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The Bewitching Agnes Moorehead's Long Pre-Sitcom Career
You probably remember her best as Samantha’s kooky, mortal-hating mother, Endora, on the hit 1960s television sit-com, Bewitched, but Agnes Moorehead had a long and diverse career long before Bewitched … and she was quick to remind people of that. After all, the actress appears in Citizen Kane, studied pantomime with the great Marcel Marceau, earned a doctorate in literature, enjoyed a successful radio career, and acted alongside Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, and Lauren Bacall. No wonder Agnes Moorehead felt that an implausible TV sitcom was beneath her.
Agnes Moorehead was born in 1900 in Massachusetts. Her mother was a former opera singer, and her father was a Presbyterian minister. Education was very important to her father. Because of his guidance, Moorehead earned a bachelor’s degree from Muskingum College in Ohio, then a master’s degree in English from the University of Wisconsin, and a doctorate in literature from Bradley University. She found plenty of time for her own interests. She made her public singing debut at the age of three. At ten years old, she joined the St. Louis Municipal Opera as a singer and dancer.
As a young woman, Agnes Moorehead traveled to Paris, France. There, she studied pantomime under Marcel Marceau. You might think that pantomime would be a pointless skill to have, but Moorehead drew on this experience for one of her first television roles. She was tapped by director Douglas Heyes to star in the 1961 episode of The Twilight Zone called “The Invaders.” In this episode, Moorehead plays a lonely woman who single-handedly defends her isolated farmhouse from an alien invasion. She doesn’t speak a single word, yet the audience can feel her emotions through her pantomimed acting.
Orson Wells, “War of the Worlds”, and Citizen Kane
It was working on the radio show, "The Shadow", that Agnes Moorehead befriended actor Orson Welles. In 1937, Wells invited Moorehead to join him on his famous “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast that was released the following year. Wells was pleased with Moorehead’s performance on the radio show and kept her in mind for his next mega project, Citizen Kane. Moorehead was able to play characters that were older than her actual age, so Wells cast her as his character’s mother in the 1941 Citizen Kane, which has been called by many people as the best movie ever made. Not bad for her film debut.
In 1964, Agnes Moorehead, now in her mid-sixties, took the role of Endora in the television sitcom, Bewitched. As an accomplished stage, radio, and film actress, Moorehead believed her talents and experiences made her overqualified for television and she thought the whole premise of Bewitched was preposterous. Yet she took the role. She was certain that the sitcom would flop so she insisted that her contract include a clause that required her to appear in only eight of every twelve episodes, freeing up time to pursue other projects. She called the Bewitched scriptwriters “hacks” and had a contentious relationship with the show’s co-star Dick Sargent.
As the sharp-tongued Endora on Bewitched, Agnes Moorehead found a wider fan base and greater success than she had previously known, much to her dismay. She felt stifled by the popularity of the show. Still, she remained on the show throughout its run, which ended in 1972. During that time, she was nominated for six Emmy Awards. Whenever someone remarked on her television success, Moorehead responded by reminding them of her lengthy and distinguished career that came before. In an interview with the New York Times in 1974, Moorehead noted, “I’ve been in movies and played theater from coast to coast, so I was quite well known before Bewitched, and I don’t particularly want to be identified as a witch.” And yet, much to her chagrin, we still associate Agnes Moorehead with her role as the eccentric Endora on Bewitched.
Tags: Agnes Moorehead | Bewitched
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