Manfred Werner (Tsui), CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
In a world that no longer has Mary Tyler Moore, Betty White, and Andy Griffith, Barbara Eden still stands tall. The 91-year-old Hollywood legend—the star of “I Dream of Jeannie” from 1965 to its conclusion in 1970—has been onstage as recently as 2019, and has spent much of the last decade meeting and connecting with fans at conventions. She’s skipping MegaCon Orlando this weekend, but a 45-minute panel isn’t nearly enough to even scratch the surface of the stories Jeannie could tell.
Having started in Hollywood when Eisenhower was president, it goes without saying that Eden has interacted with countless celebrities all across the spectrum. She worked with Paul Newman, was a regular on Johnny Carson’s pre-late night stint in the mid-‘50s, and was even asked by Elvis Presley for marriage advice when he had a crush on Priscilla Presley. “He didn't tell me her name, but he did say that she's awful young. He didn’t tell me how young at the time,” Eden told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay during a recent phone call from California.
She finally got around to seeing the Oscar-nominated biopic on the King of Rock when voting season came around for the Academy—which she has been a part of for over 40 years—but she can’t say for sure how accurate it was. “I didn't know his personal life. Only what he told me,” she explained. “I think they did a wonderful job of it, and I think Priscilla helped them with it.”
As for Ms. Eden’s home life, she admits that cooking is not her strong suit by any means, and that her husband Jon Eicholtz takes care of that part. However, she does enjoy baking and pastries, and makes a ripping key lime pie cheesecake.
She probably won’t share any baking secrets or recipes at her Ruth Eckerd Hall talk—part of its Adults at Leisure series—come Sunday afternoon, but the stories to be told about working on “I Dream of Jeannie,” and all the names she has met—from Marilyn Monroe to Ringo Starr—will make you walk away thinking about the wonders of humility.
Read our full Q&A with Barbara Eden below.
Thanks for talking to me, Ms. Eden. Are you out in California?
Yes, I am.
Did it actually snow there this month?
Oh yeah, but we only had sleet in L.A. The hills were very white, which we never see on the mountains in the distance.
Yeah, it was interesting. We've had more rain than I think we've had in 100 years. It rained again today, and I think it's getting ready to rain again.
Wow. See, it’s actually been pretty cold in Florida the last couple of days, so we’ve had it weird, too.
What is cold for you?
I think the lowest it’s been was 55 degrees.
Oh, boy, that’s chilly. We get that at night.
Let’s jump in here. Your friend Rita McKenzie is going to be moderating your talk at Ruth Eckerd Hall. What makes her the perfect person for that job?
Because she's my dear friend. *laughs* One of my dearest friends. And we have worked together. We toured with “The Odd Couple,” we did “How to Marry A Millionaire” together. She’s just a good friend, and a talented one.
You obviously have a lot of stories to tell about other celebs that you've met, including "Elvis," of course. And I actually wanted to ask you about the Baz Luhrmann biopic. In August, you said that you hadn't gotten around to seeing it yet. If I'm not mistaken, you're still a member of the Academy.
Cool, so when voting season came around, did you end up finally watching the film?
I did, I did. And [Austin Butler] was wonderful.
Absolutely. And as someone who knew Elvis up close, how accurate would you say the film depicted his life?
As far as I know, I didn't know his personal life. Only what he told me. I think they did a wonderful job of it, and I think Priscilla helped them with it. I didn't know her at that time. I do know her now, but Elvis told me…I may have already told you this, but when we were filming, we talked a lot. And he was very serious about his work. He wanted to be an actor, and he was! He was a natural. Really good and hardworking, just a great guy. He asked me about my marriage at that time. I was married to Michael Ansara…you know, Cochise from “Broken Arrow.” We had a very good marriage, and Elvis said “how do you do it in this industry?” He said, “Isn't it difficult?” He told me, “I met a girl I really like a lot, but I'm afraid to bring her to this town.” *laughs*
He didn't tell me her name, but he did say that she's awful young. He didn’t tell me how young at the time. And I just told him that with Mike and I, it was our job. This was what we did for a living, and we happened to like it, so I don't think there'd be a problem with it if you just treated it normally. Of course, Elvis had a very high profile and fans who were quite physical. So, he had more problems with that, but I didn't know what to say to him. Except that you treat it as a job, and you do it.
You were also a regular on “The Johnny Carson Show,” before he was Mr. Late Night. Back then, did you have the lingering feeling that he would make it as big as he did?
I didn't have a clue. I wasn't even thinking about that, to tell you the truth. This was one of my first jobs in Hollywood, and I was so happy to have it and be working! I had my nose to the grindstone to make sure that I did everything right. Johnny was fun to work with. His show was a replacement for Red Skelton, but he was well known in L.A. I think he had a show called "Carson's Corner” or something. I had never seen it. My aunt and uncle were living in L.A. and I would visit them, but I didn't watch television.
Fair. So, I don't know how often you're asked this question, but I couldn't find a solid answer anywhere. With all of the encounters you've had over the years, was there anyone that you really wanted to work with or meet, but you just never got a chance to?
Oh, God. Huge list! *laughs* All the fine actors that are out there, I would love to have worked with, but no single person. I was lucky enough to to work with Paul Newman. It was a short little scene in “From the Terrace.” I had been doing a play, and this is when I was starting out, before I was with Fox. I was doing a play at the Laguna Playhouse, and I got very good reviews. And Mark Robson, who was the casting director at Fox saw it. So they called me in for an interview with Mark, but they also tested me for a contract. I did not get that part with Mark Robson, because they had a contract player who they put in that part. They put Terry Moore in that part.
Yeah, well, they had they had a contract with her. But two years later, I was under contract to Fox, and Mark was doing “From the Terrace,” and he asked me to “please do this scene.” I read the script and at that time, I had been working a lot, and had pretty good courage. And he said “Barbara, you won’t be sorry if you do this, because it's a very small part.” And I wasn't sorry. It was a good part, and I loved working with Paul. He was just as good as Elvis. *laughs* I mean, the two of them are on par.
Of course. Stepping away from celebrity stories, because there are so many other aspects to your career. You were on an episode of Worst Cooks in America in 2016.
Ha! Oh, my God…
So, seven years and one pandemic lockdown later, did you spend any time in lockdown working on your culinary skills?
No! *laughs* No, I haven't. I'm still a bad cook. My husband cooks.
I bake, though. I make cakes and things.
Nice! Do you have a favorite pastry to make?
My favorite thing? Well, I've got two things. My problem is, once I start making something, I'll do it more than once. And my friends and neighbors finally say “Barbara, stop before you gain ten pounds.” One is a key lime pie, but it’s really a creamy cheesecake. It’s so yummy.
That sounds great. I actually used to be a pastry cook, so that really hits home for me.
Oh, then you're really top line!
I do everything that’s not too difficult. The other thing I did the other day that we just loved was a recipe that my aunt gave me a few years ago. And it's pineapple upside down cake, but you bake it in a skillet.
A cast-iron skillet, right?
It’s funny, we just had my dad’s birthday here, and I’m making that exact cake for him this weekend.
Oh my God, what a coincidence! I hadn’t done it in years. My God, it’s good. And easy!
Haha, you’re so right. Wow, really cool little connection there!
Let's talk the “I Dream of Jeannie” years a little bit. We all know the story of how you ended up not being able to show your belly button after awhile. Censorship and all that. Looking back, what would you say the hardest part about being a female actress on the tail end of the Golden Age of Hollywood was?
Well, I didn't find it difficult. I was working very hard. I was doing movies for television, a lot of them. Of course, Fox Studios closed down, and so did MGM. Those were the two studios that I worked at mostly. I saw that question in your email here, and I was thinking about it. I didn't have time to be difficult. *laughs* During that time, I also started headlining in Vegas, singing. I got back into singing, but that was in between seasons of Jeannie, TV movies, and then appearing in a lot of variety shows during that time, most of them. So, it wasn’t difficult. And I was doing most of them. But it wasn't difficult.
I also have a coworker who wanted me to ask if you know how many bottles were used throughout the series?
I really don't know. I know they bought many. They were the whiskey bottles. I can’t remember the name of the company…
You got it, Jim Beam. In fact, people still bring me naked bottles that they haven't painted yet, and they have me sign them. I don't know where they get them, but they do. I don't know how many they broke, but the bottles were hard workers. The paint would chip or whatever. I had the last one that was on the set when we shut down, and it is at the Smithsonian right now.
Is that the bottle you had when that earthquake struck near your house a few years ago?
Yes! That was the one that survived, right on the top of a big pyramid of books, yeah.
Wow, talk about luck.
Yes, tough little bottle. Well, big bottle *laughs*
Definitely. Of course it’s in the Smithsonian.
You have lived through a World War, a global pandemic, and you grew up during the Great Depression. Asking as a young person genuinely fearing for the future, how in the world have you maintained such a positive lifestyle for so long? Like, do you have a mantra or something?
A mantra? No, I don't. First of all, as a child during the Depression, I wasn't aware of problems. I knew that my mom and dad didn't have a lot of money. And then World War II came along, and I was in grammar school, or younger. And living in San Francisco, of course, we were very concerned about the Japanese. I remember seeing the big groups of airplanes going over, and of course, they were all with propellers, so it was a lot of noise when they went by. I remember that, but I remember just being curious about it. We did have dog tags, everyone in school. I wasn't afraid, though. It was strange, I was not afraid. It was just what was happening, that’s all. You live with it, you adjust. We had rationing, and sugar especially, but we always had enough. We were very lucky in the United States.
But San Francisco, looking back on it now, we had big air raid mornings with all the lights out, and things like that. Lots of people on downtown Market Street in San Francisco, lots of uniforms…sailors, Marines, everybody. The bay was full of warships. But that's what it was. You adjust, you just say “oh, this is what it is right now.” Luckily, we didn't have any bombs. Now, that would be something we would really worry about.
It's just a game of adjustment, I guess.
Yeah, I think so. I think that sometimes as a child, you takes things for granted. Your mom and dad are there, your grandma's there, you know. I wasn't worried about the future, I didn't even think about it. I just knew this was what was going on at that moment. And I think that's what one generally does. I mean, we all have challenges in our lives, but you just take it, like they say, one step at a time, and deal with it.
Josh Bradley is Creative Loafing Tampa's resident live music freak. He started freelancing with the paper in 2020 at the age of 18, and has since covered, announced, and previewed numerous live shows in Tampa Bay. Check the music section in print and online every week for the latest in local live music.