Some television stars stay in our affections long after their series have ended, reminding us of our past in reruns, YouTube clips or memes.
Though Barbara Eden and Hal Linden, both 87, have had many roles in long and varied careers, the characters they created in their hit series reflected their decades, defined their culture, and remained sweet memories for their fans. Eden starred in I Dream of Jeannie from 1965-70, while Linden’s turn in Barney Miller spanned from 1975-82.
They are starring at the Ridgefield Playhouse on March 2 in A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters, a story told in the correspondence of a lifelong relationship between two friends who grew up both together and apart. In separate interviews, Eden and Linden discuss missed opportunities, love at first sight and loving their TV characters. This is an edited version of the conversations.
CTM: Love Letters has a “roads not taken” feeling.
Eden: I think we’ve all had some experience with that. But I don’t think we “choose” necessarily. Many times life just takes us where it will. That’s one of the more interesting things about life, to tell you the truth, because you never know what’s around the corner, especially being an actor. But you can’t waste your time regretting “what if… ?”
Linden: I have thought about [the time someone suggested I turn to acting when I hadn’t given it thought]. What would have happened if I didn’t? Normally I would say, well, I would have found another way to enter into acting and eventually gotten into it. Of course, I would have had a different life in the process and I wouldn’t have met my wife, whom I met in my first show. I don’t know. I would have probably remained a musician until the [big band] music business died and I would have found a job somewhere. The roads not taken? Everybody’s got them. If I had the slightest amount of discipline I probably would have spent my life playing first-chair clarinet in a major symphony somewhere. I was that good.
Do you believe in love at first sight?
Linden: No, I don’t think so. I believe in lust at first sight. And I suspect that’s probably more the case. Let’s face it. You are responding to a physical presence, but it’s not who the person really is, so it can’t be real love.
Eden: I think love at first sight should occur with everyone we meet. I can’t answer that question because there are so many different kinds of love. Lasting love takes time. With all love, though, we have to be open to it because it’s always there. It’s easy to love people if you’re open to it.
Have you ever had to do romantic scenes with actors you didn’t like?
Linden: [Laughing] Er … yes. I’ve not done many really romantic scenes in my career but those like you describe, let’s just say we had to do a little more acting there. But those scenes are usually very technical anyway.
Eden: Oh, many times!
Eden: Oh, I’m not going to say. But let’s just say that’s why an actor has an imagination. I’m doing a job and I’m acting and it’s real but it’s not real.
Any crushes? You’ve worked with such sexy men as Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood, Robert Goulet, Fabian, Elvis…
Eden: No, I didn’t. It’s odd? But when I was starting out in theater as a teenager, I would have huge crushes on maybe the choreographer or the director because they were older and I thought they were wonderfully sexy people. They were probably gay but I didn’t know that.
Does an actor have to “love” their character? Did you have personal affection for Jeannie and Barney?
Eden: Oh, yes, indeed, and she was fun to play because she had so many quirks but she was also very wise.
Linden: I think Barney was the person I would love to have been. One day I asked [the show’s creator] Danny Arnold why he hired me, because I never auditioned, and he said he saw me in [a Tony Award-winning performance in the musical] The Rothschilds and he wanted to invest Barney with that sense of Talmudic decency and justice. I can’t claim that quality, although I aspire to it, but Barney Miller was just a better human being than I am.
Who ended up with the genie bottle?
Eden: I did! I had it on our shelf and it got bounced around during the last earthquake, so it’s in a safe deposit box. The Smithsonian wanted it but, oh my goodness, it became quite complicated. They’ll get it when I kick the bucket.
Last year, Mr. Linden, you were in a new musical at the Ogunquit Playhouse [in Maine] with Ed Dixon, Grumpy Old Men.
Linden: I was the dirty old man. And I also did an independent film, The Samuel Project, which is now making the film festival circuit. I just did a reading of a new play in San Diego and I’m looking for the next project. And when this interview is over I’m out to play nine holes of golf.