Hollywood Film and Television Icon, Barbara Eden, on Addiction, Loss, and Keeping a Legacy Alive

By Felicia Naoum

As the beloved 2,000-year-old Jeannie, Barbara Eden, had the power to grant wishes when she starred in her iconic NBC Series, I Dream of Jeannie.  Sadly, Barbara can’t make her number one wish come true, but she has lived 91 glorious years and is keeping that wish from vanishing by sharing Matthew Ansara’s story. Matthew is Barbara’s late son, who died of a drug overdose, over two decades ago. 

Two decades is a long time, but no amount of time will allow Barbara Eden to stop sharing the story that broke her heart and gave her even more purpose than the beautiful, timeless, highly revered, and respected actress she will always be. Barbara has a story to tell and a legacy to protect. Barbara isn’t one to tell people how to grieve, and she isn’t one to let life’s sorrows win by defining her life as negative. Barbara Eden’s take on life is quite refreshing after suffering the unthinkable, and I’m honored to share her wisdom and insight.

FN: You’ve been associated with the character, Jeannie, long after I Dream of Jeannie ended. Do you ever get tired of Barbara Eden’s identity being forever intertwined with Jeannie’s identity? 

BE: No, not at all. I am very pleased and happy that people still enjoy the show all over the world and not many actors have that benefit, that gift, so I love it. I love all the fans that like me, and they generally like my body of work, too – but Jeannie was, of course, the highlight.

FN: Do you wish you could’ve changed something about your late son’s journey that led to his drug overdose? 

BE: I wish that his father and I had been more knowledgeable about drugs; we didn’t recognize it. We had no idea. First of all, we didn’t even drink at that time in our lives, so it was not something we knew about. It came as a shock when we did discover what was happening. Unfortunately, we found out after he was 18 years old, so we did not have the benefit of sending him to a rehab early and that is so important.  If you can recognize it while they’re young and get them to a rehab, generally it is very successful.

FN: Years ago, when Matthew was struggling, was the topic of addiction as prevalent? 

BE: I don’t believe it was talked about as much.  It was quite prevalent, though. Once we discovered Matthew’s addiction … we went to so many meetings … (Al-Anon).  I had a friend who lost a son before Matthew (when he was still young) and we would go together, all over the city, to different meetings just to listen to people who were addicts or parents or siblings of people who had this problem. It did help us.  Certainly, it broadened my knowledge of the problem because I knew nothing about it. It’s very important to get out.

I truly was never embarrassed by it. I just wanted to find out what I could do for him and how to do it. And many, many people helped me. Many.  But I don’t know. To tell you the truth, at that time, I’m not sure if it was as well known then as it is now. I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to that.  I was just working on our problem. 

FN: From your personal experience, are there warning signs for parents to look for when dealing with a child and substance abuse? 

BE: Number one is anger.  If you find things missing in the house. He was stealing the sterling silver and selling it, but I didn’t know. I discovered that was what was happening. So many of the things that a parent would see in their child is something that is normal teenage actions and that’s what we thought with Matthew. It was just normal. This is just teenage years, but it isn’t. 

The one thing I would say because we always gave Matthew a lot of privacy. I was raised that way.  My mother would never go into my private drawers, or the closet, or whatever I had without my permission, and I wouldn’t go in hers, but I don’t believe in that anymore. I think you have to be very, very careful nowadays and watch and look. Absolutely. Privacy is not an option during the teenage years. It’s just not an option.

FN: Who do you remember Matthew to be separate from the label of an addict?

BE: Oh, he was wonderful. He had a great sense of humor and was very kind. He was large. He was 6 ‘4’’ when he got all of his height.  His dad was a big man also. His friends called him the gentle giant because he was sweet and fun and funny to be with.  And he tried.  He tried very hard to be clean, but it was just something he wasn’t able to do, I guess. 

FN: How do you continue to celebrate Matthew’s legacy? 

BE: Oh. Well, I think about him every day, so I guess you would call that celebrating him. I wish he was still with us because he was really a wonderful, wonderful human being. I was proud of him. I was very proud of him, especially because he tried so hard. He tried so hard to stay clean and sober. I really – I would honor him because he fought a good fight. He really did. 

FN: With over two decades of learning to live without your son, where have you garnered the strength to keep on? 

BE: I don’t even know how to answer that – um – you know life is a gift, so you don’t want to waste it. You mustn’t waste it. I don’t know what else to say other than that. 

FN: That’s Okay. What is your advice to families and individuals who’ve lost someone to a drug overdose? 

BE: I don’t think I can answer that because everyone’s path is different. You know, everyone deals with adversity or problems in a different way. So after the fact, when you’ve lost your loved one, I couldn’t tell anyone how to deal with that. They have to find their own way.

FN: If Barbara Eden had three wishes, what would they be?

BE: (Soft giggles. Oh, my dear, everyone asks that.)

FN: Do they? It wasn’t an original question.

BE: Well, I guess one of the wishes would be, years ago, when Matthew was 14 or 15, I had been (I don’t know how to put it) educated. I wish I had known more about drugs and how they affected the young people because with knowledge you can take care of it, but I didn’t. I didn’t have that. I didn’t know anything about it nor did his father. The other two wishes, well, of course, world peace, and ugh I don’t know. I don’t even think I have a third wish.

FN: That’s okay. Well, I really appreciate your time. I know it was quick, but I got a lot of good information.

BE: Well, I hope; I hope I was able to help. I will talk any time anyone wants to know about my journey because it is just terrible to lose a child and if I could help anyone, I would want to be there and do it. A lot of people helped me.

And I’m certain Barbara Eden’s story will help many, too.

Photo: Michael Caulfield – Getty Images