When a producer phones from an outfit called April Fools Films, Inc., based in Cincinnati yet, most actresses would hang up. But not Barbara Eden, who had been in a bit of a career bottleneck since I Dream of Jeannie was canceled in 1970. The April folks, no fools at all, had acquired movie rights to Tom T. Hall’s ballad about lechery in the sticks, Harper Valley PTA. Then, in casting for the sexy widow lead, their survey found that Eden was “the sex symbol of men in their 30s.” Barbara, 43 and flattered, signed up for her first major movie role in 14 years. At the same time her luck was changing personally too, when she said “Yes, master” (she really did) in a marriage ceremony with Chicago Sun-Times executive Charles Fegert.
Harper Valley PTA is out now, and even her husband’s paper sneered that it “was made to not be watched.” That may be so—its early distribution includes lots of drive-ins—but the PG-rated laugh’n’leer saga is one of the sleeper hits of the summer. “I’m surprised at how bright and happy and fun it is,” says the star.
Barbara possibly feels the same wonderment about her life these days with Fegert, 46. He’s the advertising VP of the Sun-Times—not to mention the Georgie Jessel of Chicago’s banquet circuit, except that he emcees for free. He introduced himself to her when she was in town singing at the Empire Boom of the Palmer House. Though he had never seen Jeannie, Fegert, in his ex-traverted way, called her “my fantasy dream girl.” A four-year courtship-via-747 ensued. He had had two divorces, she one (after a 15-year marriage to actor Michael Ansara, who played Cochise in TV’s Broken Arrow). “She wouldn’t be a live-in,” Chuck found. “Her values are too traditional.”
They were wed last September, but found commuter marriage didn’t work. “I’ve flown 31 times to see her,” he groused, and so now Eden is rerooting from L.A., selling her house there. The snag was Ansara, who filed a custody suit to keep their son, Matthew, 12, in town. The matter was dropped, but Barbara reports sadly that Matthew “wanted to be with his friends and opted to live with his daddy. It was time,” she adds, “but I cried a lot.”
Eden’s own parents in Tucson were divorced when she was 3. Her mother moved back to San Francisco, where Barbara studied singing (her grandfather was an opera nut) and acting. After a year at San Francisco City College, she moved to L.A. and broke into sitcoms (How to Marry a Millionaire) and movies like Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Then in 1965 came Jeannie, still a staple in reruns in 37 countries. In that pre-Cher era, NBC censors required Eden to wear the only waist-high harem pants in existence. “With all the world’s problems,” she shrugs, “I could care less whether my navel showed.”
In Harper Valley, though, she squabbled with producer Phil Borack over a micromini, which she thought would look ridiculous. “She has gorgeous legs,” argued Borack, before they compromised halfway. He was right, perhaps, judging from her Playtex pantyhose commercial and the fact that Bob Hope books her for his road tours. Eden also headlines everywhere from Disneyland to Vegas, is planning more TV movies (she’s made one annually for seven years) and doesn’t rule out another TV series. All totaled, residuals plus appearances bring her an income of about $1 million a year. Yet her best friend, Revel Kennedy (actor George’s estranged wife), observes: “Barbara has a great deal of confusion in her life. She is handling it, but it is hard to be in three places at one time.” Fegert, no candidate for NOW’s Husband-of-the-Year, crows, “Barbara will make a spectacular wife once I get her in the kitchen.”
That may not happen, but she is settling into their $274,000 condominium overlooking the Chicago lakefront. Chuck is installing a mirrored Jacuzzi in their bedroom, possibly to give him material for his toastmaster routines. When Barbara is asked how she maintains her 112-pound figure despite what Chuck calls her “$200-a-day junk food habit,” he jokes: “She’s a nymphomaniac. It’s time the world knows.” Eden responds in a way that shows her career is once again healthy enough to say what she really feels. “I jog,” she admits, and then figures to hell with the national mania. “I hate it, but I do it.”