When Elvis met 'Jeannie': Barbara Eden on working with the King, Elvis Week and more

·10 min read

Five years before she donned the harem pants, bolero vest, midriff-baring crop-top and radiant smile that would fix her as decisively within the popular imagination as a genie is placed inside a bottle, actress Barbara Eden — costumed in practical if tailored Western wear — appeared alongside the already celebrated Elvis Presley in what would prove to be one of Elvis' more consequential movies, "Flaming Star," in 1960.

"He was the most wonderful person to work with," Eden recalled, in a telephone conversation from her home in Beverly Hills, where she was, she said, seated below an urn containing the ashes of her beloved old dog, Djinn Djinn, named for the rascally magical canine that wreaked comedic havoc on "I Dream of Jeannie," the situation comedy that made Eden — like Elvis — a 1960s icon.

"He had good manners," Eden said of Elvis. "He was a gentleman. I'd walk onto the set, he'd get me a chair immediately. He was intelligent. I enjoyed talking to him, and we spent a lot of time together between takes."

Elvis Presley and Barbara Eden in a publicity portrait for "Flaming Star."
Elvis Presley and Barbara Eden in a publicity portrait for "Flaming Star."

Eden — 90 years old, and sounding as hale as when she first materialized from a surf-tossed bottle to bewitch her "master," astronaut Tony Nelson (Larry Hagman), in 1965— is scheduled to make her first "Elvis Week" appearance on Aug. 15, during a public "Conversations on Elvis" event at the Graceland Soundstage. (She said her Memphis visit will be one of the first trips she's made since the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. "I'm going to be masked and very careful," she said.)

During the afternoon talk, Eden will be joined by pop idol Pat Boone and Priscilla Presley, among others. The session will make for a busy Aug. 15 for Elvis fans: At 8:30 that evening, the gates of Graceland open for the annual candlelight vigil, during which hundreds of people will make a pilgrimage to Elvis' grave in recognition of the singer's death on Aug. 16, 1977. The vigil represents the emotional climax of Graceland's so-called Elvis Week, a nine-day celebration of Presley's life and legacy that runs Aug. 9-17.

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If Elvis, with his remarkable talent and charisma, seemed almost supernatural to enthusiasts (or diabolical to alarmists) when he first emerged from the magic lamp of Sun Studio, Eden debuted on "I Dream of Jeannie" as a literally unnatural entity: a 2,000-year-old genie whose penchant for mischief and yearning for romance presented a screwball challenge to Tony Nelson's scientific logic and rigor (see also: Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in "Bringing Up Baby").

Barbara Eden was a spellbinder during five seasons of "I Dream of Jeannie."
Barbara Eden was a spellbinder during five seasons of "I Dream of Jeannie."

Elvis 'was a very fine actor'

The zany Barbara Eden of "Jeannie" would seem an ideal partner for Presley, but the Eden-Elvis collaboration, "Flaming Star," is an outlier in the Elvis canon. Set in 1878, the movie is no escapist musical love story but an almost song-less Western about racism and identity from Don Siegel, the director revered by cinephiles for such movies as "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" and "Dirty Harry."

"Elvis was thrilled to be doing it," Eden said. "He was a very fine actor, he was a natural. It's a sin he wasn't able to do more beyond the musicals he did."

Come for Elvis' bare chest, stay for the racial themes: a 1960 poster for "Flaming Star."
Come for Elvis' bare chest, stay for the racial themes: a 1960 poster for "Flaming Star."

In retrospect, the movie seems to interrogate Presley's status as a cultural boundary-breaker. Elvis — a small-town Mississippi boy turned Hollywood star who merged "white" and "Black" musical styles; whose records were hits on the pop and R&B charts; and who was accused of "stealing" Black music by some and of corrupting white youth with "jungle music" by others — stars as Pacer Burton, the son of a Kiowa Indian mother and a white rancher. "To tell the truth, I don't know what's my people," Pacer muses. "Maybe I ain't got any."

Class and race tribalism create tension. Pacer is accused of being a "godless savage" by the white settlers who don't trust him, while his brother Clint (Steve Forrest) is said to be "the only real white man in the family." Complains Pacer: "All ma and me ever got from whites was mean looks, and 'Don't get uppish with us.'" Clint sympathizes. "Everybody's ready to kill everybody who ain't just like 'em," he says, as if he's just escaped a posse of pod people from Siegel's earlier "Body Snatchers" film.

In the final act, whites kill Pacer's ma, Indians kill his pa, and the weary, lonely Pacer rides off to die. Obviously, "Flaming Star" offers much grimmer Presley fare than the likes of "Girl Happy" and "Fun in Acapulco," while also offering only two songs: the title theme, and the brief "A Cane and a High Starched Collar," which Elvis performs during a party scene. A reviewer in Variety offered this verdict: "'Flaming Star' has Indians-on-the-warpath for the youngsters, Elvis Presley for the teenagers and socio-psychological ramifications for adults who prefer a mild dose of sage in their sagebrushers."

Meanwhile, Barbara Eden — in a role originally intended for Eurohorror luminary Barbara Steele — is "a gal that wears britches," Roslyn Pierce, the girlfriend of Clint, whose presence adds a soupçon of sexual tension to the storyline.

Although Pacer expresses a certain romantic yearning in the film, gentlemanly Elvis never tried to get too familiar on the set — "absolutely not," Eden said.

For one thing, Eden was married, to actor Michael Ansara, and Elvis was "a huge fan of my husband," Eden said. "I said, 'How do you even know about Mike?' and he said, 'I spend my life in hotel rooms, and I watch television.'"

The star of the late 1950s ABC series "Broken Arrow," Ansara remained a ubiquitous TV presence through the 1980s, appearing in episodes of "Perry Mason," "Wagon Train," "Mod Squad" and "Star Trek," among other shows. In 1965, Elvis worked with Ansara in Presley's 19th feature, "Harum Scarum." (Eden and Ansara divorced in 1974; she's been married since 1991 to Jon Eicholtz, an architectural engineer.)

A Barbara Eden portrait for "Flaming Star."
A Barbara Eden portrait for "Flaming Star."

From 'The Ed Sullivan Show' to Las Vegas

Born Barbara Jean Morehead in Tucson, Arizona, Eden was a beauty pageant winner (the Miss San Francisco of 1951), chorus girl, club dancer and stage actor before she signed a contract with 20th Century Fox in the twilight of the so-called "studio era" of filmmaking. She made memorable appearances on "I Love Lucy" and "The Andy Griffith Show," but "Flaming Star" offered Eden one of her first significant movie roles; she followed that with several films that foreshadowed the fantasy premise that would bring her fame, including "The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm," "7 Faces of Dr. Lao" and a pre-"Jeannie" genie comedy, "The Brass Bottle."

Running on NBC for five seasons, from 1965 to 1970, "I Dream of Jeannie" arrived as network television was deemphasizing the relative realism of "I Love Lucy" and "The Honeymooners" for situation comedies that subverted the quotidian with the uncanny: "My Favorite Martian," "My Mother, the Car," "Mr. Ed" (a talking horse), "The Addams Family," "The Munsters," and "Jeannie"'s closest rival, "Bewitched." The success of "Jeannie" ensured that Eden would be in demand onscreen for years to come, especially in dramatic made-for-TV movies, such as "The Stranger Within" (1975), in which she discovers she has been impregnated by an extraterrestrial.

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Eden said she first became really aware of Elvis in 1956, "when I was rehearsing with some girls. This was way back at the Studio Club (in Hollywood), and they were helping me with a dance I had to learn. And the TV was on, and all of the sudden 'The Ed Sullivan Show' came on and we all stopped and watched and said 'Wow.' We were just mesmerized."

By the time Eden was hired for "Flaming Star," she said, "I liked Elvis a lot, but not like my 13-year-old sister (Alison), who was absolutely over the moon about him. He was kind enough to send her an autographed picture, and by the way, she still has it by her bed."

Eden said that between takes, Elvis, his father, Vernon Presley, and other friends would sing and play guitar. She said Elvis would talk about his late mother, Gladys Presley, and ask questions about marriage.

"He said, 'I have someone I'm thinking about marrying, she's awful young' — and I didn't know how young she was when he said that — and he said, 'I worry about this business and how she'll take to it.'" (Priscilla Beaulieu, who became Priscilla Presley when Elvis married  her in 1967, was 15 when principle photography on "Flaming Star" began in 1960 on, yes, Aug. 16.)

Cheek to cheek  (or cheek  for temple, at least): Barbara Eden and Elvis Presley were co-stars in "Flaming Star."
Cheek to cheek (or cheek for temple, at least): Barbara Eden and Elvis Presley were co-stars in "Flaming Star."

Eden said she hasn't seen Baz Luhrmann's new "Elvis" movie, which depicts "Colonel" Tom Parker (played by Tom Hanks), as the arguable villain of the story. But she said Elvis expressed no resentment about Parker in 1960.

"It was interesting to me, he talked about his beginnings, and how grateful he was to the Colonel. And he said, 'You know, a lot of people don't like him, a lot of people think he's taking advantage of me, but if it wasn't for him, I'd still be playing in little clubs in the South, and look where I am.' I found that interesting, because the Colonel would come around (the set) with his hat on and wave to everyone like he was in a parade. And he set up a table on one of our soundstages with Elvis memorabilia for sale, and we got a giggle out of that."

Jeannie (Barbara Eden) and Air Force astronaut Tony Nelson (Larry Hagman) were married during the final season of "I Dream of Jeannie."
Jeannie (Barbara Eden) and Air Force astronaut Tony Nelson (Larry Hagman) were married during the final season of "I Dream of Jeannie."

Unfortunately, while "Flaming Star" broke the Elvis movie mold, it did not break the bank: The film was a box-office dud. "He didn't get the girl and he didn't sing, so his fans were very disappointed," Eden said. More significant, the 20th Century Fox production arrived in theaters only one month after Elvis' first post-Army release, "G.I. Blues," a colorful, tune-filled, upbeat romantic comedy that was a huge hit for Paramount. The contrast was stark, and the lesson reductive: When making an Elvis movie, stick to the formula.

However, "Flaming Star" did expand the Elvis legend in a way unrelated to the singer's acting career, when Pop artist Andy Warhol adapted a publicity still of Presley in gunfighter attire from the film into a series of large silkscreens. In 2008, one of the Warhol Presley portraits sold in auction to a private owner for $100 million.

Eden said she saw Elvis "many times" after "Flaming Star," socially and otherwise. For instance, she said she was starring in her own Las Vegas stage show when Elvis launched his famous seven-year run of concerts at the International Hotel in 1969.

"Mike, my husband, came to see me between shows and he said, 'Barbara, you have to see him!' He had seen Elvis' first show. So we raced over there and oh my goodness. It was one of the most thrilling things I've ever seen — I don't  have words to describe it. It's like you're transported to another world. What a waste we don't have him today."

Barbara Eden and 'Conversations on Elvis: The Man, the Music, the Legend'

Aug. 15, Graceland Soundstage at Elvis Presley's Memphis, 3797 Elvis Presley Blvd.

Morning session, 10 a.m. to noon: Marlyn Mason (Elvis' co-star in "The Trouble with Girls"); Ernst Jorgenson (Elvis music researcher/historian); Brian "Q" Quinn (TruTV "Impractical Jokers" star and Elvis fan); Sweet Inspirations vocalist Estelle Brown; TCB bandmembers Glen Hardin, James Burton and Jerry Scheff. 

Afternoon session, 1:30-3:30 p.m.: Pat Boone; Barbara Eden; Elvis confidante and talent manager Jerry Schilling; Priscilla Presley.

Tickets: $70 (includes both sessions).

For tickets, more information and a full Elvis Week schedule, visit graceland.com.

This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Elvis Week: Barbara Eden to share memories of working with Presley