With a vibrant spark that’s undimmed since her I Dream of Jeannie days in the late 1960s, it’s hard to believe legendary Barbara Eden celebrated her 90th birthday on August 23. “I think the secret to feeling great is to keep active, do things that you love and have a good sense of humor,” the legendary actress exclusively reveals to Closer.
Before Barbara — who still acts often in theater and also recently released her first children’s book, Barbara and the Djinn — became a star, she studied voice at the Conservatory of Music in San Francisco. “My mother said, ‘Barbara, you don’t sound like you mean a word you’re singing. I think you should study acting, too,'” she recalls in Closer‘s latest issue, on newsstands now. That led to theater classes and, eventually, a move to L.A. “I was lucky because I didn’t know what I was doing!” Barbara says. But it wasn’t all luck.
Blessed with the looks of a leading lady, young Barbara booked guest appearances on everything from I Love Lucy to Route 66, as well as film roles opposite Paul Newman and Elvis Presley. “My agent would call and say, ‘Barbara, wear the dress!’ It was modest by today’s standards, but still a sexy dress,” says the performer, who began gravitating to more character roles that made use of her excellent comic timing.
But the blond, 5-foot-4 actress was not what the creators of I Dream of Jeannie had in mind for their 2,000-year-old Persian-speaking character. “They were testing all these tall brunette beauty contest winners — Miss Greece, Miss Italy,” recalls Barbara, who was surprised to receive an invitation to meet series creator Sidney Sheldon over tea. “I had worked with [Jeannie’s] writers on a previous show — How to Marry a Millionaire,” she says. “That’s how I got the job.”
Getting hired proved to be just half the battle. “I found out I was pregnant the day the show was sold,” recalls Barbara, who married actor Michael Ansara, best remembered as Cochise on TV’s Broken Arrow, in 1958. She told Sidney immediately, expecting to be fired. “His face fell. He was very upset. But God bless him. He worked it out,” says Barbara, who credits Bewitched star Elizabeth Montgomery for changing the way pregnant women were treated in TV. “She had two babies [during the show],” the Harper Valley PTA alum praises. “She paved the way.”
Meanwhile, Larry, who played Jeannie’s befuddled Master astronaut Tony Nelson, “was troubled” by issues with alcohol. Still, Barbara loved him. “He was a very kind man when he was feeling well, and we always just clicked,” she says. Their characters’ romantic chemistry even set off alarms in the network’s Standards and Practices Department. “It got ridiculous. Not only was Jeannie not allowed in Tony’s bedroom — neither was her smoke!” jokes Barbara with a laugh.
I Dream of Jeannie was in primetime for five years, from 1965 to 1970, and then ran in syndication for decades. But unlike a lot of stars who became famous for one ubiquitous role, Barbara never resented Jeannie. “I never thought about being typecast because I was always working,” says the Golden Globe nominee.
Yet, her life hasn’t been all roses. In 2001, her son, Matthew Ansara, died of an accidental heroin overdose at age 35. “He was such a beautiful young man,” the mom of one emotionally states. “The only way I can honor him is to talk about him and not pretend like he never was.” To that end, Barbara has spoken about drug abuse to parents’ groups and advocates early intervention. “I think if we knew about it sooner, we could have dealt with it better,” she admits.
Barbara’s love life hasn’t been all smooth sailing, either. During her days as a starlet, she turned down romantic overtures from Elvis and John F. Kennedy, who had one of his minions slip his phone number in her pocket. “I binned the piece of paper, but I wish I still had it,” the actress wrote in her 2011 memoir, Jeannie Out of the Bottle.
After two divorces, she didn’t expect to find lasting love in her 50s with Jon Eicholtz, an architect and philanthropist. “I think you have to like each other a lot,” Barbara says of creating a happy union. “You don’t necessarily have to like the same things. I don’t like to watch a baseball, but I do because I love him. And he supports my working.”
Now she’s hoping to inspire a new crop of kids with her first children’s book, Barbara and the Djinn. “I have always been a reader,” Barbara proclaims. “I love that L. Frank Baum’s Oz books and The Secret Garden took me to places I never would have gone. It’s something I cherish.” And just as she did on I Dream of Jeannie, Barbara hopes that a new generation will be inspired by her story of kindness, hope and magic.