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August 16, 2017

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Q+A:

‘I Dream of Jeannie’ star Barbara Eden continues her magic carpet ride

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Barbara Eden and Larry Hagman in “I Dream of Jeannie” in 1969.

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Barbara Eden in “I Dream of Jeannie.”

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Barbara Eden and Joan Collins during the Hollywood Autograph Show weekend in Las Vegas from Nov. 18-19, 2011.

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Barbara Eden and Loni Anderson during the Hollywood Autograph Show weekend in Las Vegas from Nov. 18-19, 2011.

Robin Leach and Barbara Eden

It’s an extraordinary TV success story, and, forevermore, vivacious Barbara Eden will be known as the genie on “I Dream of Jeannie.” The Sidney Sheldon sitcom, which starred Larry Hagman as USAF Major Tony Nelson, ran for five seasons with 139 episodes but never broke into the Top 20 — yet 50 years later is still a global phenomenon in syndication.

(Barbara and Larry were reunited in 1990 when she appeared in five episodes of the final season of “Dallas” and again in March 2006 when they performed the play “Love Letters” onstage in New York.)

Censors had a tough time dealing with her pink-and-red costume, insisting that her navel never show, but later in Season 4 and 5 episodes, it was revealed much to the censor’s annoyance.

After four seasons of dating, the duo were married at the insistence of network execs over the objections of the two actors who said the change in the storyline would take away the sexual tension and humor. It ended after Season 5 and spawned two TV movies.

Before finding fame and fortune “freed from the green bottle,” Barbara won Miss San Francisco in 1951 and appeared in dozens of TV shows and movies, including co-starring with Elvis Presley in 1960’s “Flaming Star.”

Barbara, now 83, is the first to admit that she’s ridden the magic carpet her entire career. I’ve known her for many years and traveled with her to Bangkok, Thailand, and Salzburg, Austria, to film episodes of my former TV show “Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous.” Here’s a YouTube clip of our “LRF” interview in 1983 in her Beverly Hills, Calif., home.

It’s been such a long and productive career, she has a thousand delicious off-camera stories and secrets to tell along with untold anecdotes of working with Lucille Ball, Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood, Bob Hope and Dean Martin. She also is celebrating the 50th anniversary of “I Dream of Jeannie.” In all, 25 films, five TV series, 19 top-rated TV movies, plus her career here in Las Vegas.

This Saturday, “Entertainment Tonight” and Showtime movie reporter Bill Harris will host her at Suncoast Showroom in her one-woman show as she walks through her memoirs. I talked with Barbara as she planned her Las Vegas trip:

This is a brand new show. I don’t think you’ve done it before in Las Vegas?

No, I haven’t. In fact, I’ve only done it one other place. This will be the second time it’s been done. It’s a bit of an evening wisp. Lots of clips and things. People don’t realize that I did a lot more than just “Jeannie” before and after. We have clips of the movies I’ve done and people I’ve worked with. I’ll tell those stories. Bill and I will talk onstage with clips in the background.

So let me make you laugh. Are you still able to wiggle your nose and make magic?

No, I never wiggled my nose! I blinked. I just blinked, nodded my head, and my ponytail went flying.

You must have great memories from the “Jeannie” experience because it was a delightful show making people laugh and be happy.

I had a wonderful time doing that show. Wonderful is an overused word, but it was one of the best times of my life working with Sydney Sheldon and Larry Hagman. There are several favorite memories. Bill and I will freewheel it.

We’ll talk about Larry and the lion, and I’ll go into being pregnant the first 13 shows trying to hide my tummy. My stories go everywhere.

How did the idea come about to do the “Magic Carpet” show?

I have been asked to speak at different places. We also have a Q+A at the end of the show. I have done quite a bit in Australia with the autograph shows, and they always have you onstage and then you speak and then you have a Q+A, and I like it. I really enjoy it.

I like the give-and-take. It’s a fun experience. When I was appearing in Las Vegas, I was always protected by the music, the orchestra, the lights, but this is not that. This is Barbara, and it’s a whole different way of working, and I really like it.

You look back over this amazing life that you’ve had, and you call it a what? A blessed life, an adventurous life, an exciting life, what?

All of the above. I was blessed in many ways because I had a wonderful mother, grandmother and aunt who were very influential and supportive. A lot of people don’t have that, so from the get-go, I was blessed. We didn’t have a lot of money, but we certainly had love and support. They got to see me in a multitude of roles. My mother in particular came with me to Las Vegas when I was singing, and she enjoyed it. I miss her a lot.

Was it always a dream for you to go onstage?

It was a dream for me, but, you know, your dreams change. I started out singing and studying at the conservatory in San Francisco, and opera was what I thought I was going to do. One day I was singing something, I think a pop tune or something at home, and my mother said, “Barbara, you know you’re singing every note perfectly, but you don’t mean a word you’re singing, so you should study acting.”

So I did, and here again I was blessed. I found a teacher in San Francisco, and she gave me a scholarship. At the time I was going to city college, and Elizabeth Holloway also gave college credit, so I was able to do both as I worked singing with dance bands. I don’t know, the singing got lost for a few years because the acting took over.

Your mother’s reprimand turned into a good thing.

Yes, it did. Doors open, and you walk through them. It was different then than now, but that’s what I like about my field. I like not knowing what’s around the corner. I enjoy it.

“Jeannie” became such a extraordinary character in the annals of American show business. You became “Jeannie” forevermore. Is that good or bad?

I think it was good. It’s extremely rare that an actor will have a part that can define them for the public. Before I did “Jeannie,” I did many movies with Paul Newman, Elvis Presley, you name it, but no one really knew who I was. I was just the girl who was sung to or rescued or cried a lot.

“Jeannie” gave me a footing so that they could tell I did something better and who I was. Actually, I started out with Johnny Cason on live television. It was my first job. You go where the business puts you, I guess.

When were you with Johnny Cason, and was that “The Tonight Show”?

No, that was way before “The Tonight Show.” He had a summer replacement show at CBS for six weeks. At the time, I was living at the studio club for women in Hollywood, and my agent sent me on an interview there. In fact, we talk about this onstage. He told me, “Barbara, they want someone who can work in live television.”

I had a background of stage work from San Francisco, so that was OK, but then he said, “They want a curvy girl, so wear the dress. I had one dress that was like a Marilyn Monroe with spaghetti straps and tight. So I put the dress on, it was a very cold day, I also put on a very fuzzy white warm coat.

I drove into the lot at CBS, got out of the car, did not take my coat off because it was too cold, decided I would wait to take my coat off inside, I walked inside and I didn’t realize how cold they kept the studios. It was like a refrigerator. I left the coat on and went up to the sixth floor and talked to the director.

He wanted to know my background, but I didn’t take the damn coat off, and I didn’t get the part. I felt foolish walking into his office going ta-dah. If he’d ask me to, I would have, but it seemed silly, so I didn’t do it. The next week, my agent called again and said, “Barbara, they need another girl on the show. Now wear the dress and take your coat off!”

So I did, I froze to death because I took it off in the parking lot and put it over my arm. I walked in and talked to this director, and I didn’t think I’d gotten it. I walked out into the hallway and thought, “Oh, well.” There were some men at the water fountain, and they all made remarks as I walked by, and I just smiled and kept walking. One of the men detached himself and took my arm to walk me to the elevator.

He was an older gentleman, we walked into the elevator and turned around, and he put his foot, just like the movies, in the door, looked at me and said, “Were you auditioning for Johnny Carson?” I said, “Yes.” “Did you get it?” I said, “Nope.” And he went OK and the doors closed, but I got the job.

He was the producer of the show. After the show, again it’s like a movie, the director came over to me and apologized because he said he didn’t think anybody who spoke as intelligently as I did could possibly do slapstick comedy and sing off key. He said that he was sorry and he’d made a terrible mistake.

I love the fact that he thought you were too smart.

I do, too, little did he know! It’s interesting how life takes its turns. I did six of Johnny Carson’s shows after that. It was mostly slapstick. The girls were foils — all dumb blondes.

I’m really looking forward to doing the show in Las Vegas. I have a lot of stories and funny situations to talk about. I think everybody will find them very fascinating because it’s been a very fascinating life.

“On the Magic Carpet With Barbara Eden” is at Suncoast Showroom on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15.95.

Robin Leach of “Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous” fame has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past 15 years giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.

Follow Las Vegas Sun Entertainment + Luxury Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.

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