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Festival of Books: Barbara Eden reflects on her life and career

BarbaraEden

In response to being called a genuine television icon by Los Angeles Times staff writer Mary McNamara, Barbara Eden, best known for playing the title role in the hit television series "I Dream of Jeannie," exclaimed: “It’s very strange. I don’t think of myself as an icon but I guess I’ve been around long enough.”

Dressed in bright colors and still channeling the vivacious blond bombshell of her youth, the now-76-year old Eden discussed her recently published autobiography, “Jeannie Out of the Bottle,” with McNamara on Sunday at the L.A. Times Festival of Books.

Eden’s memoir takes readers behind the scenes of the TV show that ran on NBC from 1965 to 1970. The book touches on the actress’ tangles with some of that era’s most enigmatic leading men and women. Eden recalled her surprise at being cast as Jeannie, a role she thought was better suited for “tall brunettes with very long legs.”

Her whimsical recollections, however, were peppered with less nostalgic memories of her time on the show. Eden admitted to previously dodging authors who approached her to write a memoir over the years.

“I think if one is to write a memoir, you should really be honest, and to be honest sometimes is not comfortable.” That honesty turned somber as Eden talked about the accidental heroin-induced death of her son almost 10 years ago, an ordeal she intimately covers in her book.

Eden cited that experience as one of her reasons for writing the book and cautioned parents about what she called the pervasive drug culture that lies within their children’s reach. Eden advises parents to remain alert and, if need be, to look through their children’s belongings. “You can’t have privacy anymore,” she warned.

The conversation returned to a lighter note when McNamara asked Eden how she was able to remain the “good girl” during the peak of her career, keeping Hollywood’s counterculture of drugs and alcohol at arm’s length. Eden said she stayed focused on her work and approached her career as just that -- a career, not a lifestyle.

The predominantly older crowd listened eagerly as Eden reflected on her brushes with some of the golden screen’s most tragic figures -- from Marilyn Monroe a mere three weeks before her death (whom Eden described as “on the screen is how she was in real life. She was sweet and she glowed”) to Elvis Presley on the set of "Flaming Star," who impressed Eden with his “well-bred” manners.

The audience roared with laughter as Eden quipped that dodging advances by Desi Arnaz on the set of "I Love Lucy," on which she had a guest role early in her career, “wasn’t hard.” “I had a black belt in hiding behind the sets, the cameras, anything.” She fondly recalled that Lucille Ball was strong and kind: “The most wonderful woman I’d ever worked with.”

In response to McNamara saying she would like to see Eden on TV again, Eden raised her brows and shrugged her shoulders in classic Jeannie style and said, “So would I.” She cited "House" and "NCIS" as the top shows she would love to be on. What about "Dancing With the Stars"? Eden quickly replied: “Nope. My leg wouldn’t go up that high.”     

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-- Dima Alzayat

Photos, from top: Barbara Eden with her memoir, “Jeannie Out of the Bottle,”; Eden visits with L.A. Times writer Mary McNamara. Credits: David Livingston / Getty Images; Dima Alzayat

 
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