Actress Barbara Eden reflects on acting with Elvis, and her role in ‘I Dream of Jeannie’

by George Jared ([email protected]) 1,968 views 

Barbara Eden and Elvis Presley.

When actress Barbara Eden was a young adult, she was an accomplished singer, but her mother wanted her to take acting classes. Her acting coach thought she had talent, but Eden was shy and it could be a problem in the cutthroat world of Hollywood. The coach hatched a plan.

Eden entered the Miss San Francisco beauty pageant in 1951. She won. From there, she would cultivate a decades long career in the movies, in television and music, and on the live acting stage that culminated with her iconic role as the genie in the television show “I Dream of Jeannie.”

The 90-year-old actress told Talk Business & Politics that competition changed her life.

“I was a bit shy. I was brought up to have manners,” she said. “It was hard to be shy while you’re in a bikini in front of all those people … acting just kind of crept up on me.”

Eden will be the headline speaker during Elvis Week. The celebration of Elvis Presley’s life is centered in Memphis but events extend into adjoining states from Aug. 10-16. Presley died from a drug-induced heart attack on Aug.16, 1977.

In 1960, Eden and Presley both starred in the western drama “Flaming Star.” The movie was filmed in Utah and California. Presley played a man with a Native American mother and a white father. Eden played his love interest. The two stars talked often during the weeks on set, she said.

“It was wonderful. Elvis was a gentleman. The part he played was challenging. He got it. He was so real,” she said.

He told her that while he was in the Army stationed in Germany, he’d met a girl named Priscilla and he wondered how she would handle fame if they were to get married, Eden said. At the time, she was married to actor Michael Ansara, and Presley wanted to know how they managed to stay loyal to one another.

“I told him acting was a job and we both approached it as professionals,” she said.

There were many rumors that Presley had affairs with the leading ladies he starred with, but Eden said nothing happened between the two of them. She remembers Elvis’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker vividly, she said.

One day on set he pulled up in a Cadillac convertible car. He pulled a table out and placed Elvis-themed merchandise on it.

“He was trying to sell that stuff to the cast and crew,” she said with a laugh.

Presley admitted to her that many people told him to leave Parker and that he was taking advantage of him.

“He said he couldn’t leave Colonel Parker. He said without him, he’d still be playing in honky tonks in Tennessee,” she said.

Eden needed a break early in her career and it happened shortly after she won Miss San Francisco. She scored a part in a two-person play. She got good reviews and soon after got a call from 20th Century Fox.

She would go on to star in classic movies such as “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,” “The Brothers Grimm,” and “Five Weeks in a Balloon.” Her television credits included guest starring roles in “I Love Lucy,” “Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire,” and the “Andy Griffith Show,” among others. Her appearance on the “Andy Griffith Show” as a manicurist is brought up often by fans, she said.

By 1965, she had appeared in about 40 films and television shows. One day while reading a trade magazine, she learned about casting for a new show, “I Dream of Jeannie.” Many beautiful women from around the world were asked to audition for the part. Many were of middle eastern descent and tall, she said.

Her agent called and asked her to test for the part. She was shocked.

“I asked my agent. ‘Do they know what I look like?’” she said with a laugh. “I think Miss Israel, Miss Lebanon and others tried out for the part. They were all beautiful brunettes and all tall. That was not me.”

The creator of the show, Sidney Shelton and Eden met for tea at the Hollywood Hotel. She got the part.

They worked long hours, but Eden said she loved doing the show. The first season was a challenge, however. She was pregnant with her only child, Mathew Ansara. The first 13 episodes were not controversial. To hide her pregnancy, she wore a series of veils.

“I looked like a walking tent,” she said.

After the pregnancy, her genie outfit exposed her navel and it was something that had never been done on television up to that point. The costume didn’t actually show her navel but when she moved the costume would shift offering glimpses, she said. It was a constant battle with higher ups at the network and censors, she said.

“It was silly,” she added.

One thing that might surprise audiences is that the cast visited NASA several times and they spent time with many of the astronauts.

Even as the show gained in popularity, Eden delved into the world of her first love – music. She released an album “Miss Barbara Eden” and began to perform at live shows. Once she was about to start singing when she noticed actor Cary Grant sitting in the front row.

“You talk about pressure,” she said.

Her only regret was that she didn’t continue to perfect her singing craft once her acting career took off, she said. Eden would spend decades singing. She also starred in several more movies and television shows for decades after “I Dream of Jeannie” was cancelled in 1970.

For all of her efforts on so many platforms, Eden was named one of the top 200 popular culture icons of all-time by People magazine. Despite all of her success, the genie role is the one that she is known for worldwide and she embraces it, she said.

“I loved the work on that show. I loved the people I worked with,” she said.

Eden will turn 91 on August 23. There’s little she would change about her life she said, but she still has great sorrow over the loss of her son who died of a drug overdose in 2001. The two did get to act in a movie together, “Your Mother Wears Combat Boots” in 1989, although ironically another actor played her son in the made-for-television movie.

Any advice for aspiring artists?

“Be true to yourself. That’s the best thing you can do.”