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  • Writer's pictureAugust Sorenson

Still Bewitched with Agnes Moorehead

Updated: Mar 18

In honor of the March 2024 celebration of Women’s History Month, The Actors Society recognizes the achievements of women in the industry with a collection of featured stories of three alumni. This year, we’re highlighting the stories of Aloma Wright (‘81), Agnes Moorehead (‘29), and Jennifer Coolidge (‘82). Below, take a glimpse into the life and career of Ms. Agnes Moorehead.


Contact us through your Actors Society account if there’s an alumna you’d like to shout out for this year’s celebration.


On a February evening in 1973, draped in a chantilly pink dress and a tapestry of pearls, Agnes Moorehead (‘29) glided onto the stage of The Dick Cavett Show. Introduced by the host as “one of those tremendously skillful, gifted, versatile actresses,” Moorehead, illuminated by stage lights, is greeted by the studio audience with a round of applause. Embodying a savoir-faire reminiscent of Old Hollywood, the actress is charming, professional, and noticeably down-to-earth (when asked about her farm, she responds with hands-on knowledge). These traits helped project her to a career so prolific it spanned not only decades, but generations. Yet, “Aggie” never really sought the limelight.


Born outside of Boston at the turn of the twentieth century, Aggie was raised by parents of Anglo-Irish ancestry. Her mother, Mary (née McCauley), was a singer, and her father, John Henderson Moorehead, was a clergyman and “stickler for good English.” Both encouraged creativity and self-expression; her mother would ask, “Who are you today, Agnes?” and her father reveled in dinner table antics where she mimicked local parishioners. At three, she performed for her first public audience when she recited The Lord’s Prayer to a church congregation, setting in motion a lifelong dedication to acting that would net her a Primetime Emmy, two Golden Globes, and four Academy Award nominations.


The path to get there was not an obvious one. At her father’s request, she studied many subjects at the collegiate level, earning a Bachelor’s in Biology, a Master’s in English and Public Speaking, and an Honorary Doctorate in Literature. Moorehead also taught for five years at a public school in a small Wisconsin village. A long tenure in academia characterized the 1920s before graduating from The Academy in 1929, just shy of her 30th birthday. This final push set her down the path of a professional actress.


That same year, brought on by the infamous “Black Tuesday” on Wall Street, ushered in the Great Depression. As markets shook, the financial gains of the Roaring Twenties were wiped out, and theatres in New York–those once vibrant cultural landmarks–were devastated. Stage work was available to the trained actress, but a paycheck, especially a steady one, was another matter entirely. Possessing a distinct vocal quality, Moorehead turned to radio. Beamed directly into homes, the medium offered solace to weary depression-era listeners. It paid handsomely for Ms. Moorehead; at one point, she was working on multiple programs in a single day. Utilizing the medium to further train her voice, radio also became artistically fulfilling. The actress Helen Hayes, a close friend made during her radio days, encouraged Aggie to try her hand onscreen. After a brief foray into motion pictures, she was deemed not “the right type” by execs and returned to the airwaves. The silver screen would have to wait for the bona fide radio star.


By 1937, she had joined the Mercury Players, a repertory theatre in New York co-founded by the ambitious auteur-to-be Orson Welles. The troupe’s inaugural production was a fresh take on Julius Caesar. With allusions to Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, it opened to critical acclaim in November of 1937, just four months before the Anschluss of Austria. The show helped solidify the company as a tour-de-force in contemporary theatre and, at the behest of CBS, progressed into “The Mercury Theatre on the Air,” its most widely-known incarnation. The troupe was immortalized in 1938 with its radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds. The broadcast incited upheaval to such a degree that all hands were on deck (including Moorehead’s), fielding calls from the terrified claiming to see “little green men” in their backyards.


Moorehead’s breakthrough with the Mercury Players occurred during her time on The Shadow, a drama where she acted alongside Welles (who took on the titular role when not playing Brutus in “Caesar”), broadcast via radio. The series had a long run (until 1954), airing in a 30-minute timeslot on Sunday evenings, and saw Moorehead as Margo Lane, the main character’s love interest and confidant, until 1940. She joined Suspense that year and went on to have a successful run with the show; of its 946 episodes, Moorehead was cast more than any other actor or actress in the series.


1941 saw the release of Citizen Kane, a film charting the meteoric rise and tragic fall of the fictional Charles Foster Kane. The film, directed by and starring Welles in the titular role, was met with controversy and upheaval that disrupted its theatrical release. Despite a rocky start, Moorehead would finally make her onscreen debut, starring as Mary Kane, mother to Charles Foster. Despite having only four minutes of screen time, the part was essential to the story; Mary embodies the mystery of “Rosebud” and the loss of innocence the film revolves around. Moorehead’s close relationship with Welles (and ability to scene-steal with such little screen time) landed her a role in his second feature, The Magnificent Ambersons, the following year. For this film, she received a New York Film Critics Award and her first Academy Award nomination. The two collaborated with one another at such frequency during the early stages of her career that they were creatively inseparable. Unknown to them, the kindred spirits had an idyllic meeting over a decade earlier.


Recounted by Moorehead during the ‘73 interview with Dick Cavett, they met in New York in 1922. The 22-year-old spent holidays with her affluent aunt, who resided at the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan. While the two were in the lobby one day, she spotted a young boy sporting a blazer and white trousers, orating about a concert he saw. Her ears perked up. “Listen to his vocabulary,” she turned to her aunt, “Did you ever hear such vocabulary in your life?” That afternoon, while she sipped on a chocolate soda (a popular Gilded Age concoction) at the hotel bar, he grabbed a seat next to her. The two conversed for hours that day. As years went by, the story was locked away in Moorehead‘s memory bank, and it wasn‘t until the production of Citizen Kane that it would come to light. Between takes, Welles tossed a newspaper to Moorehead with his younger self in a blazer and white trousers pictured on the cover. A light bulb went off: she asked if he had ever holidayed at the Waldorf Astoria, he responded in the affirmative. After sharing the fond memory with him, Welles paused and said, “Well, to think, Aggie, that I knew you when I was seven years old.”


By the mid-1940s, Moorehead had a contract with MGM paying $6,000 a week, and it was specially written to allow her to continue working on radio. Her mid-decade film credits included memorable supporting roles in The Youngest Profession, Since You Went Away, and Dark Passage alongside Humphrey Bogart and Actors Society Member Lauren Bacall (‘42). In 1951, she played Parthy Hawks in the MGM remake of Showboat, the popular musical and year’s second-highest-grossing motion picture. Receiving two Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress for Mrs. Parkington in 1944 (a role for which she won her first Golden Globe Award) and Johnny Belinda in 1948, the 40s validated in the eyes of critics what her fellow artists already knew.


With well-deserved accolades and critical recognition aplenty, a resurgent stage career awaited her. She played Donna Ana on the national tour and Broadway production of George Bernard Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell. Two decades later, she re-starred in the same role, solidifying the character actress as one of those rare, timeless talents. She closed the 1950s with the pre-Broadway engagement of The Pink Jungle, a financial flop radiating with charm to the bitter end.


Moorehead’s fourth and final Academy Award nomination came in 1964 with Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Despite not bringing home the Oscar, she added a second Golden Globe to her collection. Something else was stirring in ‘64. Not only did Velma, her “Hush Hush” role, bring out an intensity unlike previous parts, it was also the year she joined the hit sitcom Bewitched.


Moorehead’s charismatic portrayal of Endora, the bonne vivante mother to Samantha Stephens (played by Actors Society member Elizabeth Montgomery), was one of the show’s highlights; she earned six Primetime Emmy nominations during its run. However, her acceptance of the role was predicated on believing it would fail. When it took off, she negotiated not to star in every episode of the series despite being a principal cast member. (Moorehead found some of the scripts so lackluster she went so far as to use the word “hack” as a descriptor in a 1965 interview.) The decision to involve herself in less of the show, and the extra time it afforded her, was a wise one–she nabbed a Primetime Emmy Award in 1967 for her work in The Wild Wild West. She remained with Bewitched until its conclusion in 1972. During her latter days, she commented fondly of her co-star Elizabeth Montgomery and recognized the show’s cultural impact.


She returned to the stage in 1973 for a brief stint in Gigi; during the Broadway run, Moorehead fell ill and needed to be replaced. The same year, she starred as the affable Goose in an animated adaptation of the beloved children’s novel Charlotte’s Web. The following January, the New England girl’s career came full circle. Featured in two episodes of CBS Radio Mystery Theater, she graced listeners with her distinct timbre one last time. With turns as the frivolous Endora and the playful Goose, she endeared herself to a generation of children with fond memories of their dear Aggie.


Agnes Moorehead passed away in 1974 from uterine cancer in Rochester, Minnesota. She was 73.

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