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Quick Wit: Barbara Eden

TV's favorite genie/Jeannie is now playing the singularly fussy Florence in Neil Simon The Odd Couple. logo

Barbara Eden arrived in Hollywood at the age of 19, after studying theater in San Francisco (where her family lived) and receiving classical vocal training at the San Francisco Conservatory. The first studio executive who interviewed her said "You're a nice kid from a nice family. Go home."

She didn't go home. Between odd jobs, she found dramatic and musical roles in small theaters throughout the L.A. area, learning her craft until a 20th Century Fox producer "discovered" her in a production of The Voice of the Turtle at the Laguna Playhouse. Her first studio contract led to roles in the TV series How to Marry a Millionaire, and to such feature films such as Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao.

But Eden truly became an American icon with her starring role in the hit TV series, I Dream of Jeannie, which ran for five years, 1965-1970. The show still is on TV, as it is shown in foreign countries around the world, and on Nick at Night on cable.

Wisely, Eden never put her acting eggs in one basket. Her TV popularity allowed her to star in--and often produce--a series of top-rated television films throughout the '70s, '80s and '90s. She also made a series of guest appearances on Dallas, which starred her former Jeannie leading man, Larry Hagman.

Throughout her career, Eden has also continually returned to live theater, scoring success in touring musicals, including Woman of the Year, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, The Sound of Music, and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, among others. She's also played Las Vegas, done concert work, and delighted audiences in tours of classic American comedies, including Same Time, Next Year (with Wayne Rodgers), and Last of the Red Hot Lovers (with Don Knotts).

Next up for Eden is a new Chicago production of Neil Simon's The Odd Couple--the female version Simon created over a decade ago. Eden will play the fussy one, the neatnik, who is Felix in the male version and Florence in the female edition. The show opens July 11 (previews from July 7) at the intimate Apollo Theater. Although initially scheduled for just five weeks, the show is likely to be extended through Labor Day. "I could stay as long as people want me. That would be a joy," Eden says.

Do you think Jeannie and Bewitched were the forerunners of the current crop of television shows, such as Charmed and Buffy?

I wish I could say that (but) I think that fantasy and fairy tales will always be in style, and always have been.

Tell me more about doing musical theater and nightclub work.

I do musical theater (and) a few concert dates. The last one was a year ago. I toured through Florida and the New England states. I like being on a stage.

How do you keep your vocal chops in shape?

Just vocaleeze (vocalizing), and I study with a cantor here at my temple. He gets me up and down, Nate Lam at the Stephen S. Weiss congregation. He's a very good teacher.

So, he teaches you to doven when you're doing Broadway tunes?

(laughing) Yes.

What about a physical regimen? How do you stay in shape?

I belong to a health club, and I do power pacing or spinning on a stationary bike. You just go like mad for 45 minutes. Then after that, I work with a trainer for 45 minutes with light weights. That's just to keep myself in tone.

What's you're favorite music to sing or listen to?

My very favorite to get me going is Gilbert and Sullivan. I was raised with it. When I was a little, little girl, my dad had all the records. My parents, on Saturday and Sunday mornings, would want to sleep late. So I'd put these records on, and I would sing. Still, when I want to feel happy or get going in the house, I'll put my Gilbert and Sullivan records on.

Any other types of music?

I like soft rock. I enjoy all the musicals. I really like Mozart.

In fact, your musical training was classical.

Yes, in the beginning it was classical. I don't sing that way any more. Time goes on. I had a good basis, and then I didn't sing for years because I was acting. I began singing again just before Jeannie. I did a production of The Pajama Game with John Raitt, and someone taught me how to belt. It scared me to death to change everything.

Are acting for the camera and for the stage the same?

They're only different as far as projection is concerned. As far as finding the truth and being real, you have to be just as real on a stage as you are in front of a camera. The only thing is, with a camera it has to be conversational; it must be much more subtle.

So it's a question of scale?

I think so. It's scale, and one has to have a great deal of courage on stage, because you are exposing yourself. On stage, you can't be insecure; you have to go for broke. You have to let the audience see your fallibility's.

Is the director more important to an actor in theater than in film or TV work?

No, I think a director is always important. You don't always have one....Even in a commercial, a director is vital--you pray that you have a good one.

What is your secret to playing comedy successfully?

I have no idea. There are so many different kinds of comedy. One shouldn't approach anything thinking you're going to be funny, whatever style of comedy you're doing. You can't say 'I am funny,' because you won't be. I think you approach it like a drama. If the lines are funny, the play will be funny. Having said that, I'll tell you what I told my son, who's studying to be an actor. I think you have a jump on most actors if you have a good sense of humor. You have to understand what is funny, and have a giggle inside yourself in order to portray it.

What's the best advice you would give your son, or anyone starting out in the business?

First of all, to study. If you can't or don't have the money to study, then you should go out and work. Just work, work, work in the regional theaters. That's how I started. There really are no rules. Everyone's circumstances are so different. But that's what I would do. You get in touch with yourself, you get a feeling of comfort on the stage, you know what give-and-take is, you get yourself out of the way so you can work on the character. You never stop studying. You're always watching other people, and learning from good actors. I am, anyway.

Much has been written and said about the absence of good roles for mature women in films and on TV. What are your thoughts?

It's a fact of life. I like to work, and I was used to working. And all of a sudden, those roles aren't there. I've been very lucky because there was an audience for me for a long time in television movies. That's where I produced them. Found the product and brought them to the network. I don't know now. It's an odd kind of limbo to be in. I think character actresses have a better time of it then those who were considered glamour girls. People don't want you to age. Also, aging in America is different now. We look a lot better. Heck, what are you going to do about it?

I always say the enemy isn't time, it's gravity.

(laughing) That's true! But I've been lucky because I have kept working. I can certainly see a difference. I'll be cast as a mother or grandmother, and they'll say 'Well, she doesn't look old enough.' I'm pleased, but as an actress it's a little....too much exercise, I guess. I have a philosophy about it. You go through stages in your life, and this is a stage. I certainly don't intend to quit. I love my work.

When should a fan not ask you for an autograph?

Oh, before you go into the theater. Definitely. Your mind isn't there--your mind is on the stage. You're ready to work.

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