In “Jeannie Out of the Bottle”, actress Barbara Eden insists that Jeannie, the character whom she played in the 1960’s made-for-TV comedy series “I Dream of Jeannie” was never a part of her, not even as her alter ego, though she has never estranged herself from the role. Eden’s newly released autobiography is a testament to the affection she continues to have towards the harem-clad kewpie doll character which catapulted the actress into iconic status. In her book she discusses her family lineage, the path she took to becoming a screen actress and live performer, the effect her three marriages have had on her, and the lessons she learned from the love of her life, her son Matthew who passed away in 2001 at the age of thirty-five.
Born Barbara Jean Huffman in San Francisco, she provides an overview of her family’s lineage which shows she is a descendent of Irish and British ancestry. She can trace her heritage back to her great grandparents who were of working class stock, trained as carpenters and longshoremen for the men and maids for the women. In the twentieth century, the women in her family held clerical jobs while her father worked for the Pacific Bell Telephone wiring cables. There was little evidence in her background to indicate that she would thrive as a stage performer and a screen actress.
She tells that her parents afforded her to indulge in her talents as a singer and an actress paying for her education at the San Francisco Conservatory and City College, and later to attend Miss Holloway’s Drama School whose alumni includes Carol Channing. It was Miss Holloway who encouraged the young Barbara Jean Huffman to go to Hollywood to further immerse herself in her profession.
Unlike what most readers would expect, the golden gates of Hollywood’s movie studios did not readily open up for her. She describes that doors were slammed in her face one after the other. It got better when she managed to secure an apartment for herself at the Studio Club in Los Angeles where a number of aspiring actresses, dancers, writers, and other professionals in the field of entertainment resided. It was a type of boarding house for young women who were working towards breaking into show business. She writes that such famous starlets as Marilyn Monroe, Kim Novack, Donna Reed, Rita Moreno, and the author Ayn Rand lived there. The house had a bulletin board where talent scouts posted auditions and other opportunities for women. This was where Barbara acquired her first jobs in Hollywood.
It was from another resident in the house who recommended Barbara to audition for the chorus line at the nightclub Ciro’s, then owned by George Schlatter who would later produce the TV show “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In”. Her skills as a dancer were marginal by her standards, but Barbara remembers that she was accepted because she was perceived as being pretty, an asset that proved to work in her favor then and now.
Still known as Barbara Jean Huffman at this point, she began acquiring small roles in Hollywood that included “I Love Lucy”, “Rawhide” which starred Clint Eastwood, and “How To Marry A Millionaire”, a TV series based on the movie version starring Marilyn Monroe. A talent agent named Booker McClay picked up on her and she signed to his roster.
McClay made history when he changed her name to Barbara Eden and set her up on a date with screen actor Michael Ansara who was popular at the time in the TV hit series “Broken Arrow”. Eden and Ansara were married in 1959. She only has kind words and an indelible tenderness towards her first husband, which makes it inconceivable to the reader why she filed for a divorce in 1973. She would tell how she regretted that decision later in life.
It would not be until 1964, Eden reveals, when writer Sidney Sheldon would cast her in the role of a lifetime as Jeannie in “I Dream of Jeannie”. Many of her experiences on the set centers around her leading man, Larry Hagman with tales that would make it perfectly clear to the reader how Hagman managed to play J.R. Ewing so convincingly later in life in the hit TV drama “Dallas”. She narrates that during rehearsals, he was temperamental, irrational, and hostile. He exhibited all of the traits synonymous with J.R., but Eden could always count on him to pull through when it came time to tape the show. She speaks affectionately about the entire cast and considers this time while taping the show from 1964 to 1970 to be the high point of her life in Hollywood. It also marked the birth of her son in 1965.
Eden’s insight into the politics and inner workings of Hollywood is perceptive. Her ability to rise above it, as her mother enforced in her, kept her from becoming jaded and bitter and made her a kindred spirit with her character Jeannie. It was while she played Jeannie that she also performed in Las Vegas at the Frontier Hotel to supplement her income. It was also at this point that “Broken Arrow” was canceled and she was placed in the position of becoming her family’s financial support. She soon found herself in the same predicament as her husband in 1970 when “I Dream of Jeannie” was canceled, which prompted her to turn all of her attention to her live performances and touring. She confronts that it was the strain of being away from her husband that put a rift in her marriage and in her relationship with her son.
In 1971, Eden learned that she was pregnant but the strain of touring and performing caused the baby to be stillborn. Unable to cope with her depression and communicating effectively with her husband about her feelings, the marriage broke down and she decided that she wanted to start anew. Ansara gave her the divorce she requested, but he was also given custody of their son which she shares tore her apart. It prompted her to seek solace elsewhere.
This is the point when Eden really lets the Jeannie out of the bottle, to quote her words, and talks about her attraction and relationship with her second husband Chuck Fegert. She describes that Fegert was the complete opposite of Ansara. While Ansara was steadfast and valued integrity, Fegert was frivolous and honed a playboy image for himself. Fegert sought fame by association and proved to be resentful of Eden’s fame because it never garnered his own fame. As she looks back, she realizes that everyone she cared about and valued was unimportant to him. He damaged her relationship with her son further, which showed later to have dangerous repercussions.
The realizations that Eden encounters are relatable to people outside of Hollywood. She shows how she was attracted to Fegert’s need to party but it took a number of those parties before she woke up to the fact that he abused alcohol and drugs in order to upkeep his happy stamina. She describes a poignant moment at a party when she observed a woman’s husband carousing with another female guest. She could not understand why the wife was unaffected by her husband’s infidelity. It was as if she wore a veil over her eyes. At that moment, it struck Eden that she had put a veil over her own eyes when it came to Fegert and later with her son Matthew.
The chapter she devotes to Matthew is heart-wrenching and inspiring. The humanness in her words awakens readers to look inside their own lives and not hide their eyes behind a veil when it comes to problems in a marriage, family or friendships. Her revelations alone make her autobiography qualified for the “Must Read” list. The death of her son from a drug overdose had a profound effect on her choices for films at this point. No longer attracted to roles as a seductress or a prancing sprite, she gravitated to roles that allowed her to play investigators and crime reporters. She thrived in playing realistic women who faced life head on, and it also affected her choice for a third husband, a developer named Jon Eicholtz.
Eden ends her book discussing the prospects of another sequel to the “I Dream of Jeannie” series. She revealed on the “Wendy Williams Show” recently that she would like actress Reese Witherspoon to play Jeannie but nothing is concrete.
Going through the twists and turns that have shaped Eden’s life and following her mission to rise above it, as her mother instilled in her, it becomes evident to the reader that there is more of Jeannie in Barbara Eden than she even knows. Perhaps what makes Jeannie so endearing to audiences is that the woman who plays her also carries her inside through life.