Know Your Character Actor – Agnes Moorehead

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June 30, 2015 by smumcounty

AgnesMooreheadAgnes Robertson Moorehead was born December 6th, 1900 in Clinton Massachusetts, daughter of a Presbyterian minister. Her first public performance was at the age of 3 reciting the Lord’s Prayer in her father’s church. Early on she had a strong desire to play characters, performing impressions of her father’s parishioners at the dinner table. After the family moved to St. Louis, Missouri she joined the chorus of the St. Louis Municipal Opera Company. At her father’s urging she chose to pursue a higher education early on, attending Muskingum College in Ohio and subsequently the University of Wisconsin where she graduated with an MA in English and public speaking. After college she taught English and drama for five years and found time to travel to Paris to study pantomime with Marcel Marceau.

as Margo Lane in "The Shadow"

as Margo Lane in “The Shadow”

Once she dedicated herself to acting, finding work was difficult. She would often go days without eating. Eventually she did find steady work in radio often appearing in multiple shows in a single day. She played the dragon lady on “Terry and the Pirates” in 1937 and she had a recurring role as Margo Lane in “The Shadow” which allowed her to meet Orson Welles who was voicing the Shadow. When Welles formed The Mercury Theater in 1937, Moorehead was one of the founding members, and when RKO took notice of The Mercury Theater’s “War of the Worlds” 1938 radio adaption and offered Welles a chance to direct in Hollywood, Moorehead made the move to the west coast with them.

as Mrs. Kane in "Citizen Kane"

as Mrs. Kane in “Citizen Kane”

Moorehead made her film debut in no less a film than “Citizen Kane” (1941) playing Charles Foster Kane’s mother. Though this was a rather small role it is still very affecting. Emotionless and pragmatic, Mrs. Kane still very much loves her son and you see this when she opens the window to call him in to meet his new guardian. The catch in her voice as she shouts “Charles!” speaks volumes. Moorehead then appeared in the Mercury Theater productions “Journey into Fear” (1943) and “The Magnificent Ambersons” (1942). In this latter film, she portrayed Aunt Fanny which earned her a Golden Globe Award and an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

as Aunt Fanny in "The Magnificent Ambersons"

as Aunt Fanny in “The Magnificent Ambersons”

"Mrs. Parkington"

“Mrs. Parkington”

Other notable films from this period include “Jane Eyre” (1943) where she portrayed Mrs. Reed, Jane’s cruel and selfish aunt, and the war drama “Since You Went Away” (1944) where she portrayed the nosy, hoarding friend Emily Hawkins. She won a second Golden Globe Award for “Mrs. Parkington” (1944) in which she portrayed the jaded but kind Baroness Conti who allows Greer Garson to steal Walter Pidgeon from her. In “Dark Passage” (1947), with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, she was the malevolent and dangerous Madge Rapf who frames Bogie for murder. In “Johnny Belinda” (1948) she portrayed the kindly Aunt Aggie.

Moorehead in "Sorry, Wrong Number"

“Sorry, Wrong Number”

By this time, Moorehead’s film character had been pretty well determined. She often played older matronly women, aunts, and spinsters, sometimes kindly but often arrogant and haughty. In the mid-40’s, Moorehead joined MGM’s stable of actors, negotiating a contract that allowed her to pursue radio work. Radio allowed Moorehead to expand her repertoire, playing characters who were much younger or older than she appeared and against the type that she usually portrayed in films. In the 40’s and 50’s, Moorehead was one of the most sought after actresses in radio dramas. In the CBS radio show “Suspense” alone she appeared more than any other actor in the show’s 946 episode run often being introduced as the “first lady of Suspense”. One of the most popular parts she played for “Suspense” was as the protagonist of “Sorry, Wrong Number”, a selfish, neurotic woman who overhears a murder being plotted via her phone’s crossed wires only to realize in the end that it’s her murder that is being discussed. She played the part six times for Suspense alone as well as for other radio programs. In 1952, she recorded an album for the drama. Moorehead also had success on stage in 1951-52, appearing in the touring company of Shaw’s “Don Juan in Hell” along with Charles Boyer, Charles Laughton, and Cedric Hardwicke.

"Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte"

“Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte”

By this time, Moorehead was a triple threat, appearing in radio, films, and on the stage. Notable films from later in her career include “Caged” (1950) with Eleanor Parker in which she played the reform minded prison warden. In 1951, she was included in MGM’s remake of “Show Boat” in which she portrayed the wife of Cap’n Andy and mother of Magnolia. She garnered yet another Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress for “Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte” (1964). This makes four Oscar nominations, if you’re keeping count. Unfortunately, for this award, Moorehead was always a bridesmaid and never a bride.

with Susan Hayward and John Wayne in "The Conqueror"

with Susan Hayward and John Wayne in “The Conqueror”

In 1956, she appeared in the ill-fated film production “The Conqueror”. This film, starring John Wayne and Susan Hayward and directed by Dick Powell, was filmed in Utah, downwind of the Yucca Flat, Nevada nuclear test site. Many of the cast and crew of the film developed cancer later in life and although the percentage of cancer in the cast and crew is within expected norms, many still believe there was a connection between the production and their later illnesses. Moorehead herself, who died of uterine cancer, blamed her cancer on her time spent on the production in Utah, saying “I should never have taken that part.”

"Twilight Zone" episode "The Invaders"

“Twilight Zone” episode “The Invaders”

By the 50’s, as with many other actors, Moorehead began appearing on television, guest starring in episodes of “The Twilight Zone”, “Rawhide”, and “The Rifleman”. In the “Twilight Zone” episode “The Invaders” in 1959, she is a lonely old woman in a remote farmhouse set upon by miniature spacemen. In this portrayal, as a departure from her radio work, she never utters a word, expressing her terror through pantomime. In 1967, she portrayed Emma Hamilton in an episode of “The Wild Wild West” for which she won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series.

Endora in "Bewitched"

Endora in “Bewitched”

In 1964, she accepted the role of Endora, Samantha’s flamboyant, mortal-loathing mother on “Bewitched”. She was reluctant to take on the role but relented when Elizabeth Montgomery personally appealed to her. She didn’t expect the show to take off and felt a little trapped when it did, but she was only contractually obligated to appear in eight out of twelve episodes leaving her time to other pursuits. Of course, the show was a huge hit and brought Moorehead a level of recognition that she had previously not had, though she was quick to remind people that she had had an extensive career prior to “Bewitched”. The show ran through 1972 often appearing in the top ten rated shows.

AgnesMooreheadRadioMoorehead took guest appearances on television shows after 1972 and reprised her role in “Don Juan in Hell” on Broadway and in the touring company, this time appearing with Ricardo Montalban and Paul Henreid. In 1973, she portrayed Aunt Alicia in the Broadway adaption of “Gigi”. Moorehead continued to work up until the end of her life. Three months before her death she performed in two episodes of the CBS Radio Mystery Theater. Moorehead died on April 30th, 1974 in Rochester Minnesota. Although today she is best known for her role as Endora on TV and also well-known by classic film fans, perhaps she was most influential in radio. In 2014, Moorehead was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame, hailed at the time as “the greatest radio actress who ever lived.”

“Citizen Kane”

This is undoubtedly the scene that got her that Oscar nomination for “The Magnificent Ambersons”

“Sorry, Wrong Number” from “Suspense”

“Bewitched”

“Wild Wild West”

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One thought on “Know Your Character Actor – Agnes Moorehead

  1. Billy says:

    Engaging read,thank you

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