In 1976, TV icons Barbara Eden and Hal Linden teamed for a TV comedy movie called “How to Break Up a Happy Divorce,” where Eden’s Ellen started dating Linden’s Tony to try to get her ex-husband jealous.
At the time, Eden was six years removed from her legendary run as the title character in the popular “I Dream of Jeannie,” and was regularly doing TV movies, while Linden was coming off of his first year playing Captain Barney Miller in the police precinct comedy, “Barney Miller,” a show that itself would achieve renowned success.
The two actors didn’t work together again until 2006, when they were reunited in a live production of A.R. Gurney’s “Love Letters.” The pairing went so well, that over the past decade, Eden and Linden have performed the show together dozens of times and will be returning to the show on March 2 at the Ridgefield Playhouse.
“Barbara is the definition of a TV icon,” Linden said. “At every show we do, someone brings a doll or an urn or something associated with her show. She is so beloved.”
“Love Letters” is a two-person show that can be read by a wide variety of actors, all of whom bring something very personal to it, and getting Eden and Linden together is a match made in TV heaven.
“As Sky Masterson said to Mission Sarah, it’s all about chemistry,” Linden said. “It’s a joy working with Barbara.”
The play is one any romantic will love. When Andrew accepts an invitation to Melissa’s birthday party, and she writes a thank-you note, a correspondence is born that will last more than 50 years. Though their relationship constantly changes, these pen pals remain each other’s most trusted confidantes.
“It’s an amazing accomplishment from a dramatic standpoint when you think about it. There’s no action, nobody talks to anyone, there are no scenes and no interplay, I never talk directly to her,” Linden said. “Yet, somehow he has managed just by these reading of letters to bring up all the relationship between the two characters, including near misses and wide misses and dumb choices made along the way.”
Their letters tell how much they really meant to each other over the years — physically apart, perhaps, but spiritually close. As Linden and Eden read the letters out loud, they will create an evocative, touching, frequently funny but always telling pair of character studies in which what is implied is as revealing and meaningful as what is actually written down.
“Just by listening to them, you become involved in it. I know I do every time I do this show,” Linden said. “It’s just an amazing literary accomplishment on the part of Gurney that he was able to pull this off.”
In addition to 10 years worth of performances opposite Eden, Linden has also done “Love Letters” with Dorothy Loudon and Julie Harris.
“They are all different and all bring a different character and you react differently to each one,” he said. “Dorothy found all the jokes and all the humor, while Julie found more of the subtle emotional turns.”
Eden, he noted, is not known for a major dramatic source of material in her career, and yet Linden feels she finds a depth in Melissa that is somewhat surprising.
“It stunned me the first time I heard her do it, this ability to do what has to be done emotionally with the twists and turns as I act as the straight man,” Linden said. “I was honestly surprised. In our movie, it was all light and fluff, but here, she is just really digging in and is wonderful.”
In addition to doing “Love Letters,” Eden’s memoir, Jeannie Out Of The Bottle, became a New York Times Best Seller and details her five-decade Hollywood career. She also still acts occasionally in TV.
Linden has spent the greater part of the past decade returning to his theatrical roots, as before earning three Emmys for television, he started on Broadway, taking home a Tony for the 1971 musical, “Rothschilds.” In fact, he spent 20 years on the Broadway stage before he even got to California.
Today, the song-and-dance man spends time on the golf course when not appearing at concert halls around the country. He also does occasional stage work, last appearing in the Arthur Miller drama “The Price” in Washington, D.C., last year. Even at 87, Linden is excited about finding projects to work on.
He recently appeared in the movie, “The Samuel Project,” guest starred on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” and has the movie, “Granddaddy Daycare” being released in the months ahead.
“I look for a challenge. Something that’s really going to make you work,” Linden said. “But then again, there’s really a challenge in everything you do. You want to figure out what’s going on and figure it out from the inside out. In the last few years. I have done more theater than when I first started.”
He still describes theater as “tough work,” citing the sweat that needs to go into getting a performance just right, though he does say it’s a bit more satisfying for him today.
With so many TV shows being rebooted today, Linden wouldn’t be surprised if “Barney Miller” was updated for the 21st century, though its success would be rooted in finding a cast as strong as those of the original.
“ ‘Barney Miller’ was written out of the daily newspaper. They would sit around and find stories and someone would write something based on what was happening in the day, so why couldn’t they do that now?” he said. “The question is, ‘could they have the same sensibility?’ Maybe, accepted humor has changed a bit; it’s a little more outrageous rather than subtle, but there’s no reason it couldn’t be done.”
For more information, visit ridgefieldplayhouse.org.