Barbara Eden's Reaction To Her Lion Co-Star Was Braver Than You'd Expect

Although the instrumental version was all that was used for the show, the theme song for "I Dream of Jeannie" had lyrics. They describe its titular heroine as a magical being capable of working miracles. "She smiles, Presto the rain goes. She blinks, up come the rainbows," the song says (via Lyrics on Demand). Perhaps lyricist Hugo Montenegro should have added lion taming to the list. It turns out that Barbara Eden, the remarkable real woman behind the fictional Jeannie, was quite capable of charming a big cat that terrified her male co-star Larry Hagman.

Eden recounts the incident in her memoir "Jeannie Out of the Bottle" (via ABC News). The episode that brought a lion to set was titled "The Americanization of Jeannie." The episode featured a very special guest star: Zamba the African lion (via IMDb). In the episode, Jeannie asks Captain Nelson, played by Hagman, to allow her to bring her pet into the house, according to Eden's memoir. Nelson agrees without realizing that her pet is a very big cat indeed. 

A pair of professionals

Barbara Eden had experience working with lions before "The Americanization of Jeannie." She had acted in two movies alongside lion co-stars, as she told Fox News in 2017. Because of this, she knew they wouldn't hurt her. "They're male lions, they're lazy," she told Fox. "If they're well fed, they don't really want to eat you." She also knew the key to getting along with the fearsome predators. What's required, she recalled in her memoir, is staying as still as possible, letting the lion smell you, and then carefully giving him a pet (via ABC News). She also knew to scratch the lion behind the ears but not on the ears directly, she told Fox. 

Zamba the lion was also a consummate professional. Brought to the U.S. from Zimbabwe when he was four weeks old, by the time "The Americanization of Jeannie" aired he was already a famous actor earning $75,000 a year, according to "What America Watched: Television Favorites from the Cornfields to the Cosmos, 1960s-1990s." He played Kitty Kat in "The Addams Family" and appeared in the 1965 movie "Fluffy" with Tony Randall and Shirley Jones. He also did a stint as the MGM lion, according to KHQ.

Rejected advice

Because Barbara Eden had experience acting with lions, she was able to provide advice to her co-star, Larry Hagman. She told him her steps for making lions comfortable around her on set. "We have to go make friends with the lion," she told Hagman, as she later recounted to Fox News. However, Hagman wasn't ready to hear what she had to say. "I'm not going to make any friends with any bleep lion!" she remembers him exclaiming before walking away.

This meant that only Eden was present when Zamba first came onto the set to get used to his co-stars. She said in her memoir that she followed her training by letting Zamba smell her and then lick her fingers (via ABC News). She then petted him under his chin. "He gives me a sidelong glance and visibly relaxes, and I silently congratulate myself on our new and warm friendship," she wrote. Zamba then left the set to get ready for his big entrance. 

Hear me roar!

Hagman would come to regret his decision to skip the lion bonding time. In the scene, Zamba was supposed to set his paws on the back of a couch that Eden and Hagman were sitting on, as Eden recalled in her memoir (via ABC News). So Eden and Hagman sat down together on the couch awaiting Zamba's entrance with a slice of red meat set between them. When Zamba entered the set, however, he had an unexpected reaction to Hagman. He roared. "It was the loudest roar you have ever heard in your life," Eden told Fox.

This frightened not only Hagman, but the rest of male crew members. All of them fled the set en masse, breaking the camera and leaving Eden behind with her new friend. "I had a 600-pound lion on my lap purring," Eden told Fox. "He put his head in my lap and started to lick my arm, like a great, big pussycat." Truly, a feat of lion taming worthy of a genie.