Agnes Moorehead (1900 – 1974):
I’ve worked with the tops, and I think they are marvelous. I’m always excited at doing scenes with people who are very experienced and know what they are doing. It’s the people who don’t know what they’re about and are self-indulgent who are very difficult to play with.
It took me some time to realize that a favorite childhood television sitcom, Bewitched (1963-1972) was actually a satirical allegory on the issue of modern American prejudice. Elizabeth Montgomery plays Samantha, a witch with impressive supernatural talent, who lives among the mortals while hiding her true identity from a society who would never accept her. She is in the broom-closet.
Moorehead, plays Endora, Samantha’s oddly single, meddling mother who hates Samantha’s father, played by a very fey Maurice Evans. Endora insists that Samantha not hide away her true nature just because she might possibly be rejected by society. Each episode of the popular show was another zany example of the perils of not coming out of the closet.
The series has possibly the gayest cast ever: Moorehead, Evans, Dick Sergeant (Darrin number two), and of course Paul Lynde as Uncle Arthur. If that wasn’t enough, Montgomery was an avid early activist for Gay Rights, happily agreeing to appear in Pride Parades. Montgomery:
I don’t think that didn’t enter our minds at the time. We talked about it on the set… that this was about people not being allowed to be what they really are. If you think about it, Bewitched is about repression in general and all the frustration and trouble it can cause. It was a neat message to get across to people at that time in a subtle way.
Moorehead was very fond of the original Darren, Dick York, but she would drive Sergeant, the second Darren, to tears.
Moorehead was a serious actor who worked in the theatre, most famously as part of Orson Wells‘ Mercury Theatre Group from 1937-1946, where she played Lady Macbeth to Wells’ title role in the Scottish Play. She frequently worked in radio, originating the lead role in Sorry, Wrong Number (1943), which, despite what you may think, is not about a trick gone wrong.
Moorehead appeared in more than 60 films over three decades. She was nominated for an Academy Award four times: The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Mrs. Parkington (1944), Johnny Belinda (1948), and Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964).
She won two Golden Globe Awards, with the wins 20 years apart. She was nominated for an Emmy Award six times for her work on Bewitched, and won an Emmy for her guest spot on The Wild Wild West in 1967.
It was an open secret in Hollywood and in the theatre world that Moorehead had love affairs with other women, but she was consistently circumspect in commenting on her personal life:
A certain amount of aloofness on one’s part at times, because an actor can so easily be hurt by unfair criticism… an artist should maintain glamour and a kind of mystery.
Moorehead’s position probably was directed by the knowledge that living life in the open as a lesbian would have brought disastrous ramifications to her acting career.
Her Bewitched co-star, the closeted Paul Lynde, was less reticent:
The whole world knows that Agnes was a lesbian. I mean classy as hell, but one of the all-time Hollywood dykes. When one of her husbands was caught cheating, Agnes screamed at him that if he could have a mistress, so could she!
Morehead’s film roles include many dyke-ish stereotypes: a WAC officer, a madam, and a superintendent of a women’s prison, unmarried women, spinster aunts, nuns, governesses, and ladies’ companions.
Moorehead’s best friend was Debbie Reynolds. Reynolds’ son Todd Fisher claims that his mother had a longtime love affair with Moorehead.
Her first marriage lasted 22 years because she and the husband lived apart. She had sent him to run her farm in Ohio. She left her second husband right after the wedding but didn’t divorce him until eight years later.
I am impressed with her film roles, but especially as a butch in Caged (1950). In The Bat (1959), she was Vincent Price‘s equal secenery chewing.
In her film debut, Citizen Kane (1941), she plays Kane’s (Welles) mother. She has a scene where he is packing his bags to send him away forever and with very little dialogue, she shows such deep grief at being parted from her only child, yet with an assurance that this is the best thing for him, that is just astonishing. It is a little master class in acting.
I saw her once, when I was exploring Beverly Hills in my 1959 T-Bird hoping for a glimpse of some movie stars. It was autumn of 1973 and she was getting out of a white Lincoln in the driveway of an unpretentious, but lovely traditional Colonial style house on North Roxbury just down the street from Lucy and Desi‘s place.
Moorehead appeared in The Conqueror (1956), which was filmed downwind from a Nevada nuclear test site. She was one of the 90 (out of 220) cast and crew members, including co-stars Susan Hayward, John Wayne, and director/producer Dick Powell, who were diagnosed with cancer within a decade. Morehead’s final credits rolled in 1974, taken by that damn disease.
A lesbian, much adored by queer people, ironically, she left her estate, including the Ohio farm, to the ultra-conservative Christian Bob Jones University, along with her huge library of Biblical studies books.
Moorehead knew a thing or two about eyeshadow. Plus, her name is “Moorehead” which makes me giggle like a 12-year-old boy.