The still-stunning Barbara Eden just turned 91, and she’s unbottling a treasure trove of shocking secrets about her 70 years in showbiz — including big names like Elvis Presley, Desi Arnaz, Tom Jones, John F. Kennedy and of course, Larry Hagman, her costar in I Dream of Jeannie. “I’ve had a wonderful life,” Eden often said. “I’ve been very, very lucky.”
Over the course of her career, Eden has crossed paths with many showbiz greats — and lots of them wanted to get her alone! In her 2011 book,Jeannie Out of the Bottle, she recalled her first brush with Elvis during the ’50s. “While staying at the Hollywood Studio Club, which provided a home for women in show business, I took a dancing job at Ciro’s nightclub on Sunset Boulevard,” she wrote. “One night, Elvis Presley called the owner and asked for a date. I assumed the owner was kidding and didn’t think about it again until 1960, when I worked with him on the film Flaming Star.”
But the King didn’t hold a grudge over the rejection. During the Flaming Star filming, Elvis was a dreamy 25 years old and seven years from marrying Priscilla — and although other women found him irresistible, Eden insisted he keep his hands to himself. Two years before, she had wed first husband Michael Ansara. “I didn’t have a romance with Elvis like most of his leading ladies did,” she revealed last year. “He was a gentleman. I’d walk onto the set, he’d get me a chair immediately. I enjoyed talking to him, and we spent a lot of time together between takes. He was a natural.”
Ditching Elvis was child’s play for Eden, who’d already said “no” to philandering John F. Kennedy! “In 1957 I was at the airport in New York, and while buying some candy, a heavyset man asked if I’d like to meet Senator John Kennedy,” she wrote. When they met, “it was just hello and goodbye, but as I was boarding the plane, I put my hand in my coat pocket and there was a note that said, ‘Call me,’ and a phone number. I [threw away] the piece of paper, but I wish I still had it!” The same year, Eden did an appearance on I Love Lucy. Although she learned a great deal from working with Lucille Ball, saying, “She was so very generous — it was amazing,” she stayed clear of her skirt-chasing hubby Desi.
It was only Eden’s third acting job, and the last thing she needed was the great Ball putting her on a black list! “I was really worried,” said Eden. “And I knew Desi was a playboy, so I knew to be careful there.” Another legendary serial cheater,Tom Jones, also wanted to put Eden on his list of conquests!
In 1970, she made a special guest appearance on the singer’s variety show This Is Tom Jones. “We sang a duet, and he leaned over and said, ‘Can I show you London, Barbara?’ and then I realized he didn’t mean to show me London,” she said in a TV interview. “At four in the morning, the phone rang and it was Tom and he said, ‘Can I show you London?’ I said no, and the next morning, he told me, ‘I was in the lobby and I was going to knock on your door.’ I said, ‘Tom, I’m married,’ and he said, ‘That’s all right, I am too!’”
In 1965, Eden got the role of a lifetime on I Dream of Jeannie and for the next five years, she costarred with Hagman, who played her “master” and eventually her husband, Major Anthony Nelson. The day she got the job, she also discovered she was pregnant. When she told producer Sidney Sheldon, she expected to be fired, but he was so sure she was perfect for the part he said they would work around it — and shot 13 episodes right off the bat before her pregnancy showed.
After that, they draped her in clothing or hid her behind furniture. During the show’s run, Eden put up with an unending series of dramas involving Hagman, who thought the scripts were awful, and he hated playing second banana to Eden’s kooky character Jeannie. He took his rage out on the crew with frequent nasty outbursts and would throw scripts to the floor and urinate on them! “I liked and respected Larry as an actor,” Eden shared. “But his shifting moods and off-camera theatrics grew wearying.”
He had temper tantrums, drank, did drugs and ran around with women during the run of the show, making Eden’s life a living hell at times. “Larry found himself in a show with a beautiful, half- naked girl, and there was no way that it would be his show,” explained producer Sheldon. “Sidney arranged for Larry to see a therapist, and reluctantly or not, Larry went along with the idea,” Eden explained. “However, in keeping with the anything-goes ethos of the early ’60s, the therapist ostensibly advised Larry to smoke pot and drink champagne on the set, to help himself relax.”
Hagman followed the therapist’s advice — but to a drastic degree. “Larry, being Larry, naturally didn’t do anything by half measures,” Eden wrote. “Henceforth, instead of being nervous, on edge and confrontational, he started every day at the studio by drinking vast quantities of champagne.” In her book The Eternal Party: Understanding My Dad, Larry Hagman, the TV Star America Loved to Hate, his daughter, Kristina, wrote, “He so completely embraced the sex, drugs and rock-and-roll ethos of [the ’60s] that he lived it to the end of his days … The blissful marriage my folks always presented to the public had a sad, hidden side.”
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The double life included marijuana, LSD, booze and sleazy young mistresses, says Kristina. But good-natured Eden was able to cope with the storms, and despite Hagman’s shenanigans, she remained lifelong friends with her difficult costar until he died from cancer in 2012 at 81.
When the series was canceled in 1970, she said, “I felt just as if I had lost my family, albeit one with a wild, delinquent terror of a brother!” Eden’s off-screen life wasn’t always happy, though. She and actor Ansara divorced in 1974 after she had a stillbirth and sunk into a deep de- pression. Their son, Matthew, died from an accidental heroin overdose at 35. “I still think about him every day,” she said. She wed present husband Jon Eicholtz in 1991, and after more than 30 years, the twosome are still blissful.
Eden says they travel a lot and keep a low-key lifestyle, although she’ll never fully retire! “I’m really lucky,” she said. “I have dear friends. I have a wonderful family and a very supportive husband.”