An Actress for All Seasons: The Fabulous Agnes Moorehead
Updated: Jul 26, 2019
By John C. Alsedek:
As a kid who devoured 60’s TV reruns every summer, Bewitched was a second-tier watch for me—not up there with the likes of Star Trek and The Twilight Zone but ahead of more conventional sitcoms like My Three Sons and Hazel. What gave it that bump—at least at first—was the supernatural aspect; anything even vaguely sci-fi/horror/fantasy-related was a winner for me. But as time went on, I really started appreciating the actors, and none more than Agnes Moorehead as the flamboyant elder witch Endora who chewed up the scenery with dry glee. It would be another decade before I discovered that playing Endora had been just one small part of a career that had netted Moorehead an Emmy, two Golden Globes, six Oscar nominations . . . and the title of “America’s greatest actress” from no less a personage than the legendary Orson Welles. She was also one of the most prolific and celebrated radio performers ever to hit the airwaves.
Born in 1900, Agnes Moorehead had acting in her blood from an early age. Her parents (father was a Presbyterian minister, mother was a former singer) encouraged her interest but also insisted that she get an education; she obliged, earning a bachelor’s in biology from Muskingum College in 1923. But she pursued acting full-time not long after graduation, landing a variety of stage roles but also going through extended dry spells where she had trouble even keeping food on the table. In fact, it would be a full decade before she would become a full-time working actress—but when she took off, she REALLY took off.
Moorehead joined Orson Welles and his Mercury Players in 1937, performing regularly both in Welles’ Mercury Theatre on the Air and The Shadow, where she played opposite Welles as Margo Lane. Two years later when Welles signed a deal with RKO Pictures and moved to Hollywood, Moorehead went with him. The result? Agnes made her film debut at the age of 41, portraying the titular character’s mother in the Welles masterpiece Citizen Kane. A year later, she’d garner her first Oscar nomination for her performance in The Magnificent Ambersons, and then her second two years later for Mrs. Parkington. By the mid-1940’s, she was a big enough name in her own right that she landed a $6,000-a-week contract from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer: one that included a proviso that she be allowed to continue working on radio.
And work on radio she did! During the course of her career, Moorehead would do hundreds of radio performances, from her first role as a replacement for Dorothy Denvir on The Gumps in 1934 to her final performance in "The Ring of Truth," a 1974 episode of The CBS Radio Mystery Theater. In between, she did comedies, crime stories, dramas, the occasional Western . . . but she was most renowned for her work on the original Suspense.
Appearing in more episodes than any other actor—27 in all—Moorehead was known as "The First Lady of Suspense." She performed the lead in some of the series’ greatest episodes, including "The Yellow Wallpaper" and an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic ghost story "The Signal-Man." But the one that she was best known for was her essentially one-woman performance in Louise Fletcher’s "Sorry, Wrong Number," in which Moorehead played a bedridden woman who overhears two men on the telephone plotting a murder. Orson Welles, a man who would certainly know good radio drama when he heard it, referred to "Sorry, Wrong Number" as “the greatest single radio script ever written,”and Moorehead’s performance was every bit a match for the material. She would go on to perform "Sorry, Wrong Number" a total of six times for Suspense alone, plus several other radio anthologies; for each performance, she would work off the original copy of the script she’d used back in the show’s first live airing in 1943. It was a quirk that perhaps gave people a bit of insight into what made Moorehead tick. Even though money hadn’t been a concern for her since the late 1930’s, she would be a spendthrift for the rest of her life. It would also lead Moorehead to work as much as she could, be it in film, television, radio, or on stage. Even when radio drama was slowly dying off at the end of the 1950’s, Moorehead continued to be a regular on Suspense, appearing a half-dozen times in its final three seasons.
Agnes Moorehead’s desire to work kept her very active even into her seventies. After Bewitched ended its eight-year run in 1972, she would do Broadway runs of Gigi and Don Juan in Hell, star in the memorable Night Gallery episode "Certain Shadows on the Wall," and voice Mother Goose in the Hanna-Barbera animated version of Charlotte’s Web.
However Moorehead contracted uterine cancer, most likely caused by her exposure to fallout from above-ground atomic bomb tests during the filming of the 1956 Howard Hughes film The Conqueror; nearly half of the cast & crew of the film would end up with cancer/cancer-related illnesses, including stars John Wayne and Susan Hayward. But Moorehead continued to work till the end, and her final two roles were most fitting. She played the lead in "The Old Ones are Hard to Kill," the premiere episode of The CBS Radio Mystery Theater, in January of 1974, as well as in a second episode at the end of January. Moorehead passed away three months later, leaving an iconic body of work behind.
In an ironic bit of trivia, one of Moorehead’s best-remembered roles was in the Twilight Zone episode "The Invaders"—ironic because her character had no actual lines, a real twist given how much of Moorehead’s career had been spent using nothing but her voice!
Another bit of related trivia? Moorehead’s Bewitched co-stars Elizabeth Montgomery and Dick York also starred in episodes of The Twilight Zone, and another famous TV anthology series. We’ll be talking about them next time. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
‘Citizen Kane’ (film debut):
‘Sorry, Wrong Number’ (original 1943 SUSPENSE performance):
‘The Old Ones are Hard to Kill’ (premiere episode of CBS Radio Mystery Theater):