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July 28, 2011

Book Notes: Dreaming of Jeannie

— When I was growing up we all thought of the 1950s as the golden age of television.

Classics such as “I Love Lucy” and “Leave It to Beaver” can still be seen in reruns. “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “Bonanza,” and “Gunsmoke” were mainstays that lasted into the ‘70s. But these days it’s becoming more apparent that the real golden age of television was the 1960s. How else can you explain all the big-screen remakes of popular TV shows from that era?

One of the classic sitcoms from the ‘60s was “I Dream of Jeannie.” For those of you too young to remember, its premise was an astronaut gets marooned on a desert island after his space capsule crashes and he discovers a genie bottle. After opening it out pops a beautiful maiden who says he is now her master and grants him any wish. He wishes to be rescued and poof! a NASA helicopter appears out of thin air to save them.

What followed was five years of a hit program featuring the comical misadventures of Jeannie and her “master” Tony Nelson. The series starred Barbara Eden as Jeannie and Larry Hagman as Tony. Hagman is better known as the evil J.R. Ewing on “Dallas” from the 1980s. Although Eden has appeared in numerous other TV shows and movies, most notably “Harper  Valley PTA,” her signature rolehas always been “Jeannie.”

Eden has just published her autobiography, “Jeannie Out of the Bottle,” and it is a delightful read of a 1960s icon.

It is not a “tell-all” book in the usual sense of vindictively trashing other celebrities. But it produces some fascinating tidbits about the men in Hollywood, a behind-the-scenes look at her trademark show, and a tragic but poignant discussion of her son’s addiction to drugs.

Eden’s formative years weren’t anything extraordinary except for the fact that she was chosen Miss San Francisco for the Miss California pageant in 1951. She did have a talent for acting and singing and it led her to take a chance on a career in Hollywood.

She managed to get some bit parts, including one as a gorgeous young floozy on “I Love Lucy” where all the men, including Ricky and Fred, go head over heels for her (it makes for a good trivia question).

She was signed to a contract by Twentieth Century Fox and that led to several small film roles opposite many of Hollywood’s leading men. The juiciest part of her book is her description of these honchos.

Everyone from Elvis Presley to Burl Ives tried to romance her without success. Even Tony Randall, who always seems to be the consummate straight arrow, had his eye on her.

The one actor who successfully romanced Eden, Michael Ansara, became her first husband. He was the star of a popular western, “Broken Arrow,” as she struggled with her career. Fans of the original “Star Trek” will remember him as the Klingon captain in “Day of the Dove.” Interesting enough, their marriage went south when Eden hit it big with “Jeannie” while he was struggling to find work. The most surprising part of the making of “I Dream of Jeannie” was how difficult Larry Hagman was to work with. His personality perfectly fit his later role as J.R. Ewing.

Hagman expected the show to be his vehicle to stardom, but that mantra fell to Eden. He clearly didn’t like it and caused mayhem whenever possible. Drinking champagne and smoking pot to stay “calm” didn’t help matters. Sammy Davis, Jr. after guest starring on the show called him a “total expletive.”

The most striking part of Eden’s book focuses on her son’s losing battle with drugs. She pulls no punches. He was introduced to marijuana at the age of 10 by a rich “hippie” neighbor and started his descent from there. Despite entering rehab eight times he could not conquer his addiction. Eden’s efforts to interdict in his recovery are quite moving.

It’s rather sad to think that popular down-to-earth icons such as Eden, Carol Burnett, and Mary Tyler Moore all lost kids who were involved with drugs.

Other than her son’s experience, Eden’s autobiography is simply a fun read for all those who remember her as “Jeannie” or in one of her many other roles. It’s also a cautionary tale for any upcoming actor to understand that “stardom” is usually a hit-ormiss proposition. Eden’s book makes a lasting impression.