It wasn’t until decades after she starred in “I Dream of Jeannie” that Barbara Eden understood the huge impact her character had on the world.
“I didn’t realize a lot of things, until the last 20 years; at the time, you’re not thinking about the effects you’re having on the audience,” said Eden, speaking to students of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music on Thursday during a visit to The City to accept a distinguished alumni award from the school.
“Some of the stories I heard were heartbreaking. People who were abused as children told me that they felt the bottle was a safe place. That made me happy,” she said, adding that she didn’t necessarily see Jeannie as an example of female empowerment, even though the character clearly was in charge of her master on the beloved 1960s NBC sitcom.
Her favorite episode of the show remains the pilot, when astronaut Tony Nelson (played by Larry Hagman) finds her in the bottle on the beach, and then she goes on to “make a lot of trouble” for him and his girlfriends.
Looking great in a red suit, with her trademark lustrous blond hair, Eden, 88, said the best thing about being Jeannie was the character itself: “I just like her. She’s fun, easy to live with.”
In a question-and-answer session led by SFCM voice student Taylor See, Eden said she got the role without auditioning, and was surprised to be considered, having read the script. “I knew they were testing for the role,” she said, thinking the creators were seeking a tall Mediterranean type.
“I never asked how I got it,” she said, adding that her agent told her, “All you have to do is go down and have tea with Sidney Sheldon.”
Knowing that TV writers were cliquey, she added that Sheldon and his friends must have had seen her comedy chops on the late 1950s TV show “How to Marry a Millionaire,” based on the movie of the same name. In the 1950s, she also did sketch comedy on “The Johnnny Carson Show,” playing a dumb blonde who couldn’t sing.
Eden’s biggest regret is that she didn’t continue her vocal studies — which began when she was a teen at SFCM under Paulina Giovanini — after she pursued acting.
“I wished I kept the engine going,” she said, mentioning that singing parts she had (including “The Pajama Game” with John Raitt and Las Vegas shows in the 1970s) would have been easier.
She has fond memories of her childhood in The City. She lived at 1207 Bush St. (“It’s still there”) and won first prize in a Polk Street Halloween parade with her Little Miss Muffet costume.
While in high school, she worked at Wells Fargo Bank and continued her voice lessons at the conservatory, where her first live performance took place after three sessions.
Not long after, she moved to Southern California to pursue a show business career, first living with her aunt and uncle in San Marino, and then moving to the Hollywood Studio Club, an “affordable and safe” residence for young actresses: “My first room was $11 a week, plus a maid. And no men were allowed above the first floor,” she said.
It also was a good place for making connections. One of her biggest breaks came when someone from 20th Century Fox saw her in a play called “Voice of the Turtle,” which led to a contract with the studio.
Eden, whose advice for aspiring performers is “just be true to yourself,” said the best career advice she ever got was from actor Peter Lorre, who told her, “Always sign your own checks.”
Hagman, her “I Dream of Jeannie” costar, was her favorite leading man, even though he was a “tortured soul.” When they acted together, she said, “We were on the same wavelength.”
And she remains amused that a writer for Hollywood Reporter started the brouhaha over the network’s insistence that Jeannie’s navel had to be covered, even pointing to a few episodes filmed in Hawaii with plenty of women in bikinis, and Jeannie in a tank suit.
Although silly, the controversy over the body part, in a way, put her acting on the map. Until that time, she’d played characters that were either being kissed or rescued, which wasn’t the case with Jeannie.
“That belly button is me,” she said.