Get Smart, Green Acres, F Troop, Lost in Space, and The Wild Wild West were among the hit shows launched in the fall TV season of 1965. But none is more beloved than I Dream of Jeannie, the sitcom about the 2,000-year-old genie sprung from her bottle by her “master,” the perplexed astronaut who comes to love her. Not a major hit for NBC during its five-season run (it cracked the Nielsen ratings’ Top 30 just twice, scoring no higher than No. 26), the show found a more loyal audience in reruns on syndicated channels like WPIX-11 in New York, where in a first for a program that had gone off the air it beat its primetime competitors. You can still find it there, in the very early hours, and on the FamilyNet channel as well.
Premiering 50 years ago today, and still part of the pop cultural landscape, this bit of comfort food was whipped up by producer Sidney Sheldon, who would find his own lasting fame a decade later as the author of steamy bestsellers like The Other Side of Midnight, Bloodline, and Rage of Angels. Looking to capitalize on the success of ABC’s Bewitched a season earlier, Sheldon was inspired by a movie, The Brass Bottle (1964), in which Tony Randall uncorks a genie of his own. In the bottle: burly Burl Ives. In the cast: 33-year-old Barbara Eden, as Randall’s girlfriend. Sheldon didn’t want a blonde Jeannie (too close to Elizabeth Montgomery’s blonde Samantha on the rival show) but no other actress approached Eden’s sexiness, humor, and warmth, and the part was hers. Larry Hagman, as Captain Tony Nelson, Jeannie’s ever-astonished benefactor, Bill Daily, as Nelson’s best friend, test pilot Roger Healey, and Hayden Rorke, as the suspicious NASA medical officer Dr. Bellows, who never quite figures out Jeannie’s secret, rounded out the cast.
Much to Sheldon’s dismay the first season of I Dream of Jeannie was in black and white. But this proved a blessing for the show, which, before TV went to all-color production in 1966, had a year to work out some of the kinks with its special effects, including the smoke that accompanies Jeannie from the bottle (which was actually a gussied-up Jim Beam decanter). One aspect of Jeannie that had to stay bottled up was Eden’s navel, hidden beneath her costume, which was in the actress’ favored pink and maroon. In our era of highly publicized “nip slips” and “wardrobe malfunctions” from barely dressed pop stars performing on live TV, the concern over Jeannie’s belly button seems quaint. But NBC’s censors, who forbade it from being “outed” on an episode of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, were unamused when it began to slip out in some of the Jeannie’s later episodes. (That said, Eden recalled one, set on a beach with bikini-clad starlets, where she was the only performer obliged to cover up.)
By then, the scripts, fueled more by the charm and personality of the stars than original wit, had slipped lower and lower in quality. But there was always fun during shooting. In one of the early episodes, the director called “lunch!” and had the crew leave Eden inside an outsized perfume bottle, then used her cries for help on the show. On another shoot, Eden, who had worked with lions before, was the only person on set to “befriend” the toothless old cat who showed up for one episode. When the animal let out a roar, a terrified Hagman and the entire crew ran for cover, leaving the 900-lb. lion purring in Eden’s lap.
Hagman, never far from champagne, began having problems with a different sort of bottle on Jeannie. Increasingly unhappy with the show, the actor progressed (or regressed) from turning up for filming in a gorilla suit to scaring nuns who were visiting the set with an axe and a profane tirade. He irritated guest star Sammy Davis, Jr. with his rudeness. “How do you work with this guy, Barbara? He’s a total a**hole,” he said to Eden. (She took it in stride, and maintained a lifelong friendship with her gifted, exasperating co-star.) One of the few people he listened to was Rorke, a friend of his mother, stage star Mary Martin.
But the actor could not be contained. “There were only four scripts, and we did them over and over again,” Hagman complained. He vented his frustration by throwing up on the set, and once urinated on the furniture when another dud script came his way. (The crew retaliated by spiking his tea with salt.) While considering replacing the actor with veteran star Darren McGavin, NBC executives suggested a therapist—who suggested Hagman unwind with marijuana and LSD, advice he took a little too much to heart. In her book Jeannie Out of the Bottle (2011), Eden recalled, “Henceforth, instead of being nervous, on edge, and confrontational, he started every day at the studio drinking vast quantities of champagne, and in between scenes, he sequestered himself in his dressing room, smoking pot and downing yet more champagne, all in the interests of maintaining a calm serenity.”
Well, it was the 60s.
Jeannie survived only a few months into the 70s before achieving immortality in repeats. Jeannie and Tony married, which pleased network executives who had always been skittish about the two living together but robbed the show of its underlying sexual tension. Daily moved onto The Bob Newhart Show, Rorke did numerous guest shots on other programs, and Hagman, dubbed “The Mad Monk of Malibu” for eccentric behavior like driving his Harley-Davidson to shop for groceries (while wearing a chicken suit, that is) had several wilderness years before striking oil with Dallas in 1978. Eden is still very much Jeannie, even appearing in her original costume (navel exposed) with former President Bill Clinton in 2013. I Dream of Jeannie wasn’t always the easiest show to make, but Jeannie “is easy to live with,” she told The Today Show in July.