She did a pilot for a new series which never got to air, “The Barbara Eden Show,” and other pilots. Her first TV movie was “The Feminist and the Fuzz.” She starred in series based on the movie “How To Marry A Millionaire” (in the role Marilyn Monroe played on the big screen), and in the TV series “Harper Valley P.T.A.” among others.

   Over the years she worked on specials and series with a cavalcade of stars including Carol Burnett, Jonathan Winters, jerry Lewis, Tom Jones, Tony Orlando and the brother and sister team of Donny and Marie Osmond.

   She did a number of albums including “Miss Barbara Eden” for Dot Records in 1967.

  During her run on “Genie,” Eden was never allowed by network censors to show her belly button in her costume. As the show neared its end, Producer George Schlatter of the then hit show “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In” asked Eden to do a huge reveal for the season opener  showing her belly button.. However, the NBC censors refused to let her do that on the show. (In 1975, Cher became the first female star to show her belly button).

    Over the past 70 years, Eden has starred in more than 25 films, 19 TV movies, and as a singer and dancer in Las Vegas, and around the world. She toured the world with Bob Hope entertaining American troops.

Barbara Eden joinned Bob Hope on a tour of the Persian Gulf

   She reunited with Hagman in 2006 on stage in New York for “Love Letters,” which they also performed for the cadets at West Point.

   Eden prides herself on long lasting relationships. She’s  been with manager Gene Schwam 56 years. 

  “She has always carried her head above the crowd,” said Schwam, “and was never a diva. Through all of the success  she has enjoyed, she was always kind and thoughtful and to this day has a lot of people who worked for and with her for many years.”

  Along with her amazingly prolific show business career, Eden has faced devastating personal tragedies.

Eden's first husband, Michael Ansara in his signature role in Broken Arrow, which aired from 1979 to 1981 Credit: Turner Classic Movies

   She married actor Michael Ansar, in 1958 when he was starring on a series. They had one child, Matthew, born that first season of “Jeannie.”

    Matthew was the love of her life but he suffered from drug and alcohol problems. He dropped out of college and at times disappeared.

   Eden got pregnant again in 1971 at a time her career was soaring but Ansara’s career had slowed - making her the main money earner in the family. As a result she agreed to a ten week stage show tour during the first seven months of her pregnancy.

    “I did the ‘Sound of Music,’ pregnant, a tour of the ‘Sound of Music’, and people would come up to me afterwards. ‘Be careful. Be careful when you go down those stairs. It's not good. Oh my goodness, Maria pregnant.’”

    She was heartbroken when  in the seventh month she learned her baby was stillborn.

   Eden had an emotional breakdown and her marriage to Ansara soon collapsed. They divorced in 1974.

    Eden  married a second time to Chicago marketing executive, Charles Fegert, in 1977. “He was a good salesman,” she recalls. “But he really, really, once we were married, didn't like not being the star. He had been the genius, the youngest vice president they ever had. He didn’t like to come into a restaurant and have the head waiter say hello to me first. So that's after a while, that becomes wearing.”

    When he began taking other women to parties, she realized it wasn’t a good fit. They were divorced in 1982.

  Eden married again in 1991 to architect Jon Eicholtz, and has remained with him for 33 years.

   Eden’s son Matthew’s tried to follow his parents into acting. He had a small role with his mother in the movie, “Your Mother Wears Combat Boots,” in 1989, but his career never ced toave problems with both illegal and pre

Barbara Eden with her late son Matthew in happier times, in 1988.

.Matthew went into drug rehab a number of times. He got into body building but in 2001 relapsed,  took heroin again and died at age 35. Eden’s heart was broken once again.

    In 2013, Eden appeared at the opening ceremony of the 21st Life Ball, in Vienna, Austria, alongside former President Bill Clinton and Elton John. Notably, it was one of the rare times Eden wore her famous “Genie” harem costume – at the request of the organizers.

Eden recalled her career and life in the candid 2012 best-seller, "Jeannie Out of the Bottle: A Memoir," which covered not only her successes but also her personal life.

Eden says she learned how much her Genie had meant to people. "It's wonderful to kmow that you can give jooy and happiness, meybe an escape to people," she says. "And that bottle apparently was a huge help for so many people growing up. And even now, they go into the bottle to be happy. A lot of peple drink in the bottle and they are happy. But in this case, it's a good bottle."

     “And it's not about the adoration,” adds Eden. “Anybody would have appreciate for that, but really want to give from your heart to all these people who've been so touched by your work.”

    “I didn't realize until years after Jeannie how much it affected certain people,” she says. “Those who've been abused at home or wherever. I had a makeup artist in New York City one time… there for Nick at Night, I think, After we shot and everything, and I was getting ready to go home, the young guy who’d done my makeup said, ‘I wasn't going to tell you this, but I, I wat to thank you. I was going to commit suicide. But, you and your premise of the bottle, saved my life.’ Because he had been abused at home, had a rough time of it. I hear a lot of that. I think, ‘oh, well, Jeanie's not so bad, she's good. She helps people.’ That's good.”

   Eden’s latest way to help is by writing a children’s book called “Barbara and the Djinn,”  about a young girl's trip that transports her places her imagination could have only dreamed of, through her journey. She meets a charming and wizardly Genie who takes her on an adventure filled with excitement. and the young girl learns what is important is kindness, and understanding.

    “I have always liked to read,” says Eden. “That was my happy place. My mother and my aunt would read to me. And then when I learned how to read, they took me to the library and got me a library card. I would go and get five or six books, whatever we could have. And I'd read them all in a week and go back Saturday and get five or six more. It was the best thing. And I still love to read. I think it's the best gift they ever gave me. I felt sad that so many children don't read today… to read a book, to envision your own pictures up, not just a camera's pictures. Your own imagination is so important. I think that's why I wrote this book about a little girl who went on a trip through this book.”

   Eden wound down her singing and dancing performances in her 80s but still performs a stage show where she shows clips and takes questions from the audience.

   Early in 2023, Eden donated the original jar that Jeannie arrived in, and her costume, to the Smithsonian Institution. She and the series are now  enshrined into the annals of entertainment history.

    “So many people are stuck in jobs that they have to feed their family and they can't find another job,” said Eden. “And they're unhappy, but do it. I'm lucky. I found what I like to do, and I'm able to work in it.”

Alex Ben Block with Barbaara Eden at the Natiional Arts & Entertainment Jounalism Awards in Los Angeles on Dec. 3, 2023


At age 92, she continues a long career through professional challenges and personal tragedies


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