Actress Barbara Eden is most known for her 1965 breakthrough role as Jeannie in I Dream of Jeannie, but her life leading up to it was as winding as it was obscure. From tough times during the Great Depression to palling around with Elvis on the silver screen, Eden’s experience proves that becoming a star is never as simple as rubbing a magic lamp.
Not unlike many who were born before American record-keeping was standardized, Eden’s birth year is contested. Some sources cite it as 1931, while others say it’s 1934 or 1935. There’s no way to fully confirm, and Barbara herself has never set the record straight.
Eden was born and partially raised in the desert city of Tucson, Arizona. Before she could make many memories there, her parents got divorced, and her mother moved to San Francisco. This is where Eden’s adolescence would take shape.
Eden was active as a performer even before she was an actress. In her high school years, she was a cheerleader and sang songs any chance she could. More limelight was yet to come, but obviously on a much larger scale.
Upon arriving in San Francisco, Eden’s mother Alice married Harrison Connor Huffman, a telephone lineman, by whom she had a daughter, Eden’s half-sister. A lot was changing both personally and geographically for Barbara, but she seemed to take it in stride — at least for now.
Things were going great until The Great Depression hit. The economic collapse deeply affected the blue-collar family, but Alice had something in mind to keep things interesting for her children.
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Alice wasn’t a professional singer, but that definitely didn’t stop her from belting out songs at home. Naturally, it rubbed off on her children, especially Barbara, who would soon take her singing outside the home.
Before her big-time Hollywood breakthrough, the local church was Barbara’s first stage. She joined the church choir as a teenager, where she quickly worked her way up to performing solos. Little did she know this was only the beginning.
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After reaching the top of her church choir’s talent pool, Eden went on to sing in local bands. Not only did she exercise her vocals, but it also paid! She got roughly the equivalent of $130 a night — not bad for a teenager!
Barbara was super active and on the path to stardom. By the time she graduated in 1949, she had become a member of Actor’s Equity. At age 16, she studied singing at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and acting with the Elizabeth Holloway School of Theatre.
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Things only got better from there, and this time the recognition would span across the whole city. Just two years later in 1951, Barbara was crowned Miss San Francisco.
Even though she did everything she could to capitalize on her success, Barbara entered and lost the coveted Miss California competition that same year. It was a huge blow, but the world had something magical in store for the young Hollywood hopeful.
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Barbara knew she wanted a bigger stage, so she hustled for a spot on the Johnny Carson show. You could call it a foot in the door, but it was far from a guarantee.
Barbara began collecting gigs like Barbie dolls. She managed to land guest roles on The West Point Story, Highway Patrol, Private Secretary, I Love Lucy, The Millionaire, Father Knows Best, The Andy Griffith Show, and many more!
No one was doing it like Barbara, but she hadn’t quite broken into the A-list. That all changed in 1957, when she did a screen test for the role of Joanne Woodward in No Down Payment.
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Even though she didn’t get the role, 20th Century Fox offered her a contract! Barbara was officially an actress, and had a paycheck to prove it!
In one of her most high-profile roles, Barbara starred as the romantic opposite of none other than Elvis Presley! The film was called Flaming Star, and it wasn’t even her peak.
In 1965, producer Sidney Sheldon signed Eden to star in his upcoming fantasy sitcom I Dream of Jeannie that would air on NBC. Eden played a bombshell genie recently set free from a bottle.
Though “I Dream of Jeanie” was wildly successful, it actually has another magic-related show to thank for it. Just the year before in 1964, the show Bewitched was #2 in the ratings, so the producers thought of Jeannie to ride on its coattails!
On June 25, 2001, Barbara’s son Matthew died from a drug overdose in Monrovia, California. He was her only child. Barbara has since been involved in rehabilitation advocacy.
Baraba’s success didn’t stop at showbiz. On top of being a mainstay on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, she got an honorary law degree from UCLA in 1990. Not bad for a girl with a faulty birth certificate! Even in her 80s, she entertained fans with stories from the set of Jeannie.
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The show got off to an interesting start, as Barbara was pregnant when the script got picked up by NBC. Instead of replacing the actress, producers used drapery to cover up her iconic midriff baring outfit.
On the subject of Jeannie’s midriff, it was a point of much contention. Her belly button, in particular. Censors barred her belly button from the screen, even though she routinely wears a bra-like top and has a fully exposed midriff.
Before filming began, executives had concerns over I Dream of Jeannie being compared to ABC’s Bewitched. Both shows had magical blondes as leading ladies. Producers begged Eden to dye her hair brown to distance herself from ABC’s blonde witch, but she refused. Thus the rivalry began.
By the first episode, the NBC show was in an all-out war with Bewitched. Still, at one point, the shows unknowingly shared a writer. James S. Henerson was fired from Jeannie for writing for both shows at the same time.
Jeannie pulled in viewers with a the theme song so catchy that, chances are, you’ve probably been humming it since you opened this article. Surprisingly, there was no official theme song at all during the first season of the show.
Where did show producers find the ornate bottle from which Jeannie appears? Did they summon it from a cave of wonders a la Aladdin? Nope. The bottle is a Jim Beam bottle released in 1964. It was simply painted to look genie-like.
When she wasn’t granting wishes, Eden was taming beasts. One episode featured a live lion, and Eden explained her process: “You must let the lion smell you,” she stated. “Then, stroke him gently.” Her co-star Hagman was reported to have run off set upon hearing the lion roar.
Larry Hagman played Major Nelson for the entirety of the show, but it wasn’t easy on the rest of the cast and crew. Hagman struggled with alcohol and drug abuse during filming and is reported to have been drunk on set regularly, making him difficult to work with.
Unfortunately, even guest stars were subjected to the unprofessional behavior of Hagman. In one instance, his antics resulted in an argument with guest star Sammy Davis Jr. Hagman repeatedly insulted Davis Jr., almost causing the guest star to vacate the set.
Another familiar guest star made an appearance as Jeannie’s music producer for her magically created band. The role was played by none other than famed music executive Phil Spector. Of course, this was decades before he was convicted of murder.
I Dream of Jeannie ran for a full five seasons before it was cancelled. Eden believes the marriage of Jeannie and Major Nelson in the fifth season ruined the show. She thought it “broke credibility” with watchers.
Interest in Barbara Eden went far beyond the television screen. In fact, Eden says she was pursued by then-senator John F. Kennedy in 1957. He passed her his number on a piece of paper in a New York airport.
When the series was cancelled in 1970, Hagman got the news from an unlikely source. One day he arrived at the studio lot only to be informed by a security guard that his show had been cancelled in the blink of an eye.
Due to the timeline of the show, I Dream of Jeannie was the last NBC television show shot in black and white. Every series after would be full color, almost like magic.
Even though the show was cancelled, it wouldn’t be disappearing from televisions anytime soon. On the contrary, Jeannie enjoyed most of its popularity during the impressive syndication of the program. You can catch it on TV to this day.
Hagman would go on to star in the hit show Dallas. Eden guest starred in episodes opposite Hagman, but in a very different role. Writers made a sly reference to I Dream of Jeannie by giving Eden’s character the last name Nelson.
In 1969, Eden and the rest of the cast was invited to the launch of Apollo II right before the series ended. Their presence at such a landmark historical event helped cement the series in American history.
Eden’s role as Jeannie was reprised by none other than Paris Hilton in the early 2000’s series American Dreams. Hilton donned the pink get up to pay homage to Eden and her impact on the cultural landscape.
In 2013, at the age of 78, Eden proudly wore her Jeannie outfit at the Life Ball charity gala. This time she used her magic to bring out her new “master,” who happened to be former president Bill Clinton.
Despite the ups and downs experienced by the series, I Dream of Jeannie will always been remembered for the little bit of magic it brought and continues to bring into American homes — but it was nearly forgotten amidst an intense competition.
Elizabeth Montgomery played the leading role of Samantha in Bewitched, but she also played Samantha’s cousin, Serena, and was credited as the paranormal Pandora Spocks.
And speaking of Elizabeth, some elements of her personal life were incorporated into the show. While the actress was pregnant three times, two of them were written into the plot as the magical births of Tabitha and Adam.
During casting, producers wanted Darrin to be played by a young actor named Dick Sargent. He was unable to make a long term commitment, however, so the role fell to Richard Crenna. He also declined, leaving Dick York to become the male lead.
After five seasons on the show, however, York magically vanished from the scene. He was replaced by none other than Sargent; producers had gotten their dream Darrin after all. But what happened to York?
While filming They Came to Cordura, York suffered a terrible injury, tearing several muscles in the right side of his back. Doctors gave him pain medication, but the actor never truly recovered. Something on the Bewitched set, though, put him over the edge.
During the fifth season, York was filming despite a 105 degree fever. While sitting on the set, the flickering spotlight proved to be too much. York had a seizure and was rushed to the hospital; he resigned instantly, as if by magic.
Montgomery seemed like a wholesome housewife on the show, but that was just acting. Erin Murphy, who played Tabitha, revealed that Elizabeth actually had a “really dirty sense of humor.”
Bewitched was inspired by two films: Bell, Book, and Candle and I Married a Witch. Series creator Sol Saks actually modeled the show’s pilot after the plot of the movies!
Samantha famously wiggled her nose to activate her magic, but Erin Murphy claimed that Montgomery actually wiggled her upper lip. Director William Asher said it was a nervous twitch.
Samantha would also raise her arms as the magic took place around her. In reality, however, she had to stand completely still as crew members manipulated the set. Talk about a magical arm workout!
One of Bewitched’s iconic characters was Gladys, as played by Alice Pearce. Despite that status, she suffered in silence through filming before vanishing completely from the show. What was going on behind the scenes?
A few months before filming began, Pearce was diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer. Despite her obvious weight loss, Alice never told the cast what she was going through. After she suddenly passed, however, she was honored in a special way.
Two months after her death, Alice was posthumously awarded an Emmy for Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Comedy. It was a fitting tribute to one of the women who helped us fall in love with Bewitched.
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Hollywood isn’t all that glamorous, especially for supporting actors. During filming, they would have to bring their own clothing from home to wear on set! Some wardrobe pieces, though, were a bit more special.
Agnes Moorehead wore a special brooch when playing Endora, Samantha’s mother. She knew Elizabeth Montgomery was struck by the pin’s beauty so, when she died, she bequeathed it to her on-screen daughter.
While Darrin and Endora couldn’t stand each other, Dick York and Agnes Moorehead actually struck up a strong friendship. That caused tension with some other actors, though.
Understandably, Moorehead didn’t like it when York was replaced by Dick Sargent. In fact, a handful of episodes were even filmed without the new leading man appearing at all!
Aunt Clara had an unusual hobby: collecting doorknobs. That quirk was inspired by real life, though, Actress Marian Lorne actually collected doorknobs herself and used her own favorites as props on the show.
When Larry and Louise Tate had a baby, actor David White requested that his on-screen son be named Jonathan. He did it in memory of his own son, who died on Pan Am Flight 103.
The episode “Sisters at Heart” was written by 22 African-American students at Jefferson High School in South Central Los Angeles. While the plot had a strong anti-racism element, one aspect of it didn’t age too well…
The episode featured a spell that made one of Darrin’s racist clients see everyone with black skin. Unfortunately, that effect was achieved using black face. Good Concept. Terrible execution.
Towards the end of her time on Bewitched, Montgomery stopped wearing a bra while filming! She did it in support of the women’s liberation movement, but it still caused a bit of a stir.
Did you know the Bewitched theme song actually had lyrics? The words are from a man’s perspective about how he’s under the spell of a beautiful woman. Maybe that’s what Darrin was thinking behind the scenes?
Bars and alcohol featured prominently in many Bewitched episodes, so much so that the cast got drunk on set. Everyone from the actors through producer William Asher was known to knock back a few beverages during the long day of filming.
In a supernatural twist, Bewitched was linked to some dark days in history. The first day of rehearsals was the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated and news of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination interrupted another episode. But there’s another eerie coincidence affecting the cast…
Many stars of Bewitched either died early or of cancer, including Elizabeth Montgomery, Alice Pearce, Paul Lynde, Dick Young, and Dick Sargent. Perhaps there was something more supernatural going on than we thought.
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For all it’s magic, the Bewitched neighborhood was actually used in multiple Hollywood projects. Gladys’ house next door, for example, was home to the Partridge Family. The house must have been magic because the cast of that show went on to do big things.