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Agnes Moorehead

Agnes Moorehead

  • Raintree County (1957) July 19 (ET) - Reminder REMINDER
  • Station West (1948) July 22 (ET) - Reminder REMINDER
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Also Known As: Died: April 30, 1974
Born: December 6, 1900 Cause of Death: lung cancer
Birth Place: Clinton, Massachusetts, USA Profession: Cast ... actor teacher
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BIOGRAPHY

She made her reputation in Hollywood playing heartless characters whose faces were frozen in masks of thin-lipped venality, but Agnes Moorehead received her start with comic roles on radio that emphasized her bottomless versatility. After being hired to provide the voice of sidekick Margo Lane to Orson Welles' "The Shadow," the actress joined the ensemble of Welles' fledgling Mercury Theatre on the Air. Together the pair transitioned from New York to Hollywood for "Citizen Kane" (1941), Welles' innovative feature film debut. Moorehead's tightly-coiled turn as the young Kane's cruelly pragmatic mother stamped the template for many of her subsequent film roles: the callous guardian of the young "Jane Eyre" (1943), the distant and disapproving aunt of traumatized "Johnny Belinda" (1948), and the unrepentant murderess who frames Humphrey Bogart in "Dark Passage" (1947) and dares him to prove it. Moorehead excelled in sympathetic roles as well, playing a reform-minded prison warden in "Caged" (1950) and Jayne Wyman's protector in "Magnificent Obsession" (1954), but her comic talents went largely untested until she was picked to play Endora, the witchy mother of suburban sorceress Elizabeth Montgomery on the long-running ABC sitcom "Bewitched" (1964-1972). Active in films, television, and radio, Moorehead weathered two failed marriages and a stab at adoptive motherhood before settling into eccentric solitude. Her death from cancer in 1974 halted a diverse career while immortalizing Moorehead in the pantheon of American pop culture icons.

Agnes Robertson Moorehead was born in Clinton, MA on Dec. 6, 1900. The daughter of Presbyterian minister John Henderson Moorehead, she moved with her family to St. Louis, MO, and performed for the first time at age three, reciting the Lord's Prayer from the pulpit of her father's church. Encouraged by her mother, a former singer, Moorehead nurtured a talent for mimicry by imitating parishioners and family friends. After graduating from Central High School in 1918, she sang in the chorus of the St. Louis Municipal Opera Company and entertained the dream of becoming an actress. When her father insisted that she obtain a higher education, Moorehead enrolled in Muskingum College in New Concord, OH, obtaining a bachelor's degree in biology while appearing in campus plays. After another family move to Reedsburg, WI, Moorhead shifted her studies to the University of Wisconsin, where she earned a master's degree in English literature while teaching public school.

Following her dream of a life in the theatre, Moorehead headed to New York. Graduating from the American Academy of Dramatic Art in 1929, the would-be actress found her new career halted by the onset of the Great Depression, while tragic news from home informed her of the suicide of her chronically ill younger sister, Margaret. Alternating roles in stock with menial rent-paying jobs, Moorehead married in 1930. She found work in radio, appearing on such dramas as "Sherlock Holmes," "Terry and the Pirates," and "The Shadow," in which she was cast as sidekick Margo Lane to Orson Welles' mesmeric crime-fighter Lamont Cranston. By Welles' invitation, Moorehead joined the newly-founded Mercury Theatre on the Air. Though she had developed a reputation for comedy, she excelled in dramatic roles in adaptations of "Dracula," "Treasure Island," and Welles' infamous 1938 "War of the Worlds" broadcast. Moorehead's successes were tempered that same year by the death of her father, who suffered a fatal heart attack while preaching a sermon in his Dayton, OH church.

Moorehead followed Welles to Hollywood, where she signed with RKO Radio Pictures and made her film debut in "Citizen Kane" (1941), Welles' innovative first attempt at feature filmmaking. Her icy performance as Charles Foster Kane's cruelly pragmatic mother stamped the template for many of her subsequent film roles, establishing the 40-ish actress as one of Hollywood's go-to essayists of difficult women. She was nominated for an Academy Award for her work in Welles' "The Magnificent Ambersons" (1942) and contributed an amusing cameo to the Welles-produced "Journey into Fear" (1943). Robert Stevenson's adaptation of "Jayne Eyre" (1943) allowed the actress to add to her résumé another acidic performance as the orphaned heroine's cruel guardian, while her turn as a French countess who vies with Greer Garson for the love of Walter Pidgeon in Tay Garnett's "Mrs. Parkington" (1944) earned her a second Oscar nomination. On the radio, Moorehead excelled as a bedridden woman marked for murder in "Sorry, Wrong Number," broadcast on the CBS anthology series "Suspense" (1942-1962).

On the other end of the law and order equation, Moorehead played an unrepentant murderer who pins her crime on fall guy Humphrey Bogart in Delmer Daves "Dark Passage" (1947) but pays for her sins via a fatal fall from the window of a high rise apartment building. She received her third Academy Award nomination for playing the distant and disapproving aunt of Jane Wyman's "Johnny Belinda" (1948), an early Hollywood film to broach the taboo subject of rape and its aftermath. In John Cromwell's "Caged" (1950), Moorehead was a reform-minded prison warden who attempts to protect an unjustly condemned Eleanor Parker. In a lighter mode, Moorehead was the spirited wife of riverboat captain Joe E. Lewis in George Sidney's Showboat" (1951) and widow Jane Wyman's best friend in Douglas Sirk's "Magnificent Obsession" (1954). Joining the cast of Dick Powell's "The Conqueror" (1956) on location in Utah, Moorehead became one of a number of the film's cast and crew - among them, stars John Wayne and Susan Hayward, and director Dick Powell - to be exposed from irradiated earth in the aftermath of atomic testing the previous year. The production of this box office dud, wherein hundreds were inhaling radioactive desert sand on a daily basis, quite possibly sealed Moorehead's fate as well as an overwhelming number of cast, crew and visitors to the set who would all develop some form of cancer.

Though she remained visible in such Hollywood epics as "Raintree County" (1957) and "How the West Was Won" (1962), Moorehead preferred the higher profits of work on the small screen. A highlight of her television career was her pantomime performance as a mute woman whose rural cabin becomes the beachhead for a seeming alien invasion in a 1961 episode of Rod Serling's trendsetting anthology series, "The Twilight Zone" (CBS, 1959-1964) while a guest shot as a felonious suffragette on "The Wild Wild West" (CBS, 1965-69) netted her an Emmy. In 1964, Moorehead won what would become her best known role recurring on the supernatural sitcom "Bewitched" (ABC, 1964-1972), as Endora, an old school witch who attempts to lure daughter Elizabeth Montgomery away from a life of suburban banality while she does her best to torture her son-in-law (Dick York/Dick Sargent). That same year, she returned to features for Robert Aldrich's campy "Hush Hush, Sweet Charlotte" (1964) and her final Academy Award nomination.

Married and divorced twice by 1958 and abandoned by a son she had adopted during her first marriage, Moorehead settled into an eccentric solitude, while hosting lavish A-list Hollywood parties from her Beverly Hills home. Despite the financial security of a recurring role on a hit TV series, the actress loathed the early calls and long hours required for the production of "Bewitched" and struggled to hold her tongue in regard to the uneven quality of the scripts. More to her liking was a fiery bit as an Aimee Semple McPherson-style evangelist in Curtis Harrington's Depression era chiller "What's the Matter with Helen?" (1971), starring long-time friend Debbie Reynolds. The pair would reteam for the animated "Charlotte's Web" (1973), for which Moorehead provided the speaking and singing voice of the imperious Goose. Diagnosed with uterine cancer, she withdrew from a Broadway revival of the musical "Gigi" in January 1974. Three months later, while seeking treatment at the Mayo Clinic, Moorehead succumbed to the disease, dying on April 30, 1974 at the age of 73.

by Richard Harland Smith

Contributions

Stephenray ( 2007-05-08 )

Source: see contribution

Agnes Moorehead actually never played Lady MacBeth, although Orson Welles had wanted her to.* The role she played on Broadway in "Gigi" (Aunt Alicia) was orginally played on film by Isobel Jeans, not Hermione Gingold's role.
* "Agnes' contract with MGM and Warner Brothers as well as her radio work - which was extensive, kept her from accepting McBeth, in the pivotal role of Lady McBeth." - Charles Transberg "'I Love The Illusion' The Life and Career of Agnes Moorehead"

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