Although a comedy series, it wasn't the funniest TV show ever to hit the airwaves. The episodes weren't deep, meaningful, or insightful. And the comedic performances certainly weren't brilliant, unlike Lucille Ball in I Love Lucy or Jackie Gleason in The Honeymooners. But I Dream of Jeannie is unquestionably a television classic.
In 1964, writer Sidney Sheldon wrote a pilot about a NASA astronaut finding a genie in a bottle while stranded on an island. The pretty but naive and impetuous genie moves in with her benefactor and chaos results.
During the show's original casting, Sheldon had looked only at dark, ethnic, exotic girls to play the lead character, a genie named Jeannie. But he finally decided on a very WASPish, all-American blond actress named Barbara Eden. For the male lead, the astronaut character Major Anthony Nelson, after a big casting call that included actor Robert Conrad, he finally selected "a young Jack Lemmon" named Larry Hagman.
During season one, actress Eden was actually pregnant. When she found out the news, she told Sheldon and assumed she'd be replaced. But no, instead she was draped over in dozens of veils, covering her up like a small pup tent during the show's inaugural year. .
Although laughable by today's "anything goes" standards, the censorship on I Dream of Jeannie was heavily enforced by the suits at NBC. Barbara Eden was to wear a semi-skimpy pink harem outfit (she chose the pink, her favorite color). But the linings of the legs on her outfit had to be covered by thick cloth, thick enough so Eden's legs wouldn't show through.
Jeannie could never be shown in Major Nelson's bedroom without the door being open. And when Jeannie blinked and became pink smoke and went under Major Nelson's door, the puff of smoke also had to be shown leaving under the door in the same fashion.
And of course, the most famous censorship present was the "no belly button" rule for Eden's character. Eden was to recall an ironic episode in which Jeannie and Tony are on the beach together. Although Jeannie had on a full one-piece swimsuit, several beautiful girls were also in the scene, clad in skimpy bikinis -belly buttons in full view.
While the chemistry and "sexual tension" between Eden and Hagman was definitely always present, Larry Hagman's behavior was erratic to say the least. Apparently extremely insecure and determined to be the "star" of the show, Hagman's bizarre antics during the show's run are probably the strangest in television history.
As if his usual routine of drinking voluminous quantities of champagne in his dressing room wasn't enough, Hagman later indulged in both marijuana and LSD. This, along with his deep insecurity, must have caused Hagman to act, for the series' entire five-year run, like a combination tyrant and spoiled child.
Often, when he didn't like a particular show's script, Hagman would throw up all over the I Dream of Jeannie set. Once, when he felt upset about the latest script, he urinated over the entire set, furniture and all. On another occasion, a group of nuns came to the set to visit. Hagman scared the poor ladies to death by loudly cursing every foul four-letter-word and wielding an axe like a crazed maniac. Once, Barbara remembers Larry arriving to the set dressed in a gorilla suit.
It was actually recommended by the heads of NBC that Hagman visit a therapist. Ironically, it was the therapist who recommended the LSD and marijuana doses for the unstable patient to "calm him down."
Hagman's loud, rude outbursts came routinely, even with big name guest stars on the show. When the great Sammy Davis, Jr. guest starred, Hagman was asked to read him his lines off-camera. Hagman responded by drooling out of his mouth, like a baby. Davis, according to Eden, was "ready to kill" his co-star. Because of his erratic behavior, the studio broached the idea of replacing their Major Nelson, but Barbara Eden came to his defense and nixed the idea.
The show's directors, and even the crew hated Hagman. Once, he demanded a cup of tea be brought to him, Barbara recalled the crew's covert delight when Hagman sipped the tea they had mixed with salt, and spit it out.
Despite his outrageous behavior, Hagman was good in his role and delivered the goods when the camera was rolling.
For season one of the show, I Dream of Jeannie was filmed in black and white (it was actually the last-ever network series to be filmed that way). The reason it wasn't filmed in color was because the network didn't have enough faith in the series to ante up the extra $400 to get color film.
Actress Eden has often commented about the feminists who objected to the show's basic premise, that of a subservient genie saying "Yes, Master" and catering to his every wish. She has always dismissed these women (in not-so-friendly terms). Eden always pointed out that Jeannie, being far from subservient, actually only "obeyed" her "master" when she desired to. More often that not, Jeannie went directly against Major Nelson and just did whatever she pleased. In a majority of the episodes, Jeannie becomes the "boss" and Major Nelson the "fall guy."
In several episodes, Eden also played the role of Jeannie's dark-haired "evil twin" sister. Also named Jeannie, and listed in the scripts as "Jeannie II," Eden shows her talent and versatility by playing the role with humor and conviction. According to Eden, she always received fan mail asking, "Who plays Jeannie's sister on the show?" not realizing it was Barbara in a brunette wig.
Never a huge ratings hit, and never a critical favorite, I Dream of Jeannie had a nice four-year run and was rolling along quite nicely until season five. That was when the NBC executives decided that Major Nelson and Jeannie should get married.
Both Eden and Hagman knew this was a fatal mistake, killing the show's ever-present sexual tension. Eden and Hagman were, possibly, the hottest-looking, most attractive couple in TV history. (Barbara Eden has always been the most beautiful woman ever for me and my fantasies, and I swear, I have spoken to dozens of girls and women over the years who though Major Nelson was hot.)
The wedding episode did garner high ratings, but it was all downhill from there. The show's plots became weaker and the magic was gone. In the summer of 1970, after a five-year run and 139 episodes, I Dream of Jeannie ended its run.
It has never left the air since and is still shown, and enjoyed, in reruns, on video and DVD, all over the world. Barbara Eden says she has received I Dream of Jeannie fan mail from every imaginable country, including Iraq. I Dream of Jeannie is a part of American pop culture, and is one of the most beloved series of all time.