A 92nd birthday deserves more than one day of celebration — and that’s exactly what Barbara Eden got in August! The veteran actress, best known for her role in I Dream of Jeannie, enjoyed a dinner date with friends, a family barbecue and a chat with fans to mark her latest milestone.
“There were wonderful, beautiful birthday greetings from all over the world,” Barbara says of her online well-wishers. “It was fun!” The still-vivacious actress, who began her TV career with a role on Johnny Carson’s pre-Tonight Show series in 1956, feels blessed by her six decades in show business and her happy private life.
“It’s always an adventure,” she tells Closer of her long and varied career. Married to Jon Eicholtz since 1991, Barbara’s home life is her oasis of calm. “I’ve lived 40 years in the same house,” she says. “So my life is very centered around my family, my house, my husband, my dog Bentley and my friends.”
Born in Tucson, Arizona, but raised in San Francisco, Barbara grew up singing in her church choir. After high school she studied drama at the Elizabeth Holloway School of Theatre, where she was encouraged to go professional.
“Miss Holloway said, ‘Barbara, you have to get out of the nest. Leave home. Go to New York or L.A.,’” she recalls. “I am such a chicken, so I came to L.A., where I had an aunt and uncle.”
It was a fine choice. A former Miss San Francisco, Barbara racked up guest appearances on TV series including I Love Lucy, Perry Mason, Father Knows Best and Gunsmoke, among others.
“On The Andy Griffith Show, I played a manicurist,” Barbara recalls. “Men, in particular, like that one, which is surprising.”
For all of her successes, there were setbacks, too. Signed to 20th Century Fox, Barbara played many forgettable small roles in films. In 1957, she starred in the syndicated comedy How to Marry a Millionaire, but it lasted only two seasons.
“I have no regrets about anything in the past,” says Barbara today. “I learned things from the mistakes I’ve made, but I don’t really dwell on them or even remember them.”
She landed the role of a sweetly sexy 2,000-year-old genie on I Dream of Jeannie in 1965 — but it almost didn’t happen. “I found out I was pregnant the day the show was sold,” recalls Barbara, who found herself in the difficult position of having to break the news of her impending motherhood to series creator Sidney Sheldon. “I said, ‘I can’t do your show. I’m so sorry,’” says Barbara, who expected to be fired. “His face fell. He was choking. He was very upset.”
But instead of replacing Barbara, I Dream of Jeannie began filming the first season early and later hid Barbara’s blossoming pregnancy behind yards of chiffon scarves. (Barbara credits Bewitched’s Elizabeth Montgomery, who had two babies during the run of her show, for blazing a trail to a fairer workplace for actresses.) Happily, her five years on I Dream of Jeannie created beautiful memories, largely due to her warm working relationship with Larry Hagman, who played astronaut Tony Nelson.
“When the camera was rolling, he and I were in our own world. It was the most wonderful acting experience I’ve ever had because he was so good,” she says, with obvious affection. “Then, when the camera wasn’t rolling, he was quite a character! One day, he surprised us by wearing a train engineer’s costume with the hat. He had a wonderful sense of humor — he was always doing something crazy.”
Barbara’s upbeat, positive outlook has always served her well — even in the worst workplace situations. “I’ve worked with co-stars who have had issues with the director or production company. It can be uncomfortable, but you learn to keep your nose to the grindstone and ignore what’s going on around you and concentrate on your job,” says Barbara, who believes that if you look hard enough there is always a way to find common ground. “It’s very important to recognize the truth in other people,” she says. “Everyone has an energy that you can both use and like. You’ll find out that you like a lot more people than you thought you did!”
In her post-Jeannie career, Barbara starred as a feisty single mom on Harper Valley PTA and reunited with Larry Hagman on a five-episode arc on Dallas. She created a nightclub act and performed on classic variety series from The Carol Burnett Show to Donny & Marie. She also crossed the country many times doing musical theater.Of her many accomplishments, Barbara looks back on her 21 USO tours with Bob Hope with the most pride. In 1968, she even appeared with Bob and Bing Crosby at a USO benefit that opened NYC’s then-new Madison Square Garden.
“Bing and Bob played pugilists, and I was the nurse with the big red cross on my gown,” she recalls, adding that the veteran comedians’ interaction was “lovely” to witness up close. “Bob was having vision problems, so Bing would whisper in his ear what was written on the cue cards. They worked so well together, it was amazing.” While Barbara likes looking back, she lives for today. “I enjoy people and I still love to work,” says the star, who will be meeting fans at Comic Con in Providence, Rhode Island, on November 4 and 5. “I am so lucky to continue doing it.”