Authors: Barbara Eden
Tags: #Non-Fiction, #Biography
For my loving husband, Jon,
my devoted manager, Gene Schwam,
and of course Sidney Sheldon.
It’s the end of the first day filming the I Dream of Jeannie pilot, “The Lady in the Bottle,” and three of us—the series’s creator, writer, and producer, Sidney Sheldon; Larry Hagman, who plays Captain Anthony Nelson; and I—are in the company limo speeding the thirty miles from Malibu back to Hollywood after a long day on location at Zuma Beach, the scene of Captain Nelson’s first meeting with Jeannie.
Still in my flimsy pink chiffon harem-style pantaloons and minuscule velvet bolero, I shiver from head to foot, snuggle into my brown cloth coat, and wish I’d been allowed to keep my full-length mink from my days as Loco in the TV series How to Marry a Millionaire.
How to Marry a Millionaire ran for two years, but—although I’m happy to be playing Jeannie, and thrilled that my first day went so well—I’m not counting on the I Dream of Jeannie pilot being sold at all. But it’s a job, and I’m glad to have gotten it, though I’m still stunned that Sidney Sheldon didn’t cast a tall, willowy, raven-haired Middle Eastern beauty queen as his Jeannie instead of a short American blonde like me.
The limo glides to a halt at a traffic light, right next to a maroon Mustang convertible sporting Kansas license plates and driven by an elderly man and his middle-aged wife.
Without any warning, Larry rolls down the limo window, leans out, and to my utter amazement yells at the couple, “Someday I’m going to be a star! Someday you’re going to know who I am!”
When I recover from my surprise, I think, A star! Why in the blazes would he—or anyone else, for that matter—ever want to be a star?
I blink my Jeannie-style blink and flash back two years to April 10, 1962, on the sound stage at Twentieth Century Fox, where I am filming Five Weeks in a Balloon with Red Buttons, and Marilyn Monroe is filming Something’s Got to Give on sound stage 14, which is adjacent to mine. Evie—Evelyn Moriarty, my stand-in since I first arrived at Fox in 1957, and Marilyn’s as well—announces in her inimitable twang, “Barbara, my other star has asked to meet you!”
I know she means Marilyn Monroe, because that’s how she always refers to her, and I am both thrilled and curious to meet Marilyn at last. After all, Evie has been confiding in me about her for years. So although I am dressed for the movie like a clown in baggy plaid pants and a massive white shirt, when Evie grabs my hand and pulls me over to the Something’s Got to Give sound stage, where Marilyn is about to start a wardrobe test, I follow her without a moment’s hesitation.
Fox sound stages in those days were huge, like small cities, and this one is a massive cavern, with a little lighted circle in the middle. A trailer in the background serves as Marilyn’s dressing room, where the legendary costume designer Jean Louis is working with her on her wardrobe for Something’s Got to Give as well as the sensational figure-hugging gown she will soon be wearing when she sings “Happy Birthday” to President Kennedy at Madison Square Garden.
But, of course, none of us knows any of that yet. Nor do we have a glimmer that Something’s Got to Give will be Marilyn’s final movie. Had we known what lay ahead for her, we would have been shocked to the core.
Then the trailer door opens, and Marilyn materializes on the set. Evie grabs my hand and utters the immortal line, “Marilyn, I want you to meet my other star.…”
My other star—that’s how Evie describes me, the former Barbara Jean Huffman, to Marilyn Monroe!
I step into the spotlight with Marilyn. She takes my hand. We have a conversation, during which I try to put everything Evie has revealed to me about Marilyn firmly out of my mind (I’ll tell you more later) and instead do my utmost to focus on this vision of loveliness in front of me.
So I’m standing there, the image of Bozo the Clown on a bad day, but Marilyn is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life. She just glows. There is something in the ether swirling about her, in her, through her, around her, and if James Cameron, the director of Avatar, had seen her, he’d have cast her as one of his special people. She’s every inch a star, but after what Evie has confided to me, I don’t envy Marilyn, not an iota.
And I don’t envy any of the other stars I’ve met and worked with up till now, either. None of them, not Elvis Presley (who tried to seduce me by confiding his vulnerabilities to me), not Paul Newman (who, strangely enough, had a complex about his physical appearance), not Lucille Ball (who was forced to cope with her husband’s very public infidelity on practically a daily basis). Stars each and every one of them. But happy and fulfilled? I wonder.
As for me, right now I’m an actress, not a star, and I’m content with that. But here in the limousine speeding back to Hollywood after the first day of filming the I Dream of Jeannie pilot is Larry Hagman, clearly burning with red-hot ambition to become a star, and, more important, passionately believing that I Dream of Jeannie will instantly make him one.
This is what Sidney Sheldon said many years later about Larry’s unbridled ambition: “Suddenly, Larry found himself in a show with a beautiful half-naked girl and there was no way that it would be his show. I tried everything, but it was always only Jeannie the public was interested in, and through five seasons he became frustrated and very angry.”
On a good day, I understood and sympathized with Larry’s frustration and anger. On a bad day … well, I’ll tell you about those bad days, and you can judge for yourselves. First, though, another Jeannie blink.
It’s 1938 and I’m at school in San Francisco. I’m one of the poorest children in the school, and certainly not one of the prettiest. I may be proud of my school shoes (the only other pair I own are church shoes), but I’m not in the least bit crazy about the pigtails my mom wants me to wear all the time because she thinks they look cute.
My mother is so proud of those pigtails that I never once complain when she braids them tightly every morning. Today, at the end of class, a couple of the boys have fun pulling them over and over again real hard—maybe because they don’t like me, maybe because they like me too much and are trying to get my attention. I don’t really know. All I do know is that they are hurting me a lot.
As soon as I can, I yank myself away and run home in floods of tears. My mother takes one look at me and declares, “Rise above it, Barbara Jean! Rise above it!” And I think, Rise above it? Rise above it? I’m only four years old. How the heck can I rise above anything?
But I love and trust my mother, so I dry my tears, try to rise above my bullying schoolmates, and, by some kind of a miracle, actually succeed. From that time on, my mother’s early decree to “rise above it” will become indelibly engraved on my psyche. It will become my own private mantra, the way I live my life and cope with whatever fate will throw at me through the years—through all the hungry years of the late fifties and early sixties when I was a struggling Hollywood contract player, through the bitter weeks of trying to survive as a chorus girl at Ciro’s supper club, through the hairy moments as Johnny Carson’s comic sidekick on live TV, through my days on I Love Lucy doing my utmost to avoid Desi Arnaz’s sexual advances, through my heart-pounding on-screen cameo with Paul Newman, and through my weeks as Elvis Presley’s leading lady, spending hours drinking in his vulnerable sweetness, only to discover years later that he secretly had amorous designs on me as well.
My mother’s edict stayed with me through all my years of tangling with Hollywood’s most high-testosterone players: Warren Beatty, Burl Ives, Tom Jones, Tony Randall, Tony Curtis, O. J. Simpson, and more. And through all the lonely years when—on the verge of a breakdown after my younger son was stillborn—I performed in Las Vegas, shared George Burns’s dressing room, and smiled through my tears as best I could.
Most of all, her words echoed in my mind during those five seasons of working with Larry Hagman on I Dream of Jeannie, which sometimes felt like I was walking on hot coals. But before I tell you about some of the most challenging moments, I want to make it crystal clear that I think Larry Hagman is a terrific actor and I’d work with him again any day, not just because of his talent but because he is a warm and kind human being.
Let me Jeannie-blink an example for you. We have a guest director on the show, whose name I have mercifully blanked out simply because the memory of him is so unpleasant. He is an old-time movie director, the relative of some studio bigwig. He is long past his prime as a director and probably should have retired, because he is now borderline senile.
As it is, he is extremely frustrating to work with because he doesn’t always make himself clear when he sets up a scene, so that none of us knows where we are supposed to stand or what we are supposed to do. The end result is that we work long hours in the studio without getting much film in the can. One day a situation ensues that goes something like this:
DIRECTOR: “Who said cut?”
CAMERAMAN: “I did, sir!”
DIRECTOR: “Why did you say cut? You’re not supposed to say cut!”
CAMERAMAN: “I said cut because someone walked in front of the camera, sir.”
DIRECTOR: “Who did that? Who did that? Whoever did that, they’re fired!”
CAMERAMAN: “But that was you, sir!”
(I suppose that I Dream of Jeannie director was a minor improvement over director Irwin Allen, with whom I worked on a couple of movies, although at the time I didn’t quite see it that way. Irwin wasn’t senile, just wildly eccentric, and imagined that he was Cecil B. DeMille. Instead of yelling “cut,” he would fire a gun into the air.)
Toward the end of a day of working on I Dream of Jeannie with that senile, tyrannical old movie director barking ludicrous orders at us incessantly, I am close to tears. So, during a short break in the filming, I run off the set and hide behind a piece of scenery, far removed from all the action. And I stay there, sobbing away as silently as possible, while my makeup pours down my cheeks and all the crew and cast run around trying to find me.
Of course, Larry, a clever man in all sorts of ways, is the one to finally find me in my hiding place. He puts his arms around me gently and says, “Don’t cry, Barbara. That’s my act!” Bless his heart! I am simultaneously touched and surprised—touched that Larry is being so kind to me, and surprised that he is being so honest about his on-set emotional breakdowns, which sometimes actually did culminate in him crying in front of all of us.
But I Dream of Jeannie wasn’t just a hotbed of drama and intrigue. It was also a comedy, and Larry and I had plenty of fun along the way as well. A classic Larry story involves the two of us and a lion named Simm, a veteran of The Addams Family, who appeared with us in an episode entitled “The Americanization of Jeannie.”
The plot has Jeannie begging Captain Nelson to allow her to bring her former pet into the house. Not knowing what kind of pet Jeannie means, he agrees, only to be confronted with a fully grown male African lion.
Let me Jeannie-blink back to what really happened behind the scenes. As chance would have it, I’ve worked with lions before on a couple of Fox movies, and now I consider myself somewhat of a lion expert. So before we shoot our scene with the lion, I take Larry aside, advise him to make friends with the lion, and explain how.
“Here’s what you do, Larry. You have to stand very still and let the lion smell you. 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,” I say helpfully.
Larry’s reaction? “Dream on, Barbara. I’m not making friends with any f—— lion!” He strides back to his dressing room.
At that moment, the lion trainer leads the lion onto the set. Larry and I were supposed to sit on the couch, and at a certain point in the script the lion was meant to stick his big paws over the back of the couch.
While the scene is being set up and the props put in place, I go through my routine of bonding with the lion. I let him smell my fingers and lick my hand, then slowly, very slowly, I stroke him under his chin. He gives me a sidelong glance and visibly relaxes, and I silently congratulate myself on our new and warm friendship.
The lion is led away from the couch. After a few minutes, Larry walks back onto the set and sits down next to me, while the director places a piece of raw meat between us. The lion is led right up to the couch, takes one look at Larry, and lets out an almighty roar. Whereupon Larry bolts off the set, out of the studio, and into the street, while the crew runs out after him, terrified. Meanwhile, I am left alone on the set with a nine-hundred-pound lion in my lap, purring contentedly.
But back to Larry. As I said before, to this day I love and respect Larry, both as an actor and as a human being. Nonetheless, I feel that, in the interests of television history and of accuracy, it’s time to tell the whole, unvarnished truth about what really happened behind the scenes on I Dream of Jeannie, shocking as some of it is.