Many baby boomers equate Barbara Eden with I Dream of Jeannie. While she never escaped her iconic role as Jeannie, she has had a long and full career.
Barbara Jean Morehead was born in Tucson, Arizona in August of 1931. Her parents divorced when she was three, and she then took her stepfather’s last name of Huff. Moving to California, she went to high school in San Francisco and then studied at the San Francisco City College, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Elizabeth Holloway School of Theatre. In 1951, she was crowned Miss San Francisco.
She began working in television in 1956, and her career has been going strong ever since. In 1958, she married actor Michael Ansara. They had a son in 1965 who passed away from a drug overdose. Eden said of his struggle, “He won a lot of battles, but he lost his personal war.” She and Ansara divorced in 1974. From 1977-1983 she was married to Charles Donald Fegert. In 1991, she married her current husband, Jon Eicholtz, and they live in Beverly Hills.
In addition to her screen and television career, she performed in Lake Tahoe, Las Vegas, and Atlantic City. She had an album produced in 1967 and performed on many variety shows. She traveled with Bob Hope and starred in many musicals and plays.
She received a Walk of Fame star in 1998.
In 2011, she wrote her autobiography, Jeanne Out of the Bottle.
She has used her celebrity status to help many nonprofits, raising money for The Trail of the Painted Ponies Breast Cancer Research, the American Cancer Society, the Wellness Community, Make-A-Wish Foundation, the March of Dimes, the American Heart Association, Save the Children, and Childhelp, USA.
Her television career can be divided into three phases, each including a major series.
She began her acting career making appearances in many shows from 1956-1958 including West Point, Highway Patrol, I Love Lucy, The Millionaire, Crossroads, Perry Mason, Gunsmoke, Bachelor Father, December Bride, Father Knows Best, and The Lineup.
In 1957, she received her first starring role in a sitcom, 52 episodes of How to Marry a Millionaire. Based on a movie (starring Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, and Betty Grable), she starred as Loco Jones, a model. Her friends were Michele Page (Merry Anders), a secretary, and Greta Lindquist (Lori Nelson), a quiz host. The three women lived together in Manhattan, all sharing the goal of finding a wealthy husband.
In the 1960s, she made appearances in many more well-known shows including Adventures in Paradise, The Andy Griffith Show, Target: The Corruptors, Cain’s Hundred, Saints and Sinners, Dr. Kildare, Route 66, The Virginian, Rawhide, Burke’s Law, Slattery’s People, The Rogues, and Off to See the Wizard.
In 1965, she took on her role of Jeannie in I Dream of Jeannie. The show lasted five years, filming 139 episodes. Captain Tony Nelson (Larry Hagman) finds a bottle when he crash lands on a deserted island in the South Pacific. When he opens it, Jeannie emerges. He brings her home and tries to keep her a secret from NASA. His best friend Roger (Bill Daily) finds out, and he and Tony perform a lot of stunts to avoid anyone else figuring it out. In the final year of the show, Jeannie and Tony get married, exposing her to the rest of the crew at NASA who know something is different but never figure out what it is. Personally, I like the Jeannie in the first year who is mischievous and intelligent. While the show was only on for five years, certainly not one of the longest-running shows, it defined Eden because since it debuted, it has been on television continually in reruns.
After I Dream of Jeannie, her television career continued as she appeared on NBC Special Treat, Condominium, A Brand New Life, Dallas, Team Supremo, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, George Lopez, and Army Wives.
Based on the song by Jeannie C. Riley and a movie also starring Eden, she took on the role of Stella Johnson in Harper Valley PTA from 1981-82 with costar Fannie Flagg. The show lasted for 30 episodes. Stella is a widow who moves to Harper Valley with her 13-year-old daughter which is a town filled with hypocrites. The other women severely criticize her for wearing miniskirts, and not acting like they thought a mother should. Meanwhile, the board members were always trying to find ways to discredit her. Fannie Flagg was the beauty shop owner Cassie Bowman. The show never really caught on with the public. Maybe Stella was too drastic of a role change from Jeannie.
Along with her range of television acting jobs, Eden also was in 26 movies, including Flaming Star in 1960 with Elvis Presley, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea in 1961, The Brass Bottle in 1964 which led to the idea for the sitcom I Dream of Jeannie, and Harper Valley PTA in 1978 which led to her third series.
In The Brass Bottle, Tony Randall plays Harold Ventimore, an architect who buys an antique urn that houses a djinn played by Burl Ives. Grateful for being released, the djinn tries to help Harold to show his gratitude. However, being unfamiliar with contemporary times, he causes a lot of trouble for Harold, especially with his girlfriend Sylvia, played by Eden.
She also starred in 28 made-for-tv movies. My favorite was The Feminist and the Fuzz which you never see aired on television anymore.
The Feminist and the Fuzz aired in 1971. I remember watching this movie when it originally aired. The story was about a scientist played by Eden and a cop played by David Hartman. They both end up at an apartment at the same time and have lost so many apartments that they decide to share it until one of them can find somewhere else to live. She is a feminist, and he dates a playboy bunny played by Farrah Fawcett. One night, the women’s libbers raid the bunny club, and while most of them are being arrested, Hartman carries Eden to a waiting police car and tells him to get her home. Fawcett, watching this, realizes they have feelings for each other, even though they don’t acknowledge it themselves yet. The movie had a great cast with Joann Worley, Herb Edelman, Julie Newmar, John McGiver, and Harry Morgan.
If her television show jobs and movie roles were not enough, Barbara appeared as herself on 177 different television variety and game shows from 1961-2016.
At 85, Eden continues her career with credit in Shimmer and Shine in 2016. She has also been to the Mayberry Conventions to meet her fans. She continued her friendship with Larry Hagman up to his death.
One might assume that Eden would want to distance herself from Jeannie and rely on her other body of work, but that is not the case. Some actors develop a dislike for the character they are unable to shake off, but Eden’s advice to actors is: “I would embrace the character, because it won’t do any good if you don’t. And another thing: Don’t whine or talk trash about it. I don’t think you ever demean to your public what you’ve done. You’re insulting them if you demean your work.”
While Jeannie certainly provided Barbara Eden with a lot of fame, future work opportunities, and money (although probably not so much from the tv show directly), taking a survey of her career proves just how versatile of an actress she was. No one-hit wonder here. She accumulated a wealth of roles both on television and in the movies. She traveled around the country appearing in musicals and plays. She sang and danced, performing at some of the top clubs in the country. She appreciated her fans and never demeaned Jeannie in their eyes. She used her celebrity to raise money for great causes. She had a full career any actress could be proud of.