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Read On: Eden cherishes iconic role on ‘Jeannie’

Actors who make their living (or at least try to make their living) acting will tell you that all it takes is a single big role — one with which they can be identified — to alter the course of their lives.

Then there are the actors who achieve that iconic role. Too many of them will tell you that it’s ruined their lives, hopelessly typecast them, transformed them into one-trick caricatures and painted them into a career corner from which they can never emerge.

And then there is Barbara Eden.

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Fifty-one years ago, Eden was hired to star as a blonde-haired, 2,000-year-old genie complete with her own bottle and wacky backstory on the wiggy comedy “I Dream of Jeannie.” It instantly turned her into not just a star but something of a zany national treasure while remaining on the NBC air for five years (1965-70).

Playing such a closely identified character is, of course, also supposed to lead to a dead-end, bitterness, a cursing of the fates and an inability to get hired for any role not involving harems and wish fulfillment.

Except that in Eden’s case, none of that really happened. She managed to have her midriff-baring cake and eat it, too, working steadily over the decades in countless TV movies as well as recurring and guest TV roles. And while nothing that came after “Jeannie” approached the notoriety she pulled in as an uncorked entity, Eden did just fine.

Moreover, at a youthful-looking 84, she’s still having a good time, still acting, still making appearances in honor of her little pocket of 1960s heaven. Today, she looks at the series that made her a household name and the object of lustful male fantasies as entirely a blessing.

“Let me just say, I don’t think Jeannie has hindered me at all in my career and my life,” Eden said, “or maybe it did and I just never knew it. You’re very lucky if you have a part that defines you. So I consider myself incredibly fortunate.”

It’s a safe bet that Eden didn’t always feel so philosophical about it. As an actress, she craved a variety of roles, and by the time “Jeannie” finished its run, she was 39 and more or less pigeonholed as someone who crossed her arms and jerked her head.

For a lot of years, that “I Dream of Jeannie” attachment followed Eden everyplace. Yet she was still able to find plenty of work, even as the series that was her calling card faded into obscurity. Since the dawn of the millennium, meanwhile, “Jeannie” caught a nostalgic wave and appreciation for both the sitcom and its star has blossomed.

“The show still runs in Rome and Paris and all through South America in reruns,” Eden said. (It’s also available streaming on demand over Amazon Instant Video.) And she’s more in demand than ever, talking about the show and the old days and what her late co-star Larry Hagman was really like (“A lovely man,” she confirmed.)

Eden now jets regularly around the world discussing the iconic character that changed everything for her. This weekend, she’s appearing at conventions in Knoxville and Kansas City. If it bothers her that no one wants to discuss her earlier acting career in a string of early 1960s theatricals (including playing Elvis Presley’s love interest in 1960’s “Flaming Star”), she doesn’t show it.

“My experience on ‘Jeannie’ still fascinates people,” Eden said.

That would include me as well. Considering where the television medium is at today — including the fact streaming content doesn’t require a TV set at all — recalling the innocence of those “Jeannie” years is, in hindsight, a bit astounding.

“The people at the network were very strict about not wanting me to show my navel,” Eden recalled. “I remember when (executive producer) George Schlatter wanted to premiere my belly button on ‘Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,’ he had to meet with a group of what he called ‘suits’ around a big oak conference table — discussing my navel.”

In the end, NBC said “No” to Eden’s exposing her navel to the nation’s living rooms despite the fact she wasn’t even supposed to be human.

“My bottle also couldn’t be in my master’s (Hagman) bedroom,” Eden remembered, “because that would have implied we were sleeping together. I’ll tell you, times have really changed.”

Indeed they have. But it’s heartening to see that Eden is still with us to laugh about it.

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RAY RICHMOND has covered Hollywood and the entertainment business since 1984. He can be reached via email at ray@rayrichco.com and Twitter at @MeGoodWriter.


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