I Dream of Jeannie was created and produced by Sidney Sheldon* and it seems like for a long time, he was the only person that believed in it. He originally wanted the first season to film in color — it was one of only two shows on NBC at the time not in color, but special photographic effects employed to achieve Jeannie’s magic weren’t technologically advanced enough to be in a full range of colors yet — but NBC did not want to pay it.
It was $400 an episode.
The network and Screen Gems didn’t think the show would make it to a second season. But Sheldon saw that ABC’s Bewitched was a success and bet on the show.
He was right. It was in the top 30 shows for almost every year that it was on before becoming a syndication powerhouse.
In the pilot episode, “The Lady in the Bottle”, astronaut USAF Captain Tony Nelson (Larry Hagman) lands his one-man capsule Stardust One on a deserted island in the South Pacific. While wandering the beach, Tony notices a strange bottle** that moves by itself. When he rubs it, smoke and a genie (Barbara Eden) pop out.
Tony’s first wish is to be able to understand her, then for a helicopter to rescue him. Jeannie, who has been trapped in the bottle for 2,000 years, falls in love with him and follows Tony back home where she soon breaks up his engagement with his commanding general’s daughter, Melissa. It seems like this was a storyline being set up for the long game, but Sheldon realized that this romantic triangle didn’t have much rope.
Tony keeps Jeannie in her bottle until he realizes she needs a life of her own, which is mostly her using her genie powers to try and make his life better. He worries that if anyone finds out that she exists that he won’t get to be part of NASA, but his worries lead him to being investigated by psychiatrist U.S. Air Force Colonel Dr. Alfred Bellows (Hayden Rorke) with the only person — at first — that knows his secret being Major Roger Healey (Bill Daly).
Unlike many of the sitcoms of the era, I Dream of Jeannie had multipart story arcs (which were created to serve as backgrounds for national contests). For example, nobody knew when Jeannie’s birthday was and the guessing game led to a contest, with the answer being April 1. There was also a four-episode event where Jeannie was locked in a safe on the moon and fans had to guess the combination to save her and another where Tony was replaced and had to be found. But there are also several long storylines, like Jeannie’s evil sister also named Jeannie, Jeannie’s ever-changing origin story which includes Eden’s first husband Michael Ansara as the Blue Djinn, Jeannie taking over the crown of her home country Basenji and so many more.
Supposedly, Hagman was so hard to work with that the producers seriously considered replacing him with Darren McGavin. They even wrote out a story with Tony losing Jeannie and McGavin finding her, but it never ended up happening. In her 2011 book Jeannie Out of the Bottle, Eden wrote, “Larry himself has made no secret about the fact he was taking drugs and drinking too much through many of the I Dream of Jeannie years and that he has regrets about how that impacted him.”
When there were two TV movies in the 80s, Hagman didn’t return. In I Dream of Jeannie… Fifteen Years Later his role was played by Wayne Rogers and as he’s on a space mission in I Still Dream of Jeannie, he’s simply written out and Hagman’s Dallas co-star Ken Kercheval took over as Jeannie’s master. There was also a cartoon called Jeannie that aired from 1973 to 1975 that had Julie McWhirter (who in addition to being the voice in so many cartoons is also the wife of Rick Dees) play Jeannie, “Curly” Joe Besser as Babu a genie in training and Mark Hamill as Corey Anders, a high school student.
Eden has also gone on the record as saying that she never connected with another actor in the same way as she did with Hagman. They’d reunite for the 1971 TV movie A Howling in the Woods.
Why did the show end? It was still near the top thirty after all. Well, Eden believes that there were enough episodes for syndication already and the ratings had gone down after Jeannie and Nelson got married in season 5. No one except for the network wanted that and it eliminated the romantic tension of the show.
I grew up watching this show multiple times a day, often paired with its one-time rival Bewitched. Just going back through these — the original 8 episodes with Paul Frees narration instead of the theme song are a revelation — has made the end of the year doldrums so much better.
*Sheldon was inspired by the movie The Brass Bottle, which has Tony Randall’s character get a genie played by Burl Ives. Randall’s girlfriend was played by Eden.
**The bottle is actually a special Christmas 1964 Jim Beam liquor decanter containing “Beam’s Choice” bourbon whiskey. How weird is that?