Barbara Eden is forever known for the genre TV staple I Dream of Jeannie. Released in 1965 and running for five seasons, Jeannie was a career-defining role. Yet, as with so many people who snagged the role of a lifetime, there is a lot on Eden's resume that is mostly underrated and often glanced over by most audiences.
In fact, when we talk about Barbara Eden, we're talking about a bonafide genre queen. In honor of her birthday today, here are a few of her lesser-known roles to kickstart you on your Eden fandom.
The Early Years
Barbara Eden was born in 1931 in Tucson, and her first several years were marked with the struggle and hardship of the Great Depression. Though living essentially in poverty, her mother would entertain her by singing, a skill that Eden quickly adopted. Her parents went through a divorce, and the family subsequently relocated to San Francisco, where Eden would sing for bands at various clubs. This was her introduction to the workforce, and she would be a performer for much of the rest of her life. Eden graduated high school and attended theater classes, and though her early career isn't much more than a collection of guest slots on popular TV series and a handful of supporting roles, she was out there working from the start.
The breakthroughs of her career were to be her roles as a genre star. In 1961, she was cast in the sci-fi disaster film Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea as Lt. Cathy Connors. Though not a huge role, it was one that allowed her to stand neck and neck with other notable genre greats like Joan Fontaine and Peter Lorre, as well as pop star Frankie Avalon. Bizarre to watch through a modern lens, Voyage was based on the dangers of climate change and global warming, though in this instance it was not caused directly by humans. The film features memorable scenes such as a cracking glacier and a sky on fire, which send the Seaview submarine plummeting to the ocean floor. The movie would inspire a TV series that ran for four seasons. Cathy Connors appears onscreen dancing to Frankie Avalon, and immediately becomes the love interest of the leading man. Eden's role might be minor, but she definitely spices up the film and makes an impression.
Eden's work helped her to score another supporting role in The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, a George Pal stop-motion classic that would be one of the highest-grossing films of 1962, for which she was on loan from 20th Century Fox to play the love interest of Jacob Grimm. Again, this wasn't a role that gave her a ton of room to move around, but by all accounts she had a great time shooting with the visionary director. Later, Eden would discuss her experience on the film in The Fantasy Film Worlds of George Pal, a documentary celebrating the creator and his works.
By 1965, however, Eden's genre legacy was secured. Her role as Jeannie did make her famous, but more importantly, it gave her a lot to do as an actor who had mostly been relegated to supporting roles and romantic interests. Looking back on Jeannie, this is where Eden's talents really began to shine. As a comedian, she does great work and really helped to solidify the series and its humor. Throughout the show, the other characters would play the straight man to her jokester, and her affable charm practically radiates. As with even the most successful sitcoms in the '60s, the series would not last longer than five seasons. Five years is a good run for shows of any era, and Jeannie has generally remained in syndication through platforms like Nick at Nite. There's no question of the wide-reaching influence of the show, which continues to this day.
Eden’s career took some interesting turns after she was more or less typecast in the role of Jeannie. She returned to working in semi-horror films and thrillers, including A Howling in the Woods, which teamed her back up with Jeannie co-star Larry Hagman (the two would also reappear together years later when she appeared in the final season of Dallas).
The supernatural theme of a mysterious howling deep in the woods late at night serves as a backdrop on a commentary of her character’s disillusionment with marriage. This film takes its audience through some pretty bizarre twists and turns, but Eden rises up to meet the script even in its most implausible moments, and she looks great doing it. Though this bizarre plot is rectified by a Scooby-Doo-style mystery-solving by the end of the film, this was one of the roles that would solidify Eden’s post-Jeannie career as a genre champion who tended toward quirky, stylish female leads.
After that, Eden starred in 1974's The Stranger Within, an incredibly odd sci-fi horror film created via ABC’s Movie of the Week series. Her character, Ann Collins, is married to a man who is very surprised to find out that she has become pregnant. Due to having had a vasectomy, her husband is troubled and convinced that she must have been unfaithful to him. It turns out that he needn’t have worried; Ann had simply become impregnated by aliens. This is a strange entry into the genre canon, but who could forget Barbara Eden as a seemingly possessed painter, getting drunk off of coffee and expressing a desire to return to the home planet of the extraterrestrials that had seduced her?
Yet that was not the end of Eden's genre work by a long shot. 1987's The Stepford Children was definitely late ‘80s made-for-TV B-movie fare, but it’s safe to say that Eden played the role of Laura Harding, an overworked law student and loving mother of two teens, to its fullest. The Stepford franchise had begun with a housewife who reads as frustratingly compliant to her husband's wishes and does not rebel until its too late. Meanwhile, Laura is a character who is struggling to pass her bar exam but still makes time to notice the changes her children are going through. As the heroic figure of the film, there is some interesting commentary when Laura discovers that her husband is obsessed with their children adhering to his image of perfection. One of the best scenes of the movie occurs when Laura confronts her husband in their bedroom, declaring that he has no interest in protecting their children, and only cares about them insofar as they enhance his public image. Baffled by his inflexibility, Laura stands her ground and protects her children and their individuality to the bitter end.
In the ‘80s and ‘90s, Eden would generally make appearances in thrillers or crime movies for network television. In both Visions of Murder and Eyes of Terror, she played a therapist who also happens to be a psychic and whose powers of precognition become major plot points in both films. Her character, Dr. Jesse Newman, is the driving force behind both movies who helps others going through severe trauma and memory repression while coming to grips with the return of her once-missing child. Both flicks are easily viewable online, and they're worth your time if you're a fan of mid-'90s made-for-TV crime dramas.
Eden also enjoyed a memorable three-episode stint on the first Sabrina, the Teenage Witch TV series, playing the previously unmentioned Spellman sister, Irma. While other mysterious Spellman sisters had included Raquel Welch as the devil-may-care Aunt Vesta, Irma is a bit more serious. When she finds out about Sabrina’s relationship with Harvey, she quite literally puts the boy on trial to determine whether or not he will tell Sabrina’s family secrets. Having decided to release him, she still shows a vindictive streak when Hilda calls her a “prune face,” and she turns much of the supporting cast into pigs. Sabrina stands up to her aunt, and Irma is impressed because it’s not something anyone else has ever done. Eden is a perfect fit for Irma Spellman, and the three episodes in which she appears are series highlights.
When Nick JR began their magical girl cartoon Shimmer and Shine, Eden was perhaps an obvious choice to voice the role of Empress Caliana, a retired genie with an impressive early life as an adventurer and explorer who regularly popped into the series to mentor the next generation of genies. Though not quite the carefree Jeannie of the former series, this role was a fun continuation of her legacy for modern viewers.
Our genre queens haven't always gotten the roles or the respect they deserve, but Eden has managed to do pretty well for herself over the years. Nearly any callback to '60s culture will reference Eden's role as Jeannie, and movies like A Very Brady Sequel brought in some high-quality Eden cameos. In the end, Eden will be remembered for her affable charm, which comes through loud and clear regardless of the role she plays.