Posted by Moira Finnie on December 10, 2008
Last Saturday, December 6th, marked the 108th anniversary of the birth of Agnes Moorehead.
While I enjoyed the sight of Moorehead‘s acerbic, self-centered country club divorcée as she preened and passed judgment last night during TCM’s broadcast of David O. Selznick’s powerfully bathetic Since You Went Away (1945), it struck me for the hundredth time that the presence of Agnes Moorehead in many classic (and not so classic) films was often what gave a movie a spine. Her characters, whether false or true, invariably made a vivid impression and deserve to be spotlighted around her birthday.
In the last week, TCM has given us a chance to see this actress pulling out many of the stops in some of those exceptional roles, with airings earlier this month of Citizen Kane (1941), with her five minute, finely etched debut performance on film as Charles Foster Kane’s mother, and in what author Charles Tranberg calls “a mangled masterpiece”, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), which gave the character actress her great role as the eternally frustrated Fanny Minafer. Not to be forgotten is her cranky hypochondriac in Pollyanna (1960), which Suzidoll celebrated here last week. In a rare broadcast just yesterday, the actress appeared as an elegant former prima ballerina (seen in technicolor glory on the left) trying to protect Moira Shearer in The Story of Three Loves (1953). The distinctive actress proved her versatility throughout her career. She arranged her aquiline features accordingly to convey a believable briskness, sometimes comforting, sometimes disapproving. She most often appeared as a pragmatic presence in many films that have etched themselves on our collective memory.
For many readers, Agnes Moorehead‘s formidable list of credits on stage, screen, radio and television may be overshadowed by that perennial sixties sitcom that they grew up on, Bewitched (1964-1972). Handed a comic variation on a stock figure of the ultimate vexatious mother-in-law, Ms. Moorehead brought her witchy “Endora” to vivid life, a feat that led to her being nominated six times for an Emmy. She often stole the show, which continues in repeats to this day, intriguing a new generation. Professionally, this may have been a by-product of a formidable talent that found expression on screen primarily in secondary character roles. Agnes Moorehead was fortunately, a part of that period of film history in which familiar character actors were a draw for moviegoers along with the stars. Moorehead‘s presence in a movie promised something tartly entertaining and usually quite insightful.
Nominated four times for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Mrs. Parkington (1944), Johnny Belinda (1948) and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), and twice a winner of a Golden Globe, the actress could shift her characterizations easily from vinegary disapproval to warmly compassionate to richly detailed portraits of good and evil women. Living her life as privately as possible despite her very public profession, those who enjoy her performances find her an intriguing, still mysterious figure to this day, almost 35 years after her death. To celebrate this actress’ life and work, Charles Tranberg, the author of I Love the Illusion: The Life and Career of Agnes Moorehead (BearManor Media) has generously agreed to share some thoughts on this actress. As regular readers of this blog may recall, Charles also brought his expertise to the Movie Morlocks site back in August, helping us celebrate the centennial of Fred MacMurray . Below is the interview that I conducted with him about Ms. Moorehead‘s life and career:
Moira: Agnes Moorehead was born in 1900, and after childhood forays into the world of regional ballet and opera, as well as theater, she would eventually graduate from Muskingum College in Ohio. After that she spent several years in Wisconsin teaching prior to pursuing her acting career in NYC. Charles, one of the aspects of your book that I appreciated was your reluctance to speculate too much on the details of Agnes Moorehead‘s life while chronicling her career. What drew you to her as a subject for a biography?
Charles Tranberg: What drew me to Aggie as a subject at first, to be honest, was the wealth of material I found at the Wisconsin State Historical Society which held some 159 boxes of material. That was very exciting. The other is that there had never been truly a full-length book biography of her before. I also admired her as an actress. Not only because I grew up enjoying her as Endora on “Bewitched” but because I was also a fan of old time radio and Aggie was a true star in that field. I also enjoyed many of her films especially her justly acclaimed performance as Aunt Fanny in “The Magnificent Ambersons.” So for all of these reasons I thought she would be a great subject for a book which she certainly was.
Moira: Why do you think that the daughter of a Presbyterian minister took such an interest in theater?
Charles Tranberg:The daughter of the Presbyterian minister was drawn to the theater in part, I believe, because she saw the theatricality of her father, Rev. John Moorehead, in his fire and brimstone sermons. She once said that there was a great deal in common between the pulpit and the theater. Her father had a very distinctive voice–a very dramatic voice and in addition to his sermons which were riveting to her and the congregations he served, he also read Shakespeare to his children. I get the feeling that her father may have been a frustrated actor at heart as well as a clergyman.
Moira: What was her relationship with her family like?
Charles Tranberg: She had a good relationship with her parents. Her father, while very theatrical as a pastor, wasn’t so much at home around his family, but Aggie admired him very much. I think she saw him, through-out her life, as the best man she ever knew and perhaps her marriages didn’t last because neither of her husbands quite measure up to her dad. She adored her mother as well, and Molly, who incidentally lived until 1990 dying at 106!, was very flamboyant. I think in many ways Aggie took after her mother as an outgoing, vivacious type of person.
Moira: How do you think that Agnes Moorehead‘s religious background affected her life and her career?
Charles Tranberg: I think her religious background influenced her life profoundly. Her spirituality wasn’t a gimmick or publicity stunt with her, she truly was a devoted Christian. She would read to her staff at her home on Sunday’s from the bible. She left much of her estate to religious institutions. Yet while she was a fundamentalist in her upbringing she was also a contradiction from a lot of the fundamentalism we see today. She worked in an industry that is populated by many very creative gay people and she befriended many of them. She liked parties and a good time. She worked on a TV show where she portrayed a witch. The interesting thing about Aggie is that she was such a contradiction. She also had a very good understanding of publicity and knew that if she was to be successful she couldn’t be a stick in the mud. But everything she did she did with class.
Moira: What were the years like before she was able to become an actress?
Charles Tranberg: She did a great deal of acting while in school and as a girl in St. Louis, MO, she was part of the Municipal Ballet. But she did get a formal education, [graduating from Muskingum College in Ohio with a B.A.], but her dream was to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. That took money and she couldn’t get that kind of money from her pastor father. So she went to work as a school teacher in Wisconsin–and spent some five years in a small, rural community called Soldiers Grove. She was very well liked and a very effective teacher. She taught many courses but specialized in speech, debate and dramatics. Her students won several championships statewide in debate. She enjoyed being a teacher, but she wanted to be an actress even more. When she had enough money to go to New York she did and she auditioned for the AADA in the summer of 1926 and was accepted.
Moira: Given the fact that Aggie graduated from AADA just as the Great Depression hit Broadway, despite her talent and eagerness to test her mettle on stage, jobs were terribly hard to come by. As you quote her in your biography, the actress looked back on that period as a time when she had “gone there (New York City) with the goal of every young actor: to make my way in the theater. To make my money last, I ate almost nothing: hot water for breakfast, a roll for lunch, rice for dinner. It was hungry work, making the rounds of casting agents, mile after mile on the unyielding sidewalk, and I used to wonder fervently just how God was going to provide manna in this man-made wilderness.” As the actress confessed, she subsisted on coins purloined from pay telephones for food, (which she said was repaid later) until manna came in the meager form of bit parts and understudy work on Broadway until she landed a radio contract with NBC. Charles, did you think that Ms. Moorehead was particularly happy with the way that her career evolved in this and later years?
Charles Tranberg: Was Aggie happy with how her career evolved? I think eventually, yes. Though I think she would have loved to be a leading actress and I think she wanted to be a star of the stage early on. That is what her training in New York geared her towards. But she didn’t really have much success in the early 30′s on stage in New York. It was because of that that she eventually went into radio and with her great voice and ability to do many different dialects she was able to carve out a hugely successful career on radio. She had many starring roles on radio–starring roles that by and large she rarely got on television and in the movies. She had a great reputation and became one of the great character stars of her time. But, finally with “Bewitched” she got a taste of stardom. Endora did that for her–and while she continued to complain about television, and the long hours involved, I think she loved what “Bewitched” did for her career. It made her a truly recognizable name to a new generation of fans and gave her a fame that exceeded anything she knew before.
Moira: In doing your extensive research for this book, did you come across any material or interview anyone whose knowledge or opinion of the actress surprised you?
Charles Tranberg: The most surprising interview and one of the most rewarding was with Aggie’s theatrical manager, Paul Gregory, [who produced one of her biggest hits on stage, in several productions of George Bernard Shaw's Don Juan in Hell, which began touring in the early 1950s. I expected given the warmth of the correspondence I read in Aggie's files between the two that he would be most effusive in his praise for her. He was, as far as her artistry, but he really gave me a three-dimensional portrait of Aggie--the person. He felt that as a person she could be shallow and two-faced and that she was "on" for 23 out of every 24 hours of a day--that she never let her guard down. He recalled for me that she and Patricia Medina, Joe Cotten's wife, who was working with them in a play, were discussing the agony of child birth. Aggie was saying that she had given birth to Sean, the boy she raised, and yet everybody knew she didn't--but that didn't stop her from saying that she had. Yet he also knew that she could take criticism from him that she wouldn't accept from others. He could tell her, "that's a load of Sh**" and she would take it. He also respected her as a hard worker and an actress of great depth. And the one-hour out of the twenty-four that she wasn't on--she was as wonderful and nice as could be.
Moira: How did she feel about radio, which, almost from the day she graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, helped to give her income and became a medium in which she was truly a star?
Charles Tranberg: [Though] she initially wanted to be a great stage actress and when stage roles dried up she turned to radio and almost from the first became very successful in that medium. It certainly helped her income because it was nothing for an actress of her range to do several radio shows per week. The man who she owes much of her early success on radio to is a pioneer of that medium named Himan Brown, who I interviewed for my book when he was around 92–I believe he is still alive. His memories were quite strong and when she came in for her audition for a show called “The Gumps” a sitcom based on a comic strip, he didn’t have her read a script he just spoke with her one on one and he understood that she was right for playing “Ma Gump”. They remained friends for the remainder of Aggie‘s life and over the years worked several more times on different radio shows right up to early 1974–just three months before her death–she did his “CBS Mystery Theater”. He was very impressed by her dedication as an artist.
Moira: How did Moorehead become a part of the Mercury Theatre On the Air in 1938? Did Aggie want to make the transition to movie work when Orson Welles offered her the role of Charles Foster Kane’s mother?
Charles Tranberg: She had actually recalled years later meeting a very precocious Orson Welles as a boy at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. When she began working with Orson something kept nagging at her–where have I seen him before. Welles was very young still–only in his early twenties and then when thumbing through LIFE magazine she saw a picture of Orson as a child and knew then that was the boy she had once met years before at the Waldorf-Astoria. Himan Brown told me how Aggie and Orson had met later on. Aggie was doing “The Gumps” in New York and the program which was on just before “The Gumps” was this young man with a wonderful voice reciting poetry–it was Orson Welles! Orson would watch “The Gumps” and was fascinated by Aggie. He later said many times that he considered her the best actor he had ever worked with. But he knew that when he launched the mercury theater that he wanted her to be part of it–and she was–the most prominent female member of the Mercury players. It only made sense that when Welles went to Hollywood and made “Citizen Kane” that he would find a part for Aggie. He did as Kane’s mother. It was a small part of only five minutes in length but it was one of the most memorable sequences in the picture and anguished performance as a mother giving up her son because she realized that she and his father couldn’t give him the kind of life he deserved is one of the best in the film.
Moira: You can see a beautifully played scene from early in Citizen Kane with Moorehead, George Colouris, Harry Shannon, and Buddy Swan as Charles Foster Kane as a boy playing with his sled in the distance here. Note the way that this clip highlights cinematographer Gregg Toland‘s deep focus camera work, underlining the separation of the boy from his determined mother and the interior of his home and the crisp way that Moorehead controls her own conflicting emotions.
Moira: Many of the veterans of Welles‘ productions expressed mixed emotions about the experience, even when they admired the man’s protean artistry. How did Agnes Moorehead feel about him and his subsequent career?
Charles Tranberg: Aggie felt that Orson Welles was the most brilliant man talent alive. She loved working with him. It was a mutual admiration society. She felt that Hollywood treated him very shabbily. She felt that they didn’t understand his genius. Welles had wanted to use her on other occasions which never panned out. He wanted her to be the dogged investigator going after a Nazi in “The Stranger“, but the studio didn’t back him and the role went to Eddie Robinson. Welles later wanted her to play Lady Macbeth opposite his Macbeth but other commitments kept this from happening. It’s a shame they never worked together again, after the mid-forties, except for radio, though Welles for years wanted to do an update of “The Magnificent Ambersons” but after Aggie died, there was no way he would pursue it–nobody but Aggie could ever play Aunt Fanny.
Moira: I agree. I find her character of Fanny Minaher to be among the most tragic of her career. So often, because she played characters who pushed the plot along or who existed to offer a contrast to the usually virtuous central characters, Aggie was given little chance to embellish her character’s inner life, (though the viewer sensed more about her). In The Magnificent Ambersons, and particularly in the scene in the boiler room when her character comes unravelled, she is unforgettable and real in the pitiless depiction of Fanny’s plight. Since she worked with some of the same people in such challenging radio plays and films over a period of years, I wonder if she was close to any of her fellow Mercury players such as Joseph Cotten, Ray Collins, and Everett Sloane?
Charles Tranberg: Yes, Aggie was very close to Joe Cotten. They did many films together over the years and later toured in a play called “Prescription: Murder” which introduced a character named Lt. Columbo (who was played by Thomas Mitchell in the play). There was affection between them as well as with Joe’s wife Pat Medina. Cotten later said that Aggie was “the hardest working lady in our profession” which she certainly was.
Moira: In reading some of the comments by Aggie‘s colleagues about her working methods in building a character, they seem to indicate that she was quite meticulous and specific about her detailed characterizations though she was, as Welles pointed out in an interview once, very willing to accept direction. I’ve noticed that in films such as The Stratton Story, and when she plays sympathetic farm women, she is constantly working to do something very specific in a scene, tightening the jars on some fruit that have just been canned, knitting, baking bread, or fingering the scarf that Belinda has come home with after her visit with the doctor. She often does this in such a way that she is also making a non-verbal commentary on the action, and telling more about her character than the words of the script indicates about her concerns, attitudes and the action. ,
In a different way, when playing a refined woman of the upper classes, she most often stands regally erect, and her characters seem to be defined by their clothes as much as their attitudes as she was in Since You Went Away and as the Countess in Mrs. Parkington. Do you know if generally created her characters from the outside in, finding actions for each character or did she “wing it” based on the way each was written?
Charles Tranberg: From what I can tell from the scripts of many of the films you mention which are among her papers she did or with the assistance of the director invent little bits of business to add to her performances–such as those you noted. She has notes on almost every page of every script of every scene she participated in emphasizing that or how she was going to say this and giving her little bits of business or beats between lines so that she was constantly doing something as part of the characterization. I think you are quite right when playing women who toiled for a living as opposed to one of her more regal characterizations that she often did show those characters working with their hands in some way as a demonstration of the life, and often a hard life, that they led. Aggie studied her scripts and characterizations very intensely and so my feeling is that she certainly didn’t wing it but came up with a characterization that fit the character.
Moira: Why was the film of Sorry, Wrong Number given to another actress and how did this affect Agnes Moorehead‘s attitude toward ?
Charles Tranberg: “Sorry, Wrong Number” was a terrible blow to Aggie because she made the part so much hers with repeated airings on radio. It was one of the most acclaimed performances of radios golden age and she did, terribly, want to play it in the film. But Hal Wallis, the producer, didn’t think she had a box office name enough to do the film, so he gave it to Barbara Stanwyck. As it turned out Stanwyck‘s performance was compared in several reviews to Aggie‘s and not always to Stanwyck‘s advantage even though she received an Oscar nomination for it. Wallis had offered Aggie a supporting role in the film version as a bone to throw her, but Aggie, I think wisely, turned it down. If it affected her attitude towards Hollywood it was probably that she was always destined to be a supporting player rather than the star. I think she finally came to some terms with that and from that point forward she began working much more often on the stage beginning with the acclaimed production of “Don Juan in Hell” and later into a very well received one-woman show–as well as other productions.
Moira: Do you think that Agnes preferred radio over film?
Charles Tranberg: I think she probably enjoyed the fact that she was a star name on radio as compared to film, but I do think she enjoyed both mediums. I think she liked the challenges offered by all the mediums she worked on. The stage because it’s proximity in front of an audience. Radio because she had to create a complex characterization without being seen and could use her voice in many different ways. Film because it offered her the opportunity to visualize a characterization. Television because of its intimacy.
Moira: In establishing herself in Hollywood, did she want to become a member of one of the studio’s “stock company” of character actors, or did she prefer her independence?
Charles Tranberg: The only real stock company she was part of in the movies was Welles‘ Mercury players during the forties. She was under contract, of course, later on to MGM and Warner Brothers and of course worked with many of those studios contract players, but never really in picture after picture like John Ford and his stock company of players did. She did work with several major actors several times, including Greer Garson in Mrs. Parkington (1944) and Scandal at Scourie (1953), among others, and Jane Wyman in Magnificent Obsession (1954) and All That Heaven Allows (1955) as well. Wyman later told me she was always “pleased when Aggie was cast in one of my pictures.” The major actors she worked with recognized her talent and wanted her to be in their pictures.
Moira: Which director, (other than Welles), do you think that she enjoyed working with the most during her career?
Charles Tranberg: Other than Welles the director she had the highest regard for was Henry Hathaway who she felt was a no bull kind of director. [Hathaway directed Moorehead as the manipulative mother in Fourteen Hours (1951), which is on TCM on 3/1/09, and in the recently restored epic, How the West Was Won (1963)]. Many actors hated working with him because he was so rough on them, but she enjoyed Hathaway and he liked her a great deal. Hathaway knew he didn’t have to bark at Aggie to get a performance out of her and that she was always ready and prepared whenever she was needed. He respected that. She also liked Jean Negulesco a great deal–and they became good personal friends as well [Negulesco drew beautifully wrought performances from her and her co-stars in Johnny Belinda (1947)]. On the stage she had great affection and regard for Charles Laughton who directed her (and acted with her) on Don Juan in Hell.
Moira: Did Ms. Moorehead have “clout”, since, as you point out, like Thelma Ritter and , she did not fade into the background of a scene in a movie, but was a recognizable talent?
Charles Tranberg: Yes, she had the clout as a recognizable character actress who was known by name, unlike many character people. She was highly regarded and well-paid. She had the clout when doing one movie at RKO to have a director replaced when the director was abusive towards her. She called Dore Schary, who was running the studio at the time, and pretty much told him it’s either him or me. [The director in question was Sidney Lanfield, a former gag writer, who turned out efficient comic entertainment and one good drama, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939). More characteristic work for the brash Lanfield was a Bob Hope movie such as The Lemon Drop Kid (1951). After refusing to endure this director's verbal abuse, such as being asked "Don't you ever think before saying a line, hatchet face?" during this Western movie, another director supervised Ms. Moorehead's scenes for the remainder of the film].
Moira: Which actors did she admire and why?
Charles Tranberg: Among actors she admired and she once answered this very question–were Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Greer Garson, Jane Wyman, Helen Hayes, Robert Montgomery, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. She had a high regard for actors who knew their craft and came prepared and ready to go. She didn’t care for somebody like Marlon Brando who she considered part of “the mumbling school” and somebody who had to feel his way into a scene. In fact, she didn’t particularly care for the actors studio.
Moira: Do you think that she enjoyed the professional camaraderie of a great ensemble piece such as Johnny Belinda (1948) or did she long to be the central figure of a dramatic piece?
Charles Tranberg: No, she enjoyed being part of that ensemble with “Johnny Belinda.” Jane Wyman told me how much between scenes all the actors, on location, bonded and they played games and got to know each other. That was the first of five films with Wyman and it was an enduring friendship as well as professional relationship. That said, I’m sure she would have loved to have had a major film built around her as the lead. I think most supporting or character people feel that way at times.
Moira: What do you consider her most interesting film roles in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s?
Charles Tranberg: Her greatest film role of all-time, I believe, is Aunt Fanny in “The Magnificent Ambersons.” She brought such longing and poignancy to the role of the suppressed spinster. Kenneth Tynan, the famous British critic considered her performance in that film as one of the screens all-time great ones. Besides that her other superb forties roles (in my opinion) are her mother in “Citizen Kane“; the murderess with a heart of steel in “Dark Passage“; The baroness in “Mrs. Parkington“; The Wisconsin farm wife in “Our Vines Have Tender Grapes” and her gruff on the outside–butter on the inside Aggie from “Johnny Belinda.”
In the fifties as the stage began to take more of her time her films kind of declined but she, herself was always good. Among the better ones include her progressive warden in “Caged“; A delightful Parthy Hawks in “Show Boat“; and finally, a lead role in a good popcorn mystery opposite Vincent Price called “The Bat.” She also had huge hits with “Magnificent Obsession” and “All that Heaven Allows” (both with Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson). In the sixties she was at her best, though a few critics thought she bit too much of the scenery, in “Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte” but she steals every scene she’s in.
Moira: Given the sometimes grueling demands of touring, what satisfaction do you think that Agnes derived from her work in Don Juan in Hell?
Charles Tranberg: Aggie got great satisfaction working with the caliber of actors she did as she did in “Don Juan in Hell.” She respected and enjoyed Charles Boyer, Charles Laughton and Sir Cedric Hardwicke and she took great satisfaction in playing Dona Anna–a part where she ages from a girl of 17 to a wizardly old woman of 77 and she doesn’t wear any make-up, it was all done by voice inflection. The success of “Don Juan” made her concentrate more and more on the theater and unfortunately the quality of roles in films, which was high and diverse during the forties, were not as much from 1951 onward as she would fit in a quick film in between stage performances. But she was now being acclaimed for her stage work and that made up for it.
Moira: One of the more intriguing “failures” of Ms. Moorehead‘s career might be The Lost Moment (1947) which, under actor Martin Gabel’s direction, is given a noirish treatment with co-stars Susan Hayward and Robert Cummings overshadowed by Aggie‘s remarkable performance as a 105 year old woman! This film cannot be deemed a true artistic or box office triumph, but having seen it once, it is very haunting with good performances especially Moorehead‘s “Juliana Borderau”. This obscure movie is well worth seeking out. Do you think that the effort that Aggie put into this role made it more of a disappointment to her?
Charles Tranberg: Yes, I do think it was a big disappointment since she worked so hard on that film–enduring hours of her time each morning to get in that make-up and then hours taking it off. She lost twenty pounds doing that film because it was so hot under all of that make up. But she did have big hopes for it. She had a great role and the preview audiences liked her characterization and I think she thought she would be nominated for an Oscar for it, but audiences didn’t take to it. I, for one, don’t think that Bob Cummings was a sufficient enough leading dramatic actor for his part–he is perfectly fine at light comedy, but I think this film was beyond him. He wasn’t a romantic lead enough to get female fans hearts aflutter and that’s one of the reasons why it didn’t do well at the box office.
Moira: The private life of Ms. Moorehead has often been the subject of a remarkably heated discussion of her sexuality, her two marriages to Jack Lee and Robert Gist, her temperament and her adoption of a son at the age of 50 when her first marriage was disintegrating. Could you possibly address any of these topics?
Charles Tranberg: Her private life was indeed quite private–she maintained a tight lid and only gave the columnists what she wanted them to know. She met her first husband, Jack Lee at the AADA, and they were in the same class, (Mr. Lee can be seen at right with Ms. Moorehead in the 1940s). Many people expected Jack to be a star. He was considered very good at the AADA and upon graduation he didn have some early success on the New York stage, but soon her career began to eclipse his and while he continued to act over the years, he never went nearly as far as she did and this probably was a major reason as to why he began drinking at times quite heavily. He also began being abusive towards her. But she wasn’t easy to live with either.
As her star rose she would have her servants answer the phone at their home, “Miss Moorehead’s residence” and that certainly didn’t’ do much for his already fragile ego. Their divorce did make headlines in the early fifties and by that time she was already dating Robert Gist, who was much younger, and who she met at MGM on the film “The Stratton Story.” [Mr. Gist can be seen below holding the baby in a scene from The Stratton Story with James Stewart, June Allyson and Ms. Moorehead as Stratton's mother]. She later got him a job as a travel manager on “Don Juan in Hell.” When that show went to England in 1951, he traveled with Aggie. They were quite an item, even though her divorce from Lee wasn’t quite final. But many people feel that Gist used Aggie to try and get ahead. As it is they separated only about a year after they married. She tried to keep a tight rein on him and he resented it. Near the end of her marriage to Jack Lee, they made plans to adopt a child, but they didn’t really follow through. Sean was never actually adopted, she was a guardian for him because at that time a single woman couldn’t adopt a child. I think with Sean she gave him everything he needed except a continual presence in his life. But she was a single woman doing her best to provide for him the only way she knew how and that was as an actress. It necessitated that she travel widely for stage and movie roles and as a consequence Sean was left in boarding schools and with relatives. As a result Sean became quite independent in his ways and became a handful later on for Aggie. As for her sexuality, many people have speculated that she was gay or at least bi-sexual.
In my book, I don’t totally deny this being the case, but everybody, including the very outspoken Mr. Gregory, flatly denied it and I have to wonder why more than 30 years after her death if she were gay why people who should know would still deny if it were true? there is no reason, certainly not now–in this day and age. It certainly wouldn’t diminish her in any way.
Moira: One of the incidents in Aggie‘s life that is repeatedly mentioned in connection with her death, as well as several others in the cast and crew, were the circumstances surrounding the production of The Conqueror (1956), with John Wayne, Susan Hayward, Pedro Armendáriz, Aggie and director Dick Powell all suffering from some form of cancer after working near the sites of several nuclear weapons’ tests in the American Southwest. Did you find any conclusive evidence while writing this book linking this–frankly–excreble movie, to the health of these principals and crew?
Charles: Well, it can’t be denied that many people connected with that film did die from cancer: Aggie, Wayne, Hayward, Powell and many others who worked on it, but then many people didn’t either. So it’s not conclusive. But certainly there was radioactivity in the sand on location and in the sand that they hauled back to the studio and so it certainly can’t be discarded. Agnes herself felt it had something to do with why she got cancer.
Moira: A friend of mine on line, Mr. Larry Russell, who was a resident of the same neighborhood as Aggie when he was a youngster, reports that he met Miss Moorehead on the set of Show Boat (1951).
As Larry explains, Moorehead “told me that she lived down the road from us and invited me for tea the next Sunday afternoon. I went and she was very gracious. She thought, over the years, that I was a very polite and well mannered child, (as I was!).” On reflection, Larry thought that Agnes may have found his company particularly enjoyable since she was the guardian of a child described by Larry as “troubled.”
“My dog Rusty, a huge red Irish setter, got out the next year and was found digging up AM’s prize garden and although she took it well, I helped her then and over the years in her garden(s) and we had a nice rapport. [AM] often asked me about my school work and helped me understand geometry with coloured tiles, etc. She always spoke ‘up’ in her language (she loved the dictionary & thesaurus) and never spoke ‘down’ to me. She was once a teacher and prized knowledge. It was she who told me that every day should bring a new fact or “cognizance” (as she put it) to your brain or you might as well be dead.”
Larry mentioned that the actress also observed that “[w]hen you’ve stopped learning, you might as well be dead!!” While AM acknowledged good naturedly that “[n]o one is perfect. When you’ve attained perfection, then there’s nothing left for you but death!!” Larry also reported that “Agnes had a great .”
Larry also reported to me that AM‘s “work ethic was top notch in Hollywood and elsewhere. I’m sure she never held up production schedules or cost the studios an extra dime in lost time. I never heard a bad word about her and she was well liked in the industry.”
Moira: Moorehead’s career changed along with the film, and radio industries. As movie work became scarcer and less interesting roles were offered to AM, she pursued the stage when possible, but also performed in some outstanding television programs, among them a classic, nearly silent episode of The Twilight Zone , and, in 1964, a now classic situation comedy in which Aggie‘s high style and hauteur helped to make her an icon to the next generation. Since you outline her ambivalence toward television work, why do you think she stuck with the role on Bewitched?
Charles Tranberg: She thought that television was a great “treadmill” of long hours and hard work but the satisfaction she got out of Endora on “Bewitched” was great. She really became a star name with that iconic role and it’s still the role most associated with her today. She may have bitched and moaned but she never really contemplated leaving “Bewitched.” She added her own little touches to the role, in fact, had a hand in naming the character–from the biblical ‘witch of Endor.’ She loved it when she was recognized and that she had a new generation of fans. Without “Bewitched” her career would not have sustained the way it did–and I think she knew that.
Moira: Thanks very much for sharing your observations with us, Charles. Even though I feel as though we’ve just begun to scratch the surface in examining the artistry of Agnes Moorehead, I’m sure that your book and your enthusiasm for this lady’s unique career have piqued the interest of many of our readers.
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