Agnes Moorehead Is TV's Farthest-Out Mother
By Harry Harris
of The Inquirer Staff
What better Mother's Day choice as TV Mother of the Year than Agnes Moorehead?
Of all the new shows containing maternal roles this season, ABC's "Bewitched," Thursdays at 9 P.M. (Channel 6), has had by far the greatest impact on the rating charts.
Moreover, four-time Oscar-nominee Agnes, red-haired, blue-eyed & chic, svelte 58, plays a mama unlike any other in real or reel life, one literally out-of-this-world.
As Endora, the mother of that nose-twitching witch named Samantha portrayed by Elizabeth Montgomery, she's a sophisticated sorceress who can't understand her daughter's insistence on performing mundane chores like washing, instead of wishing dishes clean.
For that matter, she tsks-tsks Samantha's "mixed" marriage to a mere mortal, "something 90 percent water, 6 percent potash and 4 percent mohair!"
Although she's most rectient about her private life, the regal Miss Moorehead is an actual mother, too.
Twice married and divorced (first husband: Jack Lee; second: TV producer-director Robert Gist), she has a 15-year-old son, Sean, attending school abroad.
She's no novice at the witch bit, having played assorted fairytale villainesses on radio, Mombi in "The Land of Oz" and cackling crone in Shirley Temple's TV version of "Rapunzel."
It was in the latter show that she first worked with Bill Asher, Miss Montgomery's husband and the director and guiding light of "Bewitched."
She did the "Bewitched" piolt, after having rejected numerous comedy and drama series ( "A series is a treadmill; I'm an actress, not a masochist!"), because she felt the basic idea was so way-out it would never get on the air.
Now that it's in three-way contention for Top of the Nielson Heap with "Bonanza" and "Gomer Pile," she's pleased, but not ecstatic.
One aspect of "Bewitched," however, she approves of emphatically. She considers it a wholesome reversal in a wholesale trend toward sordidness.
"It's just frightening, the stuff they put on!" she sighs. "Pictures and the theater are getting more and more involved in repellent, shocking things.
"People who want all this illicit bunk should go the police courts and revel in it. That magic an actor has should be used to provide release for the human heart.
"There's so much violence and sex and that kind of business, people want some fantasy in their lives. Maybe it's the times we live in, with all the depressing news, but they want to be amused, they don't want to be in a neurotic state all the time.
"You can go so far with that sort of thing, but then the spirt needs something else. Perhaps that's why the television audience is laughing at such inane things. People need a certain contentment of heart.
"I don't want to do just trash, but I do welcome roles that don't leave me with great depression, wanting either to go to an analyst or take a bath!"
Although in recent years Miss Moorehead has been mainly associated with drama, she's an alumna of "thousands" of comedy broadcasts.
"I was in Jack Benny's first radio show," she recalls, and I was a foil for just about every comedian - Bob Hope, Bert Lahr, Ed Wynn, Fred Allen, Phil Baker, Joe Cook, Victor Moore, Bea Lillie, Milton Berle.
"I've done a good deal of comedy in the thester, too, but in Hollywood, once they get you in a category . . . !
"When Orson Welles came out to do, first, 'Citizen Kane,' and then 'The Magnificent Ambersons,' I became the hysterical woman."
In the 30's, she recalls fondly, her assignments were more varied. she shuttled from stints in comedy shows to Welles' "Mercury Theater" drama and to "March of Time" news recreations.
"I did as many as six shows a day. Sometimes I'd be up at 7 and by noon., with repeats, I'd have done five. All kinds."
Her acting skills have brought her kudos galore, including several honorary doctorates. She is a frequent campus lecturer, has taught drama at the University of Southern California and has made "one woman show " concert appearances throughout the United States and abroad.
She was an Academy Award nominee for "Ambersons," "Johnny Belinda," "Mrs. Parkington" and this year, "Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte."
Her failure to snare one of the Oscar statuettes she dismisses with a shrug.
"If I get citations," she says, "I'm grateful for them, but I'm not after pats on the head or a halo over it. I don't care about trophies, just about a good preformance.
"My only interest is in fulfilling my responsibility to the public by entertaining and amusing them."
Born near Boston, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, she made her first appearance" at 3, "singing with a tremendous adult choir at a church event." At 10 she began four seasons with the St. Louis Municipal Oprea, graduating from the ballet and chorus to "first lines, then parts."
"I've always probably been an exhibitionist at heart," she says, "in a very conservative way.
"Even as a child I was always believing I was somebody else. My mother used to ask, 'What shall I call you today?' I would reply, "Today I'm Hildegarde," and I would stay in character all day."
After aquiring university degrees, she enrolled at New York's Academy of Dramatic Arts.
"If I were starting now," she muses, "I wouldn't be an actor. It's too hazardous, too sorrowful, too discouraging.
"Talent, really and truly, doesn't mean anything. You hope you have a little of it, but because you're popular today doesn't mean you'll be popular tomorrow. You're lucky if you can get things to do.
"There's great heartbreak. You're only as good as your last picture. People who have given so much of themselves to the public go to an old actors' home. Some give their whole lives and end up without a penny.
"I don't believe that going around with clenched fists ever got anyone anything - a clenched fist can't shake hands! - but I can't bear how actors are treated.
"Actors like flair. They like to go into a good dressing room, not a hovel. They should be kept happy, they're the kings and queens of the stage, but they're the last ones thought of.
"Actors' work is spasmodic. They may have one success and then not have another for five years, while people say, "They've slipped' or 'They're trying to make a comeback." An actor's nerves are on his skin, he's sensitive, and he can be utterly destroyed by such talk.
"There's a great deal of envy and jealousy in this business.
"People say, "You don't have to worry about anything like that.' Yes, I live well, but everything I own I earned by the sweat of my brow. So I feel entitled to a certain amount of comfort.
"But I'm not in acting to make money. I reap the benifits from it, but I do it because I love it!"
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