Halloween is here, witches! On Monday we examined The 13 Bewitching Qualities of Elizabeth Montgomery and today we’re taking a look at the top six reasons we love her Bewitched co-star, Agnes Moorehead.
6. Orson Welles was her boo.
He’s widely thought of as the greatest moviemaker of all time and he believed Agnes was the best actress in America. They worked together on the radio first with Agnes becoming an early member of Welles’s Mercury Theatre. Her break into film was as Charles Foster Kane’s mother in Citizen Kane and under his direction Agnes was nominated for an Academy Award for her work in his damaged masterpiece The Magnificent Ambersons.
5. She could paralyze you with her voice.
With a face like hers she was perfect for the radio. Agnes was a staple of the airwaves for decades, including a stint as Margo Lane on The Shadow (with friend Orson as the Shadow). Her greatest acclaim came in 1943, when she performed “Sorry, Wrong Number” on Suspense. Agnes terrified listeners as a neurotic invalid who, through a crossed telephone wire, overhears two men planning to murder a woman. As she grows more frantic trying to convince someone, anyone to help the woman she realizes that the intended victim is her. It was a riveting performance, one she repeated many times on Suspense and other programs, always from her original personal script.
4. Her life was a Lifetime movie.
Agnes married actor John Griffith Lee in 1930; they separated several times before divorcing in 1952. She was married again in 1954, to Robert Gist, another actor, 17 years her junior. They split in just a year before they divorced in 1958. Speculation is that this second marriage had a distinctly lavender hue about it, undertaken to deflect rumors of Agnes’s lesbianism. There’s no hard proof that she was “sapphic” (her preferred word, but that she had a preferred word seems pretty compelling) but Paul Lynde once called her “one of the all-time Hollywood dykes”.
So all that’s interesting but here’s where it gets really juicy. She had a son, Sean, and no one seems to know where he came from. He was born sometime between October 1949 and January 1950. Newspaper articles of the day refer to him as a foster child and she herself called him her foster son in a late-in-life interview, but newspapers in 1952 reported that she had received final adoption papers for him. To say they didn’t get along as he grew up is an understatement; he robbed her at least twice and one time she found a gun in his room. Fan magazines reported in 1966 that a then-17-year-old Sean planned to join the Army and go to Vietnam when he graduated high school. Sometime after that he ran away, ending up in Switzerland living with actress Paulette Goddard. After leaving Goddard’s house he vanished and has never been heard from again.
3. Her white trash was the trashiest.
Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte is a Southern Gothic horror movie in which Bette Davis plays Charlotte, a spinster who has been haunted by the mutilation death in her youth of her lover. Olivia de Havilland plays her cousin Miriam, whom Charlotte calls upon in a time of trouble, to dire consequences. It’s required viewing of the Gay Canon™.
Both ladies are in fine form but Agnes as Velma, Charlotte’s maid, nearly swipes the picture from them. She’s loucher than louche, shuffling and mumbling through her scenes with an accent thicker than January’s molasses, glaring and sneering at everything and generally making Granny Clampett look like Eleanor Roosevelt. She’s a revelation. Velma is fiercely loyal to Charlotte and is about to take down the conspirators against her when she’s brained with a chair and shoved down a staircase. Godspeed, sweet hillbilly!
2. She died for her craft. Literally.
In 1956 Agnes appeared in The Conqueror, a biopic of Ghengis Khan starring John Wayne as Ghengis. So that right there is camp as Christmas. Shooting was on location in Utah, downwind from the Yucca Flats nuclear test site where about a dozen explosions equaling around 20 Hiroshima bombs were detonated the year before filming. The cast and crew spent several weeks in Utah and several more weeks in Hollywood shooting on dirt trucked in to match the location landscape. 40% of the cast and crew, including Agnes herself, contracted some form of cancer. Agnes, who spoke to friends years before she got sick of being worried about the “radioactive germs” she might have picked up, died of uterine cancer in 1974.
1. Endora, bitches!
But of course we love her the most for Endora, the Head Witch In Charge she played for eight seasons on Bewitched. Feisty and fierce, Endora was unwavering in her insistence that Montgomery’s Samantha be allowed to let her freak flag fly. Agnes wasn’t pleased with how closely she became identified with the role and often dismissed the quality as “hack” but she was nominated for an Emmy six times.
Many books have been written that analyze how Bewitched handled everything from gender roles to race relations to sexuality, both literally and metaphorically. With witchcraft serving as a metaphor for homosexuality and the series’ central premise of whether Sam should “come out of the broom closet”, Endora has been an inspiration for generations of little gay boys who want to grow up to be fabulous and learn how to rock a caftan.