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Agnes Moorehead's recipe for TV success:


By Dwight Whitney

The set of Bewitched is in its normal state. That is to say, in a swivet. The morning has been spent doing pickups for a couple of old shows and preparing for afternoon shooting on the new. Director Bill Asher's stiff upper lip is even stiffer than usual: He is shooting so close to air date that all his stars have to do is sneeze to send the show into rerunning old episodes long before summer. The call sheet has been bollixed, some actors are late, the company is short a makeup man, and the afternoon setup is a man-killer. Most sinister of all, it is past 1 o'clock and Miss Liz Montgomery, the young star of the piece, is hungry.

In one dressing room Liz gulps a distinctly un-poltergeistlike hard-boiled egg. Asher, who is also her husband, has soothing words with her. In another, Agnes Moorehead is being feverishly worked over by the makeup man, Tony Lloyd, who is trying to lop 10 minutes off the hour it usually takes to transform her into the vinegar-tongued Endora, TV's slickest witch. The dressing room bulges with skitterish assistants, stand-ins, press agents, even a man serving lunch, not to mention the press, jammed in between the second assistant and the catsup bottle. Even in her Pan-Cake makeup, Miss Moorehead is an imposing figure, a spirited hoss, classically proud, every inch the "fabulous redhead" and compleat professional the legend says she is.

If she notices the bedlam, you cannot tell it by looking at her. Her kelly green suit is impeccably tailored. So is her self-containment. Only the surroundings seem out of place. "Pay no attention," she admonishes, closing one eye crazily to let the makeup man apply the eye shadow."This is the treadmill. This is TV. Mad, hectic. No time to relax. Every second counts."

The makeup man's pencil curls the eyebrow expertly, giving the face the look of the devil. "The treadmill's a marvelous living," she continues. "But the actor who's creative gets terribly depressed. I've shied away. I'm not the treadmill type." She taps the script. "I haven't any idea about the story. How could I? I only got it this morning. I don't care how good you are, you get many scripts not up to par--what you might call 'hack.'"

Agnes Moorehead? Hack? The juxtaposition is somehow startling. This is the Presbyterian minister's daughter who began her career as a child in the corps de ballet of the St. Louis Municipal Opera (light operas and musical comedy)., worked her way up through radio to fight Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds'' (and help scare a nation half to death), starred for the same boy wonder in "Citizen Kane" and "The Magnificent Ambersons," rode out the blackball which Hollywood's fear of Hearst imposed, and went on to become one of the most versatile actresses of her time--perennial Academy Award nominee, distinguished stage actress, proprietor of her own one-woman show, and performer of the shattering tour de force "Sorry, Wrong Number," in which she wore both herself and her audiences to a frazzle before meeting her final grisly demise.

"You may be sure I didn't decide to go into TV," she is saying grandly. "I was trapped. I did the pilot sort of while I wasn't looking, if that makes any sense. I was convinced it wouldn't sell. How could witchcraft appeal to the general public? Uhhrgh! In this business you need the strength of an Amazon, the guile of a general and the hide of a crocodile."

So here is Agnes, her hide not really as tough as a crocodile's, only her spirit. Now the essential fact that emerges is that Orson Welles was and continues to be the single most influential factor in her career, and "Citizin Kane," the Welles movie which attacked Hearst in the days when the publisher was all-powerful, her most symbolic acting experience. To Miss Moorehead there are still basically only two kinds of theater--Welles' kind and all others.

"This man," she is saying, "will always be one of the great theatrical geniuses, a golden boy, the kind you see only once in a great while. Radio was at its zenith. Great shows, imaginative, exciting, an actor's dream. We lived theater. Welles could have had the greatest repertory theater in America. But after 'Kane' they crucified him. All he could do was leave."

Found herself blackballed

She sighs. "I was purely innocent of politics out here when the blackball started. Hedda Hopper told me, 'Isn't it marvelous, Aggie, you're in the middle of a feud?' But it was Hedda who asked in her column, 'Why do you [meaning Hollywood producers] have an ax to grind with this girl? She hasn't done anything.' "

Now she is talking as if there are just two of us in the room. "Today youngsters want their career backwards. It's the jet age and they want it quick! If they happen to be physically right they don't need the background. Think they want to improve themselves? No. Really learn something? No. They just don't love what they're doing any more."

Another side of Agnes Moorehead has just put in an appearance: The Presbyterian Minister's Daughter has joined The Dedicated Creative Actress. Together they make a charming couple. They also constitute the essence of Moorehead. They explain the fire, the flair for living, and the fine old-fashioned theatricality so typical of the woman. They explain the two Stormy marriages, the first to an obscure radio actor in New York who simply could not deal with the high voltage Aggie's duality generated; the second to Robert Gist, the actor-turned-Tv-director, who was considerably younger than Agnes and whose electrical charge matched hers in every jolting detail.

They explain her discomfort with, if not distaste for, the contemporary playwrights. "Albee isn't my dish of tea. I am not in sympathy--" the Minister's Daughter talking again--"with a play like 'Virginia Woolf.' It doesn't teach anything. It is neurotic, sordid." Of Tennessee Williams she says, "He has great theatrical flair, great poetic feeling--" the Creative Actress talking--"in which a delicate bud grows and grows. He nourishes it, then pours fertilizer over it."

They explain the Dior clothes. (She favors décolletage.) They explain the attachments--to Rosalind Russell, with whom she began her career at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York in 1928; to the late Phil Baker, the radio comedian of the Thirties, with whom Agnes learned how to play the comedy foil; to Debbie Reynolds, who "adores" her, loans her her $40,000 dressing room with the carriage lamps and the wired music, and pays her the obeisance due the elder from the younger woman.

Not free with compliments

All her relationships are not so demonstrative. Agnes is not the type to be free with her compliments--particularly of younger women. On the way to the stage she is asked how she feels about young Miss Montgomery, the second slickest witch. "She has a quality," Agnes says unemotionally. "Charm, warmth, intelligence. Of course, you know she plays herself. When I was an ingénue, we were always characterizing.

On the set the two women greet each other repectfully. Presently they go into a scene in an antique shop in which inanimate objects and dialog fly about the set with equal abandon. "They just don't make things the way they used to," Endora is complaining airily. "So many happy memories here ... Samantha, you're not listening to me...."

As they come out of the take, Asher says, "When Aggie takes stage, she takes stage--voom! You just don't look at anything else." Liz retires to her dressing room. To the special-effects man who engineered the flying crockery, Agnes opines, "We're both magic, y'know."

'What's wrong with Agnes?'

Yes, always magic:

When Agnes was a young actress in New York, she was taken up by and appeared frequently in radio with Helen Hayes. One day Miss Hayes decided Agnes should be in pictures and therefore arranged an appointment with a certain East Coast talent man.

Agnes arrived trembling. The man looked her over coldly like a prize hog, eyes finally coming to rest on the striking but somewhat angular features. "Broken nose, huh?" he said at length. "Afraid you're not the type."

"I told myself, 'Don't cry, Agnes, don't cry, Agnes!' But I did just the same. For three days. Years later I met him again at 'The King and I.' I said,'Have you ever had your nose broken?' He looked at me blankly. He didn't know what I was talking about."

"The Magnificent Ambersons," as originally shot, had a complicated scene in which Fanny Minaver is told that she has lost everything--house, lover, sanity. The scene ran a full eight minutes without a cut, covered four rooms of the Amberson mansion, and took a full day to shoot. For an actress it was enormously taxing.

"Orson would say during rehearsal, 'Agnes, why don't you play it as if you were drunk?' I'd play it that way. 'Okay,' he'd say,'now as if you were numb.' Then like a little girl a meticulous old maid ... I didn't know what he was doing. Hours later he said,'Now, Agnes, go play it in one take!' I didn't realize until then that what he really wanted was a little bit of all four.

"When it was over someone said, 'Agnes, you must be worn out.' Worn out, ha! I was so excited I couldn't sleep for a week."

No time to relax

But those scented chapters are from a book of magic long closed. The new book is plastic-covered and it has to do with residuals and lead-ins and time slots and Nielsen races and advertiser appeal. "This is not," said the slickest witch, "an era of convictions. What it is is TV. It isn't like a feature. No time to relax. Every second counts. A person simply has to refuel...."

Her voice trails off. The assistant director is calling. They are ready to shoot. The call sheet has been bollixed, they are still short a makeup man and the next setup is a mankiller. Most sinister of all, it is past 6 o'clock. . . .

*TV Guide July 17 - 23, 1965

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