She may be remembered for her TV role as Endora the Witch on Bewitched, but Agnes Moorehead had one fine film career long before the small screen made her a household name.
She first showed her flair on radio — as Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca among other vehicles — and then made a memorable transition to Hollywood in the early Forties with key roles in two of the finest movies ever made.
Yet despite her four Oscar nominations, she is often dismissed as a mere “character actress” as opposed to classic Hollywood movie star. We’ve often maintained that a performer can (and even should) try to be both.
In fact, although Moorehead was considered a premier character actress, she often transcended that limited description. And besides, she believed, the “character actor” can be an artist, “like a painter with a very large palette of colors from which to paint an interesting picture with dimension.”
The of a daughter of Massachusetts minister, she was born at the dawn of the 20th century and after some 155 acting roles, expired in 1974. By then she had established herself as the go-to working actress playing, as critic David Thomson puts it, “shrews, rancorous mothers, bitches and spinsters.”
She did this on radio, the stage, Hollywood and on television. Highly educated, “old fashioned” in her personal moral values — though she became known as one of Hollywood’s more discrete lesbians — Moorehead brought professional savvy, sophistication and sheer hard work to every character she portrayed.
As Thomson notes: What are the two most indelibly humane moments in the work of Orson Welles? There is a case for saying Agnes Moorehead figures in both. (Note to Thomson: she sure does. Case closed.)
Moorehead figures prominently in two of the most moving scenes in any of the films directed by Orson Welles. She (as pictured below) is unforgettable as Charles Foster Kane’s mother in 1941’s Citizen Kane. (She was just 35 years old at the time.) And she really pulls out the stops as Aunt Fanny in the director’s second outing, 1942’s The Magnificent Ambersons, for which she nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar.
Welles in many ways was Moorehead’s professional sponsor. The two met during their respective radio days. “I was with him 17 years,” she recalled. Welles was the one who brought Moorehead — she was a member of his Mercury players — to Hollywood. If a strange part came up, Welles would intone: “Give it to Agnes. She can play it.”
Considering her straight-laced New England background and her education, Moorehead’s Hollywood friends included at least one surprising name, Debbie Reynolds. The perky musical comedy star and Moorehead developed an “extremely close relationship” dating back to 1962’s How The West Was Won. Reynolds played one of Moorehead’s two daughters. The other was played by Carroll Baker, who was agreeable enough but never really became Moorehead’s friend.
Moorehead had something in common with Susan Hayward, John Wayne and Dick Powell. All died of of various forms of cancer believed to be connected to radiation exposure on the Saint George, Utah location of 1955’s The Conqueror.
The town was near an above-ground atomic test blast site in the adjacent Nevada desert, heavily used during the Fifties. Wayne, Hayward and Moorehead were in the cast. Moorehead died in 1974 at 73 of uterine cancer. Powell, who died of cancer of the lymph glands in 1963, directed the movie.