Backstage with Ron Onesti:
Getting to meet a childhood crush
Just like I love my classic rock, I love classic TV!
Harvey Korman and Tim Conway breaking character in laughter on “The Carol Burnett Show” while she belted out a Tarzan yell or tugged on her ear; Buddy and Sally trading shots about Alan Brady, Dick Van Dyke somersaulting over his front-room ottoman and Mary Tyler Moore crying “Oh Rob;” getting a double-dose of cute when Samantha Stephens’ dark-haired evil twin sister would show up, while a twitch of the good witch’s nose fixed everything (almost everything … I could never get used to that second Darrin Stephens guy). The list goes on and on.
But when “I Dream Of Jeannie” came on, let’s just say puberty came on as well.
It was kind of an interesting time in television history. I mean really … a talking horse, a housewife/witch, a genie and her master … even a flying nun! Crazy, but we put aluminum foil on the ends of our bunny-ear antennas for a better signal, stayed inside for hours and were glued to the box with the glowing tubes!
So about two years ago, I was watching “I Dream Of Jeannie,” just marveling at the sheer beauty of Barbara Eden. Not only was she a goddess physically, but also her playful innocence and fierce loyalty was just so endearing. I wondered what she was up to now, and what she looked like. A few years back I had heard she was living in Chicago, but I never saw her, so I was going see what I could find out.
It turned out I know her manager very well and she was ironically working on a book tour to tout her autobiographical release, “Jeannie Out Of The Bottle.” “I’ll do it!” I yelled in all caps and bold on an email. And within a day, she was scheduled for a one-on-one interview with me at The Arcada. One of my three lifelong wishes was about to come true!
It all happened very fast, almost as if I used Jeannie’s signature, cross-armed squint myself to make her appear before me! But that’s what it felt like. One moment I was just another fan watching her on TV, the next moment she was sitting in a cushioned chair across from me on stage at The Arcada, and I was armed with an arsenal of questions soon to be fired at her.
Eden is 85 now, but still as classy and beautiful as ever … and what a nice lady! In the summer of 2015, we spent a couple of hours getting to know each other over dinner before the onstage thing, and she could not be any more real, or any sweeter, with a great sense of humor! I love this lady!
One of the things I always wanted to know was how much of her character was made up of her own personality versus one that was written for her. “Most of her … was me!” she said. “I was somewhat of a tomboy, always sitting crossed-legged, jumping around and trying to be funny. That was a big part of Sidney Sheldon giving me the role.”
Which answered another of my questions. I often wondered how she got the job, being a petite, 5-foot-3-inch blonde when common perceptions of “typical” genies where tall, dark-haired Mediterranean women.
“Many long-legged brunettes auditioned, including Miss Italy and Miss Greece,” she recalled. “But Sydney (Sheldon) liked my style and went ‘against the grain’ by not doing what was expected, which was HIS style!”
I asked about her relationship with Larry Hagman, who played her “Master,” Major Anthony Nelson. “For me, this was (at least in the beginning) just another job,” Barbara said. “For Larry, this was to be his breakout role, the one that would make him a huge star. But the focus was on my character, as was the attention of the public eye. This made him quite frustrated and bitter most of the time. But he was always nice to me, never blaming me for how it all worked out.”
We spent some time on the issue of her navel, as she attested to the fact that television censors were quite concerned with that blatant exhibit of indecency. It was sighted on rare occasions, including a major “unveiling” on “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In.”
For two hours we talked about her career, including her experiences with some of the biggest leading men in showbiz history. Elvis was a humble young man who just loved to sing, she says. He would sing any chance he had and was always respectful of her. “Of course, nothing ever happened between us, but I found out years later he had a crush on me! He had wonderfully soft lips,” she said, describing her romantic on-screen role with him in the 1960 film “Flaming Star.”
“It was a flop,” she said. “He really didn’t sing in it, and he doesn’t get the girl, so who would want to see that?” Eden said.
She also worked with Paul Newman who, “Was not a big guy,” she said. “That’s why he liked me so much. Many of the leading ladies were as tall or taller than he. But his piercing blue eyes were like none other, and even though it was a quick scene, I never forgot that look he gave me,” she said.
“Tom Jones was always, let’s say ‘suggestive,’ but respectful,” she said. Warren Beatty, O.J. Simpson, Johnny Carson, Dean Martin … even J.F.K., Groucho Marx and George Burns … story after story, a walk down a Hollywood Memory Lane. I never really knew her career was so extensive!
“I met Marilyn Monroe on the set of ‘How To Marry A Millionaire’ and she was so wonderful to me,” she said. “When she wasn’t working, she was reading … constantly! She was much smarter than people gave her credit for. We shared some common friends and even though I was a natural blonde and she wasn’t, her hair was as beautiful as I had ever seen on any other actress.”
But one of her absolute favorite stars was Lucille Ball. “I think she liked me so much because I always dodged the romantic advances made by her then husband, Desi Arnaz. His infidelity was legendary, but I never gave in. She respected me for that. She was a very tall lady, but as tall as she was, that’s how wonderful she was. She was hands-on during the tapings of her show, even helping to mend dresses when needed,” Barbara said.
I wondered about what kind of relationship she had with Elizabeth Montgomery of “Bewitched,” who had been often compared to her. “We saw each other practically every morning because we worked on the same studio lot, sometimes even sharing dressing rooms. We chatted all the time. We were even pregnant at the same time, so we had a lot in common! She was so sweet … any ‘rivalry’ that was in the press was a made-up thing,” Barbara said.
We talked about her numerous television appearances, including her other very successful show, “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” her appearances in countless musicals and in other popular films. There just wasn’t enough time!
This is but a glimpse inside a magical bottle that, when rubbed, emits a grand and colorful cloud of smoke that describes a long and incredible career. Barbara Eden is just one of those gifts from the heavens, an “American Sweetheart” representative of an era of classic entertainment gone by.
I received a gift that night, aside from the opportunity to interview this legendary being. As she was leaving the theater, she said it had been one of the best interviews she had ever participated in! And to sweeten the pot, she called me “cute.”
“Jeannie” called ME cute! All of sudden I realized I was another in a long line of “leading men” to appear on stage with her, much like Elvis, Tom Jones and Paul Newman. I have been compared to those “other” showbiz icons before (mostly by my mom), but this proves my similarities to them are real.
Hmmm, I wonder what “Wonder Woman” Lynda Carter is doing these days …
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.