Jeannie Out of the Bottle
How Barbara Eden catapulted herself into living rooms nationwide in the blink of two eyes
In the fall of 1964, a 30-year-old Barbara Eden was about to debut as the lead in an edgy new show, I Dream of Jeannie. Scandalized by the show’s cavalier treatment of matters sartorial and conjugal, NBC’s Broadcast Standards department decreed that Eden’s flimsy pink harem pants must be lined with silk to conceal her legs; that the smoke representing Jeannie could not linger long in the bedroom of Captain (later Major) Anthony Nelson (Larry Hagman); and that her costume had to conceal her belly button — which it did for all 139 episodes, which ran from 1965 to 1969.
Although Eden depicts these constraints as puritanical in her new memoir, Jeannie Out of the Bottle, you have to wonder if the TV headliner might not have benefited from even more cloaking at the time. Colorfully (to the point of exhaustively) recalling those days, Eden writes that “Hollywood’s most high-testosterone players” could keep neither their eyes nor their hands off her: Filming a cameo on I Love Lucy, for example, she routinely had to flee from Desi Arnaz — and his “taste for young, curvaceous blondes.”
She tore up JFK’s phone number when she found it planted in her pocket via Pierre Salinger.
And she was obliged to dodge, often literally, the advances of Warren Beatty, Tom Jones (“Can I show you London, Barbara?”), Walter Pidgeon, and O. J. Simpson (the latter “all over me like a bad case of measles”), to say nothing of Harry Belafonte, Tony Randall, Red Buttons, Sammy Davis Jr., Tony Curtis (“playing Ping-Pong wasn’t the primary motive for his visit”), and Burl Ives. (Ives was in his mid-60s when he played a djinn in the 1964 film Brass Bottle, giving producer Sidney Sheldon the idea for a certain genie-fueled sitcom.) As this Roster of Suitors Rebuffed grew longer with every chapter, I couldn’t resist scribbling an exasperated marginalium: “Would all those who have not hit on Barbara Eden kindly take their seats in this SmartCar?”
Thankfully, Eden switches gears — and drops more than a veil or two — to disclose co-star Larry Hagman’s outrage at playing second banana to her almost universally beloved character (when Screen Gems showed the Jeannie pilot to test audiences, “word came back that I had tested higher for approval than anyone else had ever tested”). Intent on eclipsing the star of his mother, musical comedy legend Mary Martin, Hagman vented his spleen — as well as his tear ducts, his saliva glands, and certain other reservoirs — at what he considered to be Sheldon’s featherweight scripts.
During the show’s first season, the “high-octane quality of his explosive on-set shenanigans” escalated to the point where Hagman forced Jeannie’s original director, Gene Nelson, out the door after only eight episodes. Producer Sheldon then staged an on-set intervention, demanding that Hagman see a shrink. “However,” Eden notes, “in keeping with the anything-goes ethos of the early sixties, the therapist ostensibly advised Larry to smoke pot and drink champagne on the set, to help himself relax.”
Just when Jeannie Out of the Bottle threatens to become a mere litany of coddled-star antics, Eden bares her guilt over two wrenching personal tragedies: the still-birth of her second son in 1971, which she attributes to her unnecessarily brutal performing schedule, and her older son’s drug abuse, which started in the wake of her first divorce and culminated in his accidental death from a heroin overdose at age 35 in 2001.
If you’ve always wondered about the reality behind this particular bit of TV magic, Eden uncorked will grant your wish.
Allan Fallow is the book editor of AARP The Magazine.