Iconic ’60s star Barbara Eden blinks her way into pop culture expo
When Barbara Eden signed a contract with Sidney Sheldon in 1965 to star in a little sitcom called I Dream of Jeannie, she was only 34 years old, but had already been a member of Actors Equity for more than half her life. I Dream of Jeannie, which also starred Fort Worth native Larry Hagman, ran for five years (139 episodes) — just a tiny percentage of all her work in show biz. In the years since, Eden has continued to appear in dozens and dozens of productions, on the small screen, the big screen and onstage.
Still, despite all her other work, Eden will always be the “Jeannie” in the bottle. And that’s OK with her.
“I like her,” Eden says about her iconic role. “She’s easy to live with. What’s important is what people like, and people like Jeannie. I have no regrets about that.”
Jeannie helped reinvent her from journeyman career actress to TV legend.
“When I was doing all those movies at MGM [before the sitcom], I was always ‘the abandoned wife,’ ‘the woman who’s rescued.’ I was working with all these famous co-stars — wonderful actors — but no one knew who I was. Jeannie gave me a face. It wasn’t until Jeannie came along that people began to know who I was.”
In the 45 years since the show went off the air, Eden — now 83 — has embraced the chance to meet fans of the show. She tours with her one-woman show called On The Magic Carpet with Barbara Eden, and she travels the world to appear at conventions and fan events, like Fan Expo Dallas, which takes place this weekend at the Dallas Convention Center.
“I do quite of few of the conventions and expos, here [in the U.S.] and internationally,” Eden says. “Wherever Jeannie is, that’s where I go!”
She’s especially fond of her gay fans. “I think it’s wonderful, just wonderful,” Eden says of the suggestion that Jeannie was a symbol of self-confidence, independence and courage for the LGBT community, who often wished they could also dispose of bullies with a blink of the eye and a nod of the head. “I remember as a child myself, I lived in an imaginary world. I had my friends who lived under the bed — Good Johnny and Bad Johnny and a girl. What did I call the girl? I can’t remember, except that it was an odd name, and Mama used to laugh and ask me how in the world I came up with that name. Even when I was older, it was nice to have that safe place still in your head and your heart, someplace to go to get away from it all and just be safe.”
“Yes, Jeannie lived in a bottle. But it was her bottle, you know!” she laughs. “She had a lot of control, even if she didn’t know she had the control. It was a lot of fun.”
The one-woman show, the expos, charity work — including the 2013 Life Ball, Europe’s largest AIDS fundraiser, and work she does for drug rehab centers in memory of her only son who died of a drug overdose in 2001 — all put Eden in the spotlight in a way that can be tiring. But it is her 2011 memoir, Jeannie Out of the Bottle, that was perhaps most trying.
“The book covers everything, you name it, soup to nuts,” she says. “There was this lovely lady who helped me write it [who] got me to say things I wouldn’t normally say, which is, I guess, what the readers want. It was a difficult process, but she did a wonderful job on me. For years, I had refused to do a book. Finally, though, someone said, ‘Barbara, do it now, or you won’t be around to do it. And you don’t want someone else to do it when you don’t have any input.”
She pauses. “I look at it now, and it’s a life. My life,” Eden says. “It’s not always fun to get into that secret place and expose it to the world. But I was glad I did it. Was it cathartic? No, it wasn’t. But I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t think it ought to have been done.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 29, 2015.