Updated: Jan 30
She was nominated for an Oscar four times. She won an Emmy Award and two Golden Globe Awards. She was once the most sought after and highest paid supporting actress in Hollywood. If I could go back in time and be involved in any classic film or radio program, it would have to star Agnes Moorehead. Instead, in reality all I can do is read, write and talk about her, which I never tire of.
This may surprise you, but a lot has been written about her sexuality and a rumored romance with Debbie Reynolds. Little is known about her son who ran away as a teenager and was never heard from again. Agnes Moorehead was a lifelong devout Christian. Her Bewitched co-star Dick Sargent said she would arrive on set with “the Bible in one hand and the script in the other.” She even performed on The Oral Roberts Easter Special in 1970 which you can find today on YouTube.
This story is about none of those things. Aided by Agnes Moorehead quotes from a 1970 Canadian Broadcasting radio interview, this story is about one of the greatest American actors who’s known by three generations as only one character, a flamboyant witch mother-in-law who torments her witch daughter’s mortal husband with comedy magic. Poor “Durwood.”
Acting was not Moorehead’s first vocation. At the insistence of her father, a Presbyterian minister, she earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and taught public school for five years while earning a master’s degree in English and public speaking. However, her desire to become an actress was seeded at an early age and grew stronger with the encouragement of her father.
“I guess my father recognized the fact that I was in another world all my own and he recognized the fact that I was somewhat of an exhibitionist and the fact that I had a knack of interpreting and he would never say no to me. He would always be amused or entertained or would go along with me.”
Like most actors, getting her acting career off the ground was not easy for Agnes Moorehead. Her first attempt to get into films was a total rejection. Luckily for her, radio programs loved her and she was soon in demand. In 1937, she joined Orson Welles’ Mercury Players as a principal performer. When Welles began working for RKO Studios, he moved the Mercury Theatre from New York City to Hollywood and Moorehead came with him. Soon after, she made her film debut as the mother of Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane (1941).
“I was very fortunate that I had Orson Welles who is a great mentor and guide. I was with him for 17 years, and Charles Laughton and Paul Gregory…three men who believed in me and who really helped me into maybe characterization that maybe I couldn’t have done myself.”
Moorehead’s second appearance on screen would earn her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress in another Orson Welles classic, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Her portrayal of Fanny, the pent-up yet explosively volatile aunt of the pretentious main character, won Moorehead the New York Film Critics Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Agnes Moorehead remained in-demand by radio programs. She was often introduced as the “First Lady of Suspense.” On film, she continued to showcase her strong “Big Screen” acting talents and incredible versatility. In 1944, she gave what could be considered a picture-stealing performance as Baroness Aspasia Conti, a French aristocrat and close friend and former mistress of Mr. Parkington in Mrs. Parkington. It earned her a second Academy Award nomination for Supporting Actress and won her a Golden Globe Award.
Agnes Moorehead’s work ethic was extraordinary. In the 1940s she was working exhausting film schedules while acting almost non-stop in radio programs such as Suspense, Bringing Up Father, Mayor of the Town, and the title role in The Amazing Mrs. Danberry. Oh, and in 1948 she earned her third Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress in Johnny Belinda. When she negotiated a $6,000 a week contract with Metro-Goldwyn Mayer it came with a clause allowing her to continue her radio work. MGM would not allow any other actor to do that, but the studio knew Moorehead’s stellar reputation for appearing in the right shows.
The next two decades added theatre and television to Agnes Moorehead’s already busy schedule. She toured with the company of Charles Boyer, Charles Laughton, and Sir Cedric Hardwick in a stage production of Don Juan in Hell. She guest starred on numerous television shows such as The Twilight Zone, The Rifleman, and The Wild, Wild West which won her an Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series. That’s right. She was nominated four times for an Emmy as Endora, but never won. She won for playing a matchmaker suspected of murder in The Wild, Wild West episode The Night of Vicious Valentine.
“We were doing TV, right and I was mystified. I’m behind camera acting and delivering my lines to her and she doesn’t need me. She’s got her own stuff going on. It wasn’t until I had done more television that I realized what she taught me…don’t rely on other actors to make your performance.”
-James Earl Jones
Smack dab in the middle of this two decades of constant work on radio, on stage, and on television, Agnes Moorehead score her fourth Oscar nomination and her second Golden Globe win for Best Supporting Actress in Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964). Her co-stars Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland got nada, zilch, nothing from those who handout awards. Davis and de Havilland have a combined total of 15 Oscar nominations and three wins, but in Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte those two great actresses were outmatched by the frumpy, unkept, gruff and rough unsophisticated, unrefined housekeeper created by Agnes Moorehead.
“You know I think you have to draw upon your personality to do any kind of characterization and I think you have to be definite about the characterization. Once you have given birth to it you have to be very definite about it.”
Agnes Moorehead’s own personality was probably on display at its best in The Bat (1959), a murder mystery, horror, light comedy co-starring Vincent Price. Moorehead is the star and plays a successful murder mystery writer forced to use her murder mystery writing skills to capture a masked killer who calls himself The Bat. In an age of H-bomb giant movie monsters and battling space alien cinema, the film was not well received. However, it has grown in popularity over time. It is my personal favorite murder mystery, horror, light comedy. Lucky for you, it is now in public domain and can be watched for free on the internet.
One afternoon in the mid-1960s when I was a kid and every television station had an afternoon or late night movie, my sister and I were watching a film noir from 1950 titled Caged. Eleanor Parker starred as a naïve young newlywed sent to prison for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Suddenly during our popcorn-feasting viewing, my sister screamed, “That warden is Endora!” Which brings me to the point I made earlier. There are three generations who know Agnes Moorehead only from Bewitched.
"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."
Agnes Moorehead never expected Bewitched to succeed, let alone become a massive hit which is still in syndication here in the 21st Century. In a 1965 TV Guide interview, Moorehead said she felt trapped by the role of Endora, but it brought her a level of recognition she had never experienced during her Oscar-nominated days. She stayed with the show during its entire run from 1964 to 1972. She would later confess to The New York Times that she enjoyed playing Endora.
“It was not challenging. The show itself was not breathtaking, but the flamboyant and colorful character appealed to children.”
Agnes Moorehead work in other classic television shows in the 1970s. She returned to the Broadway stage and reprised her role in Don Juan in Hell. Three months before her death in 1974, she returned to the medium which first embraced her acting skills in 1926…radio. She appeared in the first episode of CBS Radio Mystery Theater which relied upon the old radio masters and Agnes Moorehead was certainly a master of all acting mediums, the stage, radio, film, television, and now posthumously...the internet.