With a head bob, an exposed belly button, and a beautiful smile, I Dream of Jeannie star Barbara Eden entrenched herself in American pop culture more than a half-century ago.
And all these years later, her name still is synonymous with a 2,000-year-old genie who fell in love with an astronaut, Air Force Captain Tony Nelson, who later became J.R. Ewing, the most devious man on TV. But we’ll get to all that. It’s the stuff of classic TV legends.
The now 90-year-old Eden talked with ET Canada last year about her iconic role in I Dream of Jeannie, a quirky comedy that ran from 1965-70. She’d already built quite a career when Sidney Sheldon cast her. But it took Jeannie for anyone to really notice her outside someone else.
“I had done a lot of work before I did Jeannie, many films and major studios,” Eden said. “But I was always sung to, rescued or kissed. Getting the opportunity to do Jeannie really defined me for the public. They really knew for being with Elvis Presley or Pat Boone or Ton Randall, Paul Newman, ‘oh she was with so-and so.’ Now, they knew me for being myself, and I liked that.”
Eden was in her mid-30s when she was cast in I Dream of Jeannie. Sheldon had been a prolific writer on Broadway. He even won an Oscar for writing. But by the early 1960s, he turned his attention to TV, which still basically was the wild frontier of entertainment. He first created The Patty Duke Show. Then, after the popularity of Bewitched (which was about a witch), Sheldon wrote a comedy about a genie falling in love with a handsome astronaut. Sheldon later created the popular Hart to Hart, the drama featuring a jet-setting, crime-solving couple. In the final phase of his career, Sheldon was a best-selling author of books in the suspenseful romance category.
Let’s circle back to I Dream of Jeannie. The pilot episode was “The Lady in the Bottle,” which first ran Sept. 18, 1965. Tony Nelson, played by a young Larry Hagman, landed far off course after completing a space flight. His capsule came down near a deserted island. Nelson found a mysterious, ornate bottle. When he opened it, a puff of smoke morphed into a beautiful blonde Jeannie. She’d been trapped in the bottle for 2,000 years. But she fell in love with Tony at first sight. After Nelson found his way off the island, Jeannie rolled her bottle into his bag. So she came back home with him.
In I Dream of Jeannie, Eden always wore the same genie costume. She said her belly button became famous, especially after a journalist from the Hollywood Reporter speculated if she really had one.
“Oh, my belly button I was very proud of it,” Eden said. “It was a fine thing. … I have a head, I had a belly button. It was great, it was fun.”
Eden and Hagman worked together again on Dallas, one of the top shows in all of classic TV. Larry Hagman was powerful oilman J.R. Ewing. Eden played a recurring character named Lee Ann De La Vega. The two dated when they were at the University of Texas. But spoiler alert, they didn’t much like each other as adults. It was no I Dream of Jeannie situation.