Elvis Presley asked ‘I Dream of Jeannie’ star Barbara Eden for advice before marrying Priscilla
When Elvis Presley approached Barbara Eden, he had one thing on his mind.
The singer and the future “I Dream of Jeannie” star were filming a movie together, 1960’s “Flaming Star.”
By then, Presley was romantically involved with someone overseas but had some reservations about taking their relationship to the next level.
“Elvis told me about this girl that he really liked a lot,” Eden, who turned 92 Aug. 23, told Fox News Digital.
“He said, ‘I want to know how you and your husband survive this business,”” Eden recalled. “’I’m a little worried about bringing her to the United States.’”
At the time, Eden was married to actor Michael Ansara. Presley was curious about how they managed to stay married in Hollywood.
“I told him, ‘This is our work,’” Eden shared. “’He goes on location, I go on location. But we’re always together. This is how we make money, but we are a team. And as long as the two of you are a team, it will work out.’ But Elvis was worried. ‘I just don’t know,’” he would say.
“He was such a well-bred gentleman,” Eden added. “Just wonderful to work with. I’d come on the set, and he’d immediately pull up a chair for me. Actors don’t do that. But he was so courteous and gracious with me. He was truly a nice guy in this business. I remember he would have his father on set and another man he called his cousin, but I later found out it wasn’t a cousin. But they would all just sit together, play guitar and sing.
“Well, sure enough, he brought that girl over — and it was Priscilla.”
Presley was 24 and stationed in Germany during his time in the Army when he met 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu in 1959. With the blessing of Priscilla’s reluctant parents, the pair spent more and more time together. After Presley returned to the states, they continued to correspond long distance. In 1963, Priscilla moved to America to be with Presley.
Eden said she “had no idea” how young Priscilla was.
“She was very young to me,” Eden said. “I just met her recently, and I told her the story about Elvis. She is a lovely woman and I like her a lot.”
Presley and Priscilla married in 1967, and they welcomed a daughter, Lisa Marie Presley, in 1968. The couple called it quits in 1973. Elvis died in 1977 at age 42.
Eden said she still has fond memories of getting to know Presley on set.
“What surprised me was how decent he was and just a regular guy,” she explained. “I guess that surprised me because I only knew him for his wonderful singing and his knees rocking together and all that. But I should have known better. … He was a very intelligent, talented, sweet man. And in [our] movie, he got the best reviews. It didn’t make the money his other movies made, but he got recognition for being a really fine, natural actor.”
Eden went on to star in “I Dream of Jeannie” in 1965. The sitcom tells the tale of an astronaut (Larry Hagman) who stumbles upon a bottle containing a genie (Eden). Eden was originally a recurring sketch performer on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” before “Jeannie” skyrocketed her to fame.
“You know, I’m not quite sure how I got the role,” she chuckled. “I had been reading the trade papers where I learned about the show, and I saw they were testing. At the time, they were testing for very tall, sultry, dark-haired girls. They were looking at beauty contest winners like Miss Italy, Miss Israel, Miss Greece. I just thought to myself, ‘That’s not me. I’m a short blonde. And I’m not sultry.’
“But then one day my agent sent me the script,” she said. “I read it, and I recognized it immediately. He said, ‘Do you like it?’ I said, ‘I really like it a lot!’ And he said, ‘Well, that’s good because they’re offering you the part. All you have to do is meet [show creator] Sidney Sheldon at the Beverly Hills Hotel and have tea with him, so he can get to know you.’ And that’s how I got the part.”
Eden said she’s still surprised her navel was a hot-button issue in those days. For her role, she had to wear a midriff-baring two-piece. NBC executives were adamant about keeping her belly button covered.
“Isn’t it odd?” she laughed. “Mike Connolly, who wrote for The Hollywood Reporter, came down on the set one day and said, ‘Where’s your belly button?’ I said, ‘Oh, it’s there.’ And he said, ‘I don’t believe it. I don’t think you have one.’ And he poked me in my tummy. And then he began writing about it in his column. Then other stringers across the United States picked it up, and then my navel became its own celebrity, which was very strange to me.
“When we first started the show, I would raise my arms up and, of course, you’d see my belly button,” she said. “Some women are known for their legs, their breasts. But a belly button? Just couldn’t imagine that. But that’s what started it. And studio standards and practices decided that I can’t show my belly button at all. So, we had to have all the costumes made so that they were higher in the waist and there was no belly button. And the genie bottle could not be in Larry’s bedroom. Now, of course, the bottle was in my bedroom, but he wasn’t there.
“It’s all funny really. We were wearing bikinis in the ‘60s.”
Eden said her favorite time bringing the sitcom to life was when she got to co-star with a furry friend.
“I had worked with two lions when I was doing films at Fox studios,” she explained. “The trainer told us that a male lion is rather lazy. If he’s well-fed, he’s not going to go after you. But, like any animal, he must get used to you. You must let him smell your hands, and you scratch him behind his ears. Well, for this episode, I knew a lion was coming. So, I went to Larry and said, ‘We have to go over and make friends with the lion.’ He said, ‘I’m not going to make friends with any blankety-blank lion!’ And that was that.
“Now, I went over, and, of course, it was a big lion,” said Eden. “I scratched his ears and I let him sniff my hand. … They put a little plate of raw meat beside me and the lion came over and ate his food. We rehearsed, and he was just fine. But when Larry came in, the lion did a double take and did this huge roar.
“And poor Larry. He raced off the set. But not just him — every single man on that set went running. Cameras were knocked over. Pure chaos. Meanwhile, I was just sitting there ready to film this scene. The lion put his [paw] on my lap and made these enormous purrs. Oh, and to cap it off? I was pregnant. Oh my God, I had a big tummy. I don’t know if the lion could tell, but he gave me a big lick up one arm.
“My advice? Always make friends with a lion if you have the chance.”
Hagman didn’t take Eden’s advice, but he gained a pal in his co-star.
“Oh, he could keep things popping on set,” said Eden. “Larry was always full of energy. It was great. I just loved him. The thing I really appreciated about Larry was just how talented he was. This was a man who could do anything when you got that camera rolling. I had a really good time with Larry.”
Hagman, who went on to star as beloved villain J.R. Ewing in “Dallas,” died in 2021 at age 81.
Today, Eden happily keeps busy. She’s scheduled to appear at the Hazard Fest Autograph Convention Show in October and Rhode Island Comic Con in November. She’s also working on a new children’s book, a follow-up to 2021’s “Barbara and the Djinn.” She also maintains a fitness routine involving cycling and lifting weights.
“I’m very lucky,” she said. “I have a wonderful family and a wonderful husband, and I enjoy my work. I don’t do as much work as I did before, but I still get out and about. And I truly have the nicest fans in the whole world. Meeting with them is always a joy.
“’I Dream of Jeannie’ was a fantasy, one that was safe for all ages,” she reflected. “Back then, I knew it was appreciated, but I was just doing my work. I didn’t think about the future or anything like that. I was just enjoying the moment. I’m very grateful that it’s still on the air and people know who I am.”