Agnes Moorehead (1900-1974)

Agnes Moorehead
Agnes Moorehead
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Agnes Moorehead was a versatile character actress who remained at the top of her profession for the whole of her thirty year career. She began on radio and joined Orson Welles in his Mercury Theater Group and her career ranged over radio, television and movies, ending with her playing the iconic Endora, Elizabeth Montgomery's mother, in 'Bewitched', the hugely successful television series which ran from 1964 to 1972. She was nominated four times for the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award, each time unsuccessfully.


Agnes Moorehead was born Agnes Robertson Moorehead on December 6, 1900, in Clinton, Massachusetts. Her father, John, was a Presbyterian minister and Agnes's first public appearance was, aged three, reciting the Lord's Prayer in her father's church. Her mother had sung opera on stage and Agnes too had a good singing voice. From the age of ten she sang with the St. Louis Municipal Opera Company.

She had ambitions to make acting a career and appeared in student plays whilst studying at Muskingum College in New Concord, Ohio. She later gained a master's degree in English and public speaking at the University of Wisconsin. She taught public school for five years in Wisconsin after which she followed her acting ambitions, studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, graduating with honors in 1929.

Radio Career

Her professional acting career began on radio, a medium she returned to time and again throughout her career. Radio performing was so important to her that she later insisted being able to continue it as a clause in her later contract with MGM. During the 1930's she developed a reputation for excellence in many radio programs, such as 'Seth Parker Family Hour' from 1930 to 1931 and 'The Gumps' in 1934, 'The March of Time' in 1937 and she appeared on many comedy shows as foil to stars such as Bob Hope, Bert Lahr, Fred Allen, Joe Cook, Bea Lillie and Milton Berle. The most significant part of her radio career came when she joined Orson Welles's Mercury Theatre.

Mercury Theatre

Through her work on 'March of Time' Agnes met the dynamic young actor Orson Welles, who had worked as narrator on the series. In 1937 Welles formed the Mercury Theatre Group with John Houseman and then moved into radio broadcasting with the weekly "Mercury Theatre of the Air" which broadcast plays based on classic literary works. He soon invited Agnes to join him and she performed in several adaptations, including 'Dracula,' 'Treasure Island,' and, most famously, or infamously, the 1938 'War of the Worlds' broadcast.

Hollywood 1940

Following his radio successes Welles moved to Hollywood and brought most of his Mercury Troupe, including Agnes, with him. His first attempt at feature filmmaking was 'Citizen Kane' in 1941, still regarded by many as the greatest film ever made. Agnes, at the age of 40, made her movie debut in it, as Kane's cold mother, the type of woman she would play many times during her career. Her next movie, her second, was the Welles directed 'The Magnificent Ambersons' in 1942 for which she received her first Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

Her movie career continued smoothly with appearances in many high quality movies such as performance in 'Journey into Fear' and Jane Eyre' in 1943, 'Mrs. Parkington' in 1944, for which she received her second Supporting Actress Oscar nomination, 'Dark Passage' in 1947 and 'Johnny Belinda' the following year which won her a third Oscar nomination. Her successes continued in the 1950's with a brilliant performance as a liberal prison warden in 'Caged' in 1950, 'Magnificent Obsession' in 1954, and 'Raintree County' in 1957.

The Conqueror 1954

Agnes appeared in the John Wayne movie, 'The Conqueror' which was released in 1956 but which was filmed in 1954. The exterior shots were filmed in the Yucca Flats near St George, Utah downwind from the Government nuclear testing site. Those tests were suspected subsequently to have caused the cancer deaths of several of the films stars including John Wayne, Dick Powell, Susan Hayward and Pedro Armendáriz, and also of Agnes herself.

Television Career

Agnes's first television appearance was in 1953 in 'The Revlon Mirror Theater' and she gradually turned more and more to the new medium in series such as 'Schlitz Playhouse' and 'Climax' in 1957. During the 1960's and 1970's her television career blossomed even as she won a fourth Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her performance opposite Bette Davis in 'Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte' in 1964. She appeared in many television series during these decades, such as 'The Rifleman', 'Twilight Zone', 'Burke's Law', and 'The Virginian'. Her most famous role began in 1964 in 'Bewitched' as Endora, the witch mother of Elizabeth Montgomery. The series was immensely popular and lasted until 1972.

Agnes married twice, firstly to actor John Griffith Lee in 1930, divorcing in 1952. Then in 1954, she married another actor, Robert Gist, divorcing in 1958. Neither marriage produced children. An adopted child from the first marriage, Sean Lee, abandoned Agnes and disappeared from her life when he was a young man.

Agnes was a radio performer to the end. In early 1974, she performed in two episodes (including the very first) of the CBS Radio Mystery Theater. She died three months later.

Agnes Moorehead died of uterine cancer on April 30, 1974, in Rochester, Minnesota and was buried at Dayton Memorial Park in Dayton, Ohio.

Agnes Moorehead Academy Awards

No Wins:
Four Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Supporting Actress ... The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
Best Supporting Actress ... Mrs. Parkington (1944)
Best Supporting Actress ... Johnny Belinda (1948)
Best Supporting Actress ... Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)

Agnes Moorehead Filmography

The Magnificent Ambersons
The Big Street
Journey Into Fear
The Youngest Profession
Government Girl
Jane Eyre
Since You Went Away
Dragon Seed
The Seventh Cross
Mrs. Parkington
Tomorrow, the World!
Keep Your Powder Dry
Our Vines Have Tender Grapes
Her Highness and the Bellboy
Dark Passage
The Lost Moment
Summer Holiday
The Woman in White
Station West
Johnny Belinda
The Stratton Story
The Great Sinner
Without Honor
Captain Blackjack
Fourteen Hours
Adventures of Captain Fabian
Show Boat
The Blue Veil
The Blazing Forest
The Story of Three Loves
Scandal at Scourie
Main Street to Broadway
Those Redheads from Seattle
Magnificent Obsession
All That Heaven Allows
The Left Hand of God
The Conqueror
Meet Me in Las Vegas
The Swan
The Revolt of Mamie Stover
The Opposite Sex
The True Story of Jesse James
Jeanne Eagels
Raintree County
The Story of Mankind
Night of the Quarter Moon
The Bat