This will be a new occasional feature here – a closer look at single characters from classic shows, and what makes them special.
The choice to inaugurate this series with Dr. Alfred Bellows from I Dream of Jeannie was not a random one, as it seemed particularly appropriate to this current age.
We live in a time when, like the good doctor, we are regularly presented with situations and moments that are beyond belief to a rational mind. Yet when we tell others about them, we are disregarded. Worse, we know something is wrong when we see it, but often find that it is we who are maligned for speaking truth. The crazy gets a pass, and we are the troublemakers.
Such is the fate that always befalls Dr. Alfred Bellows, a respected NASA psychiatrist based in Cocoa Beach, Florida. He knows there are strange, inexplicable occurrences happening at Major Nelson’s home; he sees things that shouldn’t be possible, yet every time he tries to restore the natural order by calling attention to what he rightly views as madness, it is he who winds up looking foolish.
It’s hard not to sympathize with him. But it’s harder not to treasure those moments, because they are, to me, the principal reason I still enjoy I Dream of Jeannie. Barbara Eden’s Jeannie was gorgeous and bubbly and mischievous, and Bill Daily’s Major Healey was a staunch second banana. But the scenes that still deliver the biggest laughs on this show are those between Larry Hagman and Hayden Rorke.
It’s always the same set-up: Jeannie will blink Tony into some bizarre costume or surroundings, and then disappear just before Dr. Bellows enters. He will be appropriately astonished and then ask what is going on: “I can’t wait to hear your explanation of what you’re doing with an elephant in your bedroom.”
Tony will then stammer out a lame elucidation that Bellows doesn’t buy for a moment, and then he sets out to find someone to corroborate his allegations – usually his superior officer (either General Peterson or General Schaeffer, depending on the season or the episode). But by the time the General arrives on the scene, Jeannie has blinked everything back to normal, and a frustrated Bellows is once again thwarted.
Something like this happens in at least half of the series’ 139 episodes. That these moments still elicit a smile to viewers’ faces is a testament to what Hagman and Rorke bring to their roles.
Though Rorke died in 1987, there is a website that pays tribute to the man and his work that describes his approach to Dr. Bellows this way: “He’s a comedic antagonist who’s never in on the joke, always a step behind, and consistently being fooled. Play him too clueless and he’s a Gladys Kravitz. Play him too stern and he’s a Mr. Wilson. Hayden could thread the needle and make a character who is essentially the spoilsport into a charming, endearing man.”
He was indeed charming, with his deep melodious voice and dignified professional bearing. One imagines his military career was one of quiet distinction and steady advancement, until Major Nelson came into his life. That is when his grip on reality would gradually begin to unravel, in early season one episodes like “Anybody Here Seen Jeannie?” That’s when Jeannie sabotages Tony’s medical tests to stop him from going into space.
“The results are beyond my wildest expectations,” Bellows says after looking at impossible readings. Later, after a stern lecture from Tony, Jeannie begins sabotaging Dr. Bellows’ attempt to write up his report, not to mention his dinner, to the point where he begins to doubt his own sanity.
Later that season, Dr. Bellows moves in with Major Nelson (“Permanent House Guest”) and is witness to one bizarre occurrence after another – it may be the most concentrated mental torture Jeannie inflicts on him in five seasons. He flees in the middle of the night, believing the house to be haunted.
As the series progressed Rorke wisely modulated his performance. One can only be astonished by the inexplicable for so long, before that astonishment turns to bewildered resignation. By season two’s “My Master, The Rainmaker,” he is no longer amazed at a snowfall over Tony’s house in Florida, in July.
By this point he regards Tony as Captain Ahab regarded the white whale – the bane of his existence, and one that must be conquered: ““Fine. I’ll accept that. It’s no more ridiculous than any of your other explanations,” he would say after Jeannie’s latest stunt. But he’s not going down without a fight. “Some men dedicate their lives to science, some men dedicate their lives to politics,” he tells Major Nelson. “I’m dedicating my life to understanding you.”
In the season four episode called “Dr. Bellows Goes Sane” he is ready to make his move. Dr. Bellows presents a summary of his observations to General Peterson, entitled “A Clinical Report on Major Anthony Nelson: A Factual Dossier on Every Unexplained Incident in Which Major Nelson Has Been Involved for the Last Three Years.” It’s all in there – sudden appearances and disappearances, giraffes, bears and other wildlife in Tony’s home. But after reading through the more-than-100-page document, Peterson concludes, “Any man who would turn in a report like that has got to be a candidate for a padded cell.”
“I feel sorry for Dr. Bellows. He is a very nice man,” Jeannie once said after driving him to the brink of a nervous breakdown. I do too. But it’s his close encounters with her magic that make I Dream of Jeannie classic television.