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I suppose at one time or another we’ve all fantasized about winning the lottery or finding a magical genie in a bottle. I’ve never won the lottery, but last week I definitely met a magical “Jeannie”. Over the years Barbara Eden has materialized in a number of venues: in film, on stage, at USO shows, and in Vegas, but she is best known for playing the title character in NBC’s “I Dream of Jeannie”. On March 7, she will pop into town and team with another TV icon, Hal Linden, in a production of A.R. Gurney’s “Love Letters” at the High Point Theatre.
I spoke with Barbara last week and was struck by her youthful enthusiasm, her grand sense of humor, and her total lack of ego. The fact is, the lady just doesn’t realize how beloved she really is. During our time together we talked about her first acting job (she played a princess in a grammar school radio show), her encounter with a creepy studio executive, her relation to one of our Founding Fathers, and of course, her thoughts on the continuing world wide popularity of “I Dream of Jeannie”. But we began our conversation with her take on “Love Letters”, a play that features two aging characters who have had a thing for each other since childhood. Over time, the pair wrote letters to each other, and now they are reading those missives aloud.
JL: This isn’t your first time around performing “Love Letters”. What makes it such an attractive play to you as an actor?
Eden: First of all it’s a wonderful arc for an actor, and it’s beautifully written.
JL: And there’s no song and dance number, no special effects.
Eden: No, you don’t have any help (laughs) Just the lights.
JL: What does Hal bring to the play?
Eden: Well, he’s wonderfully talented. And he understands the role he’s playing. He understands the character, from boy to young man, to older man, and he makes it quite clear in his acting how these two people are attracted to each other, and yet are so different.
JL: Do you write a lot of letters?
Eden: No (laughs). Although I was forced to when I was younger. My Mom would always make me write thank you notes.
JL: I understand that you are a descendant of another letter writer, the great Benjamin Franklin.
Eden: Well that’s what my grandfather always said. Grandpa was born around Philadelphia and his name was Charles Benjamin Franklin. He told me that his Aunt and Uncle had real memorabilia from Benjamin Franklin. I would love to have proof of that.
JL: It’s no surprise to any of your male fans that you once won a beauty contest, but when you were first starting out in show business, I heard that some idiot studio executive at Warner Brothers told you that you were not “Hollywood pretty.” How did that make you feel?
Eden: I was crushed (laughs). I was just crushed. My uncle had driven me there because I didn’t know how to drive, and he was furious. He was going to go right back in and give the man what for (laughs). The executive showed me a picture of his daughter and said, “Here’s what we want, big tits.” And I had never heard that word used.
JL: Who was this guy, the original Harvey Weinstein?
Eden: Just about. I was appalled at the whole thing as I stood there holding my white gloves (laughs). Anyway I went home, cried a lot, then I realized, I thought, ”My goodness, they can’t just have all pretty people on screen. They have to have human beings, and I can be a character actor, nothing wrong with that. So I didn’t quit.
JL: We’re all glad you didn’t.
Eden: But the coup de gras came a year later. I was at Warner Brothers to work with an acting coach named Cutler. I was not under contract, but he was coaching me for free. I was walking to his class one day, and I heard someone shout, “Hey you!”. I ignored it. Then he shouted, “Hey you in the yellow pants.” I turned around and it was the same man I had met with before, and my heart went down to my toes. He said, “We’re going to test you.” Can you imagine? The same man. So that really validated me (laughs).
JL: My editor will kill me if I don’t ask you at least one question about “Jeannie”. What has made that show remain so popular for so long?
Eden: I think our group of actors were wonderful and we all worked together so well, but the basic story is so classic. It’s timeless, and strangely enough you can relate to it because she’s a fish out of water. Also it was funny. It was like giving the audience a little respite from all the worries they have. I also find it interesting that I still get mail from France, Italy, and from Russia and China, which is shocking to me.
JL: Maybe we should make you a diplomat.
JL: In your autobiography, “Jeannie Out of the Bottle”, you wrote that you are not a star, you’re an actress. You can’t possibly think that you’re not a star?
Eden: Stars are people who win Oscars, you know (laughs). They’re stars, I’m not.
If you’d like to see Barbara do her job in person, you can purchase tickets to “Love Letters” by calling the High Point Theatre box office at 336 887-3001, or visit www.highpointtheatre.com .
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