Decades before Christina Aguilera sang about being a “Genie in a Bottle,” Barbara Eden was charming TV audiences on a weekly basis in the guise of a similar, mystical alter ego on the beloved sitcom I Dream of Jeannie. The NBC series, which premiered in the fall of 1965 as the network’s answer to ABC’s hit Bewitched, starred Eden as the stunning, bottle-dwelling genie discovered on a deserted island by stranded astronaut Tony Nelson (a pre-Dallas Larry Hagman).
One look at Eden’s scantily-clad, harem-costumed enchantress, and Captain (later, Major) Nelson was a goner, as Jeannie followed the NASA pilot back to Cocoa Beach, Florida for five seasons of madcap fun. She may have referred to him as “Master” (even after the characters got married in the series’ final season, which, let’s face it, was just plain weird), but anyone who’s seen an episode of I Dream of Jeannie knows that it was Eden’s all-powerful genie who was really in charge of the Nelson household.
In honor of the sitcom’s 50th anniversary, read on for 11 of the most magical facts about I Dream of Jeannie.
1. BARBARA EDEN DIDN’T LIKE THAT JEANNIE AND TONY NELSON GOT MARRIED.
The palpable sexual tension between Hagman’s astronaut character and the mischievous genie who lived under the same roof for the first four seasons of the series was what kept the series exciting—the objectification of Eden’s character notwithstanding. Here was a midriff-baring beauty, willing and able to fulfill her master’s every wish and command, and he still managed to keep her out of his bedroom for most of Jeannie’s run. By 1969, the sexual revolution was well under way, and it was time for Tony and Jeannie to get together. Except, as we all know, that kind of creative decision usually sounds the death knell for a TV show, and I Dream of Jeannie was no different. The characters tied the knot during the 1969-1970 season, which ended up being the series’ last.
In an interview with the Today show’s Willie Geist earlier this year (video above), Eden made no bones about her feelings regarding the Nelson marriage: “It ruined the show,” she said. “Because [Jeannie] wasn’t human … She thought she was, and [Tony] knew she wasn’t … I think it broke credibility.”
2. THE FAMILIAR-SOUNDING JEANNIE THEME SONG DIDN’T EXIST UNTIL THE SECOND SEASON.
You know the tune: Matthew Broderick did an unforgettable 12-second dance to it in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. But the bouncy riff that will always be synonymous with I Dream of Jeannie didn’t first appear until the series’ second season, when a new, in-color animated opening sequence was introduced. The first season, which was filmed in black and white, tried a couple of different openers: First there was the expository one that brought the audience up to speed on how Jeannie and Tony met; eventually, the exposition was dropped for this jazzy, albeit abbreviated, animated sequence.
3. BARBARA EDEN WAS PREGNANT FOR THE FIRST SEVERAL EPISODES OF THE SERIES.
Jeannie’s skimpy pink-and-red harem costume was an instant iconic look for the show, but aside from the fall 1965 pilot, titled “The Lady in the Bottle,” Eden was significantly covered up for the first 10 episodes of the series. It wasn’t because of any censorship issues; the actress was expecting a baby. Eden confirmed her pregnancy on the very day that I Dream of Jeannie was picked up. Instead of replacing her, the producers decided to hide her growing belly via a multitude of techniques, including adding several extra veils to her Jeannie costume. “I looked like a walking tent,” joked Eden in a 2001 Lifetime Intimate Portrait documentary.
4. LARRY HAGMAN FOUND OUT I DREAM OF JEANNIE WAS CANCELLED FROM A STUDIO GUARD.
In this 2004 interview, Hagman—who passed away in 2012—revealed that he learned about Jeannie’s 1970 cancellation from probably the most “Hollywood” source imaginable: A guard on the studio lot. He had been on vacation in South America after completing the series’ fifth season, and when he came back to the U.S., the actor wanted to grab something from his dressing room. It then fell to the “guy at the gate” to lay the bad news on the Jeannie star that there was no sixth season in the offing. Hagman wasn’t surprised, citing low ratings and the creative decision to marry off Jeannie and Tony, but he couldn’t help but observe, “Wow, that was real Hollywood.”
5. EDEN AND HAGMAN REUNITED FOR A STORY ARC ON DALLAS.
It was as far from a Jeannie and Tony reunion as you could get, with Eden appearing on Hagman’s sudsy drama Dallas as J.R. Ewing’s embittered former lover, Lee Ann De La Vega. As she reveals to Hagman’s oil tycoon in the above scene, she’s in town to seek vengeance, because in a very un-Tony-Nelson-like move, J.R. knocked her up many years earlier. The result was a botched abortion and an inability to have children, so Lee Ann figures that stealing Ewing Oil out from under J.R. is ample payback. If you listen closely to Eden’s monologue, you’ll notice a nice little homage to her history with Hagman: Her character’s maiden name was “Nelson.”
6. NOT ONLY DID BARBARA EDEN PLAY A GENIE, BUT SHE WAS AN ON-SET LION WHISPERER TOO.
During I Dream of Jeannie’s first season, there was an episode featuring a real lion in one scene. As she tells the story in her memoir, Jeannie Out of the Bottle, Eden already had some experience with the predatory felines on film sets (calling herself “somewhat of a lion expert”), so she knew it would be best if she and Hagman got to know their guest actor prior to shooting. “You have to stand very still and let the lion smell you,” she explained to her co-star. “Then, when he’s finished doing that, you should lean forward very, very gingerly and stroke him as gently as you can. That way, he’ll get to know you and everything will be fine.” According to Eden, Hagman refused to undergo the bonding process (“I’m not making friends with any f*cking lion!”). So when it came time to do the scene, the lion and Eden were plenty tight, but as soon as the king of the forest took one look at Hagman, he let out, in Eden’s words, “an almighty roar.” A frightened Hagman and several members of the crew bolted off the set in response. (Hagman confirmed the anecdote at this 2011 panel with Eden.)
7. PHIL SPECTOR MADE A CAMEO IN THE THIRD SEASON.
A few decades before he became a convicted murderer, Phil Spector was best known as a hugely sought-after record producer. In the fall of 1967, he was on top of the world, having produced hits for countless artists like The Ronettes and Ike and Tina Turner. So when Jeannie needed a record exec to listen to her blinked-together rock group in the season three episode “Jeannie, the Hip Hippie,” she went to the best in the biz: Spector. And Spector was game for poking fun at himself—and the entire music industry—with his introductory lines: While on the phone to an unnamed artist, Spector assured his client that despite the “very weak” bridge, the “awful” tempo and lyrics that “stink,” he had another “smash” on his hands. In a bizarre continuity error, Spector is credited at the end of the episode as playing “Steve Davis,” despite being referred to throughout as “Phil Spector.”
8. I DREAM OF JEANNIE HAD A FUN LITTLE CONNECTION WITH FELLOW NBC SITCOM THE MONKEES.
While The Monkees only lasted two seasons, it had a sweet brother-sister-type relationship with I Dream of Jeannie while it was on the air, as they were both on NBC and shared the same music supervisor, Don Kirshner. About midway through the fall 1966, in The Monkees episode “The Spy Who Came in From the Cool,” Davy Jones rubs a small table lamp (see above video, 14:10). In true Jeannie fashion, a beautiful harem-costumed genie (not Barbara Eden) emerges from a puff of smoke and assures her “master” that she will help him. A bemused Jones remarks, “Imagine that—wrong show!”
The following year, in the Jeannie episode “Jeannie, the Hip Hippie” (see above), Jeannie puts together a rock band featuring Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, who penned some of The Monkees’ most famous songs. At one point, an instrumental version of one of the duo’s biggest hits for the band, “Last Train to Clarksville,” can be heard. Plus, Hart is holding a copy of The Monkees’ first album in one scene.
In one of the final episodes of NBC’s 1960s nostalgia-fest American Dreams (2002-2005), teenage protagonist Meg Pryor (Brittany Snow) and her best friend Roxanne Bojarski (Vanessa Lengies), take a trip to Los Angeles in early summer 1966. While exploring a studio lot (they were dancers on American Bandstand), they stumble onto the I Dream of Jeannie set and meet Barbara Eden. In keeping with the series’ pattern of having popular stars of the day (read: the mid-aughts) portray popular stars of the ‘60s, Eden was played by then-It girl Paris Hilton. Hilton’s Eden, who just happens to be walking around in her Jeannie costume (American Dreams was never one for authenticity), makes the girls’ day by recognizing Meg from Bandstand.
10. LARRY HAGMAN’S BEHAVIOR ON THE JEANNIE SET IS THE STUFF OF LEGEND.
It wasn’t easy for an ambitious actor like Hagman to play second fiddle to someone else, even if that someone else was Eden. Although Eden fills her memoir, Jeannie Out of the Bottle, with plenty of accolades for her co-star, she also shares many stark truths about his on-set behavior. Frustrated with what he saw as the show’s weak and overused scripts, Hagman self-medicated with alcohol and drugs. “He started every day at the studio drinking vast quantities of champagne,” wrote Eden, “and in between scenes, he sequestered himself in his dressing room, smoking pot and downing yet more champagne, all in the interests of maintaining a calm serenity.” Eden also wrote that he once even went so far as to urinate all over the Jeannie set. For the record, Eden did not witness this act, but was familiar enough with the actor’s moods that she knew when to make herself scarce.
11. EVEN AT AGE 78, BARBARA EDEN ROCKED THAT JEANNIE COSTUME.
In 2013, the woman who will forever be known as Jeannie donned her signature red-and-pink harem pants and matching bolero jacket for an appearance at the Life Ball charity gala in Vienna, Austria. As part of the AIDS benefit’s festivities, Eden channeled her TV alter ego by folding her arms and blinking her eyes, bringing forth Bill Clinton. He may not have been Major Tony Nelson, but the former president did in a pinch.
Jeannie Out of the Bottle, by Barbara Eden and Wendy Leigh
Hello Darlin’, Tall (and Absolutely True) Tales About My Life, by Larry Hagman and Todd Gold