“The determination was there from the very start,” declared Agnes Moorehead. “It was always a goal, an ambition, a desire, to enter the theater; I never had to find myself, the way so many people do. I always knew what I wanted and where I wanted to go. I never had anything else in mind.”
She wasn’t kidding. Young Agnes’ sharp-eyed mimicry of her father’s parishioners convulsed her sister at the family dinner table. Her mother got so used to seeing her lively red-haired daughter deep in her make-believe world that she’d often greet her outlandishly attired daughter with “Who are you today, Agnes?”
Agnes’ years studying ballet taught her the importance of rigorous self-discipline and cemented her desire for a life on the stage, particularly acing. She promised her adored father, a Presbyterian minister, that she’d get a fall-back education in teaching and majored in Biology. To earn enough money to attend her dream school, prestigious AmericanAcademy of Dramatic Arts (AADA) in NYC, she taught high school English, Speech, and Ancient History. Her vivacious personality and determined heart wouldn’t rest until she’d won a place at the AADA, where classmate Rosalind Russell and she learned the art and craft of theater, especially the Jehlinger Method, an acting technique which stressed attention to the playwright’s intention, concentration, and observation (all of which were soooo in Aggie’s wheelhouse).
Aggie loved her time there, teaching, waitressing, and odd-jobbing to pay her way, also attending Columbia University to get her PhD in Speech.
She married a feckless fellow actor, Jack Lee, along the way, and continued the classic struggling actress arc until she stumbled upon her perfect platform—radio work.
By the summer of 1931, Agnes was a stock player for a vaudeville-style radio show that made a national tour, getting rave reviews for her “stooge” work—like any good actress, she knew how to steal a scene and routinely did so with gusto. Her on-air party trick was reciting the books of the Bible in 14 seconds (you try it). This tour gave Agnes her grounding in the art of character playing; her flexible, expressive voice gave her the nickname “the chameleon of the air” and she was praised as a versatile comedienne.
A face made for radio
You never know when Fate is going to come breathing down your neck, do you? Well, it seems that right before Aggie’s hit radio show aired, a certain precocious, golden-throated 17-year-old boy read poetry in pear-shaped tones to a background of organ music, and he occasionally hung around to watch the next show. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Orson Welles. Marvel at that and set it aside for a bit; we’ll get back to him.
Around the same time, Agnes’s radio colleague Helen Hayes lined up a screen test for her. It was, shall we say, less than a rousing success.
The bone-headed cameraman inquired, baffled at how to highlight Agnes’ unique beauty, “Did you ever have your nose broken?”
Agnes, nothing daunted, continued to collect kudos for her radio work; she was a regular on 5-6 programs, including “The March of Time,” where her respectful impersonation of Eleanor Roosevelt was lauded by the then First Lady herself.
One of her cast mates, Orson Welles (see? I told you he’d come back into the picture) got the part of Lamont Cranston in The Shadow and was teamed with Aggie, who played his plucky Gal Friday, Margot Lane.
The team also wowed radio audiences with adapted classics like Les Miz and Dracula on Orson’s First Person Singular program. It’s no surprise that when Orson created The Mercury Theatre of the Air, he tapped Agnes to be his female star. When Orson was summoned by RKO to Hollywood in 1940, he dragged Aggie along as part of a package deal of sorts.
The Magnificent Aggie
If you’re not sure you’ve seen Agnes Moorehead outside of her Bewitched fright-wig days, think again. You’ve seen her in Citizen Kane, for openers—she plays Charles Foster Kane’s mother.
Her biggest cheerleader Orson cast her as Fanny in The Magnificent Ambersons, for which she won a NY Film Critics award—but no Oscar, even though many thought she was a shoo-in.
After her boffo roles in these well-known (but not necessarily critically lauded or audience-beloved) films, Agnes was in high demand as a character actress, pursued by all the studios. She went with M-G-M, who offered her $1,250 a week. You read that right.
She knew what she was in for—the studios hire you to play a specific kind of part and they don’t like it when you make waves. Agnes had her head on straight—she was known as a cooperative chameleon, ready to tackle any role, no matter how unglamorous, to earn her keep.
The beauty part here is that wise Aggie kept her options open. She loved the glamour of stardom and knew that playing bit parts for M-G-M would never lead to mobs requesting her autograph.
So, she kept her day job, so to speak—her radio career. Radio shows like The Mayor of the Town (1943) with crusty-but-benign Lionel Barrymore made her one of the medium’s undisputed mega-stars. She earned a tasty $1,000 a week for her work in “Mayor.” You do the math.
The Queen of Suspense
Aggie’s “hawklike” features immediately recommended her for roles as the menacing maiden aunt, the sneering spinster, the tart-tongued harridan, so she was plenty busy over the next years. She even re-teamed with a semi-starved and tightly corseted Orson as the evil Mrs. Reed in Jane Eyre...
She was (finally) allowed out of her bustle to play the black-market meanie in my favorite WWII film, Since You Went Away.
Her vitriolic villainy against the long-suffering Claudette Colbert is one of the film’s highlights (PS: Her Mercury Theatre buddy Joe Cotton is super-cute in this one, too).
Agnes campaigned for and won a more sympathetic part in the Greer Garson-Walter Pidgeon period piece, Mrs. Parkington and was nominated for an Oscar for her work as the hero’s former mistress. A bridesmaid again, alas.
Hang in there, Aggie, you’re about to become an ether airwaves superstar. CBS Radio debuted a new show in June of 1942 called Suspense. One of the show’s regular writers, Lucille Fletcher, was inspired by a whining woman in her grocery store line and “Sorry, Wrong Number” was born. Fletcher campaigned for Agnes to play the role, believing only Agnes could convincingly voice Mrs. Stevenson, an unsympathetic invalid who overhears her own murder being plotted.
Agnes’ May 1943 performance became the stuff of legend. Her exhausting, energetic performance became an instant classic. (In fact, you can STILL hear it—it’s on You Tube –here’s part 2. And part 3.) You can order the Decca recording online. It’s darned good.)
Over the next decade, Agnes performed “Sorry” many times, both annually on Suspense and for other radio networks. Aggie became known as “The Queen of Suspense.”
(AHEM: So, you’d think it would be obvious that when Paramount was casting the film version in 1948, they’d call on the woman who originated the role, THE Mrs. Stevenson. Good ol’ short-sighted Hollywood figured that a character actress like Aggie wouldn’t be accepted in a lead role, so Barbara Stanwyck was cast. Aggie tried hard to be a good sport, but, wow, that stung.)
Agnes in Hell
Aggie was a director’s dream, always prepared and cooperative, so the late 40s were business as usual. She signed with Warner’s for the Bogart-Bacall box office bomb Dark Passage; at least she got to wear some chic clothes.
Bud Westmore transformed her to a 110-year-old crone for The Lost Moment (co-star Susan Hayward called it “The Lost Hour and a Half”).
She has ONE little scene in 1944’s Seventh Cross with Spencer Tracy—but it’s a neat one. You can get a glimpse at it on You Tube.
On the upside, Agnes’ work in 1948’s Johnny Belinda earned her a third Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.
She didn’t win, but to her relief, neither did Stanwyck for Sorry, Wrong Number. Bright spot, she got to wear some great costumes in Summer Holiday that year.
While many fans love her in the 1950’s Douglas Sirk melodramas, All That Heaven Allows and Magnificent Obsession, they were just paychecks for Agnes.
In both, she plays a stalwart friend to real-life pal (and Johnny Belinda co-star) Jane Wyman.
After Agnes had recycled her hag act a few more times, (27 films in the 1950’s alone)…
she realized that typecasting was no joke and set her sights on Broadway.
Rather than crab to Hedda Hopper about how the studio was wasting her talent, Aggie used her trademark “frustrated, bitterly drab female” roles to bankroll her passion for the legitimate theatre.
“Hollywood,” she averred, ‘was a place to earn enough money to be able to do the sort of stage acting one wants to do.”
Her patience and focus paid off. The role of a lifetime was tossed her way, offering her the chance to exploit her amazing voice, showcase her acting chops, and reveal her glamorous side: George Bernard Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell.
In case you’re not of the Shauvian bent, Don Juan is the chatty, cerebral 3rd act attached to his brilliant but talky Man and Superman. Most theater companies chop it because it makes the play 5 hours long. That’s a lot of jujubes. Charles Laughton decided to retire his popular one-man show and replace it with this tour-de-force for four actors. His criteria for The First Dramatic Quartet: “…not necessarily the best actors, but the best voices in America.” Cue Agnes.
“I was complimented to be the choice for Donna Ana,’ Agnes admitted, “for usually I am relegated to those dreary drab characters that are completely void of charm and beauty, though I must say they are usually the meatiest roles to play. “
That’s putting it mildly; Agnes ADORED this role. Laughton’s production was stark and elegant; evening attire, stools, music stands, and sheer verbal magic.
Charles Laughton played the Devil, Sir Cedric Hardwicke played the Commander, and Don Juan was played by the suave and sultry Charles Boyer. Agnes, the only woman on stage, played Donna Ana, the Commander’s vivacious daughter (who ages from 27 to 77 during the piece).
The play toured the US and England for 2 years and was a surprising smash hit.
Audiences gasped when she appeared, her mudlark image demolished as she swanned out into the spotlight nightly in a regal evening gown, her upswept red hair crowned with a glittering tiara. “Radiant and terrifying” were only some of the accolades heaped on her electrifying performance. Agnes deemed it ‘the highlight of my career.”
Critics and audiences were wowed by the shocking sight of a glamorous Agnes. Laughton praised her work saying “Agnes Moorehead is great because, without being a dazzling beauty actually, she is able to create the illusion of queenliness, regal bearing, and sex appeal in its loftier connotation of magnetic femininity.”
(Oh, and meanwhile, she’s also still doing her patented sourpuss act in films like Showboat!)
Not exactly enchanted by Bewitched
So, right now, you’re probably wondering how an actress of this stature and seriousness winds up on a show like Bewitched? I mean, it’s cute and all, but, really? Easy answer: It pays the milkman. The studio system had crashed and Agnes’ film acting slowed considerably in the 1960s. She had endured white-water rafting in How the West Was Won…
…and pulled out all the stops as the Uriah Heep-ish maid in Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, gaining another Oscar nomination, but no statue.
After a while, it gets to you. More and more film actors were lured to TV where the pace was breakneck but the pay was good. She guest starred on anthology-style shows and famously portrayed a silent giant alien on Twilight Zone, an chilling classic routinely shown at sci-fi conventions.
When a steady, lucrative television job as a witch’s mother cropped up, Agnes gratefully got off the Hollywood merry-go-round.
As Samantha Steven’s irrepressible mother, Endora, Agnes stole every scene. Still, she hated the rapid-fire filming pace and complained “When do we get to act?”
To keep her sanity and focus as an actress, Aggie mounted a one-woman show featuring an abbreviated version of Sorry, Wrong Number and other show-stoppers; it was a hit and toured for 2 decades. She started an acting school and took a self-directed, B-list Don Juan on the road again. Audiences flocked to these performances, partly because of her TV fame as Endora, proving her TV “comedown” wasn’t a complete washout. Her credits list could go on forever, including another old-school crabby biddy in Disney’s Pollyanna.
The Dork Factor
My eldest daughter has a theory she calls “The Dork Factor.” The main idea is that everyone is dorky about something and you can pretty easily figure out what it is when someone buttonholes you and talks your ear off about it. For example, you mention the price of stamps and Mr. Love ‘Em and Lick ‘Em unfurls a diatribe of fascinating (to him) and exhausting (to you) trivia about the origins of the 1 cent stamp or whatever. What separates a lively interest from dorkdom is the insistence of the dork to keep on talking even after your eyes have glazed over. Well, by all accounts, Agnes was a dork about theater.
To the end of her days, she’d tell anyone stood still long enough how magical and wonderful theater was: “Theatre,” she trumpeted, “has an obligation to be more than a place of amusement.” It should “…widen (the audience’s) sympathies, broaden their intellects and sweeten their hearts.”
Over the years, friends remarked on her well-groomed appearance and her occasional aloofness and discretion. They report she was a star 23 out of 24 hours in a day.
When she contracted her final illness, she shooed away pals like Debbie Reynolds, not wanting them to see her in a pitiful, less-than-polished state. This, too, was part of her beloved craft, her dorkdom, as it were. “I think an artist should be kept separated to maintain glamour and a kind of mystery. I don’t believe in the girl-next-door image. What the actor has to sell to the public is fantasy, a magic kind of ingredient…”
After her death in 1974, the Washington Post offered this assessment of her talents: “(She was) a gifted character actress who ranged easily from being elegant, assured and arresting to being confused, cackling, and comical.” They were so right. Four Academy Award nominations, seven Emmy noms (one win), two Golden Globes, and the New York Film Critics Best Actress award. Not by witchery, but by switchery…the character actor’s unique gift of convincingly becoming another person.
All information gleaned from a fascinating biography about Agnes: I Love the Illusion: The Life and Career of Agnes Moorehead by Charles Tranberg, 2007, BearManor Media, Albany, GA, 2nd Edition. Buy it and learn much more about this amazing woman. Many of the images of Agnes were shared by the generous and delightful collector, Sérgio Leemann, from his amazing A Certain Cinema website. Many thanks, gentlemen.
This blog post is proudly part of the 2013 What A Character Blogathon. Thanks to the hosts: Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled and (@IrishJayHawk66), Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club and (@Paula_Guthat) and Aurora, of Once Upon a Screen and (@CitizenScreen) for allowing me to take part!