Agnes Robertson Moorehead was born on December 6, 1900 Always a bright child, Agnes was a talented youngster, so it was no surprise that she became a brilliant character actress. Indeed, Agnes enjoyed playing different characters for the fun of it so much, her mother would always say, “Who are you today, Agnes?”
The first time I had heard about Agnes Moorhead was when I was a little kid in New York City, living in the charming Country Club area of the Bronx. We loved the smash TV sitcom Bewitched, the 1964 – 1972 comedy about witches in suburbia, starring Elizabeth Montgomery. Being kids, we didn’t realize Ms. Montgomery was part of a film and TV dynasty, including actor/producer Robert Montgomery (Here Comes Mr.Jordan; They Were Expendable; Lady in the Lake; Ride the Pink Horse). Agnes always cracked us up as Endora, Samantha’s irksome yet hilarious mother, always a show stopper with her tart tongue and fabulous wardrobe, usually in hues of purple! Indeed, friends often affectionately called Agnes “The Lavender Lady” or “Madam Mauve.”
Ever the world traveler, Agnes worked in France and studied with none other than the great mime Marcel Marceau! She taught public school English and drama for five years, as well as going to Paris to study pantomime. No doubt that came in handy with the memorable Twilight Zone episode “The Invaders.”!
Agnes covered just about every medium (no pun intended…well, maybe a little!), starting with singing at a St. Louis band radio station, and that particular medium stayed with Agnes all her life, from the 1930s through the 1950s, with shows ranging from Terry and The Pirates as The Dragon Lady; The March of Time; and so much more – makes me wish I could have been young with a great voice back then!
It seemed Agnes could do anything in any medium, bless her! Agnes’ Radio triumphs included wicked Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca; and Lucille Fletcher’s Sorry, Wrong Number (a broadcast I’d love to hear if I could)! Such was Agnes’ zeal to perform on the airways, she insisted on its pre-continuation of a later contratct with MGM — clever gal, our Agnes! Even better, through her Radio work on The Shadow and The March of Time in 1937, Agnes met and befriended fellow actor Orson Welles! Knowing a great performer when he saw one, Welles invited her to join him and Joseph Cotton as Charter members of his Mercury Theater of the Air, and Agnes was among the company responsible for the 1938 broadcast of "The War of the Worlds", scaring the heck out of the populace -- and making a name for herself as well as the rest of the cast, with Agnes wowing Radio fans all the way, famous ever after – oh, those Mercury scamps!
Agnes was practically bulletproof with her chameleon dexterity, thanks to her great voice, so it was only a matter of time when Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater came a’knocking, starting as Citizen Kane’s mother, and the rest was history!
Agnes got her first Oscar nomination for her role as Auntie Minafer in The Magnificent Andersons (1942), as well as New York Film Critics. She hit a home run with Lucille Fletcher’s thriller Sorry, Wrong Number
Wish I could have seen them on stage as well!
Agnes didn’t get any Oscars (though she should have, in my opinion; nothing personal, Barbara Stanwyck!), but she was nominated four; times in her long career: the aforementioned The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Mrs. Parkington (1944), Johnny Belinda (1948) AND Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964).
There was only one thing that could stop the unforgettable Agnes, and that’s death – and not just any death, but death from fall-out from the Atom Bomb, no less! Poor Agnes; she and her fellow stars of The Conquerer had the unwitting misfortune to be filming on a site that happened to be on Ground Zero, and Agnes, John Wayne, director Dick Powell, and the rest of the all-star cast the cast, including Agnes, got uterine cancer. No wonder Agnes said, " I wish I’d never made that picture.”Agnes is always riveting and stunningly memorable, but my favorite is still the film noir Dark Passage (1947) with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, based on David Goodis' noir novel. Agnes is stunning as Madge Rapf, a dame as mesmerizing as she is vicious, a dame who draws me to her out of one side of her mouth and pushes them away with the other. She's the type who won't let anyone have something if she can't have it - a compulsion that causes her to go to quite serious ends!