Agnes Moorehead was truly one of the best. She was a marvelous actress who covered every field of entertainment from performing in over one hundred films, doing dozens of radio programs, taking on numerous television work and acting in theater, to touring as a public speaker. Versatility and professionalism were Ms. Moorehead’s greatest assets. She could take on any role and give audiences the very best she had to give in every performance.
Agnes was born in Clinton, Massachusetts in 1900. Her father was a Presbyterian minister and her mother a former mezzo soprano. Agnes began performing at a young age when her parents encouraged her to recite and sing in public. She also had a vivid imagination and loved to create characters to fit every mood. If she didn’t feel like being Agnes one day, she would pretend she was somebody else. Throughout her life, Agnes never considered herself to be pretty, feeling especially awkward in her youth. “As a little girl I was the long gangly type, almost as tall as I am now (5’6″), it was sad and pathetic.” But she loved to perform, and decided at a young age that this was what she wanted to do with her life.
Before stepping into the limelight, Agnes decided to educate herself, for as she explained once, “I believe the more you know about what goes on around you, the more prepared you would be for any parts that might come along.” She taught English at schools in Muskingum, Ohio (her family’s hometown and the area she was raised as a girl), and in Wisconsin, before attaining a Master’s Degree in Public Speaking and English, earning a doctorate in literature, and graduating with honors from the Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1929.
She had hoped to venture into Broadway but significant parts were scarce and, rather than starve as she had sometimes done, she sought work as a library assistant, waitress, and teacher before she discovered that she could earn a steady income through radio.
“Radio was a wonderful boon to an actor,” she said. “You could use your imagination and your voice to create all sorts of characterizations.”
Ms. Moorehead had a particularly distinctive voice that evoked much emotion and depth. It was through her radio work that she met Orson Welles, a young actor who was also an innovative director. Welles featured Agnes in War of the Worlds, a news report style science-fiction broadcast that scared the wits out of the nation.
Welles admired Agnes’ professionalism and ability to adapt to any role, and so he invited her to join his theatrical group, the Mercury Theater players. RKO film studios had their eye on Orson Welles and, in 1940, invited him out to Hollywood…..with him came Agnes and another talented Mercury player, Joseph Cotten. The three of them would all have parts in Welles’ first film Citizen Kane (1941). Agnes’ introductory role as Kane’s poverty-stricken mother was small but memorable, and essential to establishing the millionaire’s dying yearn to return to his childhood.
Her next role was Fanny Amberson, the emotional aunt in Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). This part earned her the first of five Oscar nominations she would receive in her lifetime.
Accolades do not build up wealth in the bank, however, and the fear of experiencing poverty like she suffered during the 1920s made her return to radio work. Agnes would make her most famous radio performance in Sorry, Wrong Number, one of the numerous episodes she did for the Suspense mystery program. Agnes portrayed the selfish bed-ridden woman who overhears a phone conversation of a killer plotting to murder a woman….not knowing that she herself was the intended victim!
Whatever role she took on, Agnes made it her own, adding prestige to even the most minor of parts. She had small roles in Government Girl (1943), Jane Eyre (1944), Dragon Seed (1944), Since You Went Away (1944), and The Seventh Cross (1944), but much to her disappointment, she was seldom offered sympathetic parts…until Mrs. Parkington (1944). In this film adaptation of Louis Bromfield’s best-selling novel, Agnes portrayed the world-wise Baroness Aspasia Conti, a dear friend to both Major Parkington and his wife (portrayed by Walter Pidgeon and Greer Garson). This role earned her her second Oscar nomination and, more importantly, opened up the window to a more diverse range of parts.
Throughout the 1940s, Agnes was kept busy in family dramas (Our Vines Have Tender Grapes), musicals (Summer Holiday), comedies (Her Highness and the Bellboy), and even film noirs such as Dark Passage (1948), where she was given the opportunity to play “the other woman” in Humphrey Bogart‘s life.
Ms. Moorehead’s glowing success (she was earning $6000 a week and was now a sought-after supporting actress), had its price on her personal life. Her husband of twenty-two years, Jack Lee, filed for divorce in 1952 claiming that Agnes “berated him because of his dress, speech, posture, and manner of eating”, and often complained of his “snoring.”
Agnes continued to keep busy throughout the 1950s, not only in film and radio but in theater as well, notably touring with Charles Boyer and Charles Laughton. Still, there was nothing she valued more than her privacy from the prying eyes of columnists, and she often retreated to the 320-acre “gentleman’s farm” in Cambridge, Ohio, that had been homesteaded by her great-grandparents. Agnes loved to cook all of her meals from produce fresh from the earth. She also adored animals, particularly pigs, deer, and her beloved dogs.
In 1953, Agnes remarried, this time to actor Robert Gist. Despite sharing a professional bond, Agnes’ high moral standards and religious devotion put a strain on their marriage and within five years their union ended. During this time, Agnes adopted her foster son, Sean, who also had a mop of red hair.
That royal demeanor often seen on screen was merely Agnes’ true character shining through. Off-screen, she was known as “The Lavender Lady” because she was always seen wearing lavender, a lighter shade of the royal purple. Agnes also threw soirees fit for royalty. Her annual Christmas party, held at her Mediterranean style mansion Villa Agnese in Hollywood, was an event covered by newspapers on both coasts.
The 1950s were high times for Agnes and she appeared in some of her most colorful roles during this decade. In Magnificent Obsession is played Nancy Ashford, a noble nurse. This was also one of the few Technicolor films that showed audiences her flaming red hair. She portrayed queens in both The Swan (1956), and The Story of Mankind (1957), and Hunlan, a Mongolian woman in The Conqueror (1956), a part that later in her life she would seriously regret taking. In The Bat (1959), Mrs. Moorehead portrayed Mrs. Van Gorder, a mystery writer who finds a killer known as The Bat lurking around the country manor she rented for the summer. The presence of Agnes, and that other remarkable talent Vincent Price (her male counterpart), lent this budget thriller a touch a class, and their interaction on screen is wonderful to watch.
Agnes was excellent as Mother Prescott in the western epic How the West Was Won (1962) and as the spectacularly trashy Velma Cruther, but focused primarily on acting in comedies and light-hearted fare in the early 1960s (Pollyanna, Bachelor in Paradise, Who’s Minding the Store?), before signing on to play Endora the Witch in the long-running television series Bewitched. This is probably her most recognized role, and yet she did not want to be associated for this part alone. She found work in television to be tedious, but nevertheless, she enjoyed the series and was proud of its wholesome tone.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Agnes shared her knowledge of acting, and especially public speaking, with budding actors who sought her out as a mentor. She educated them in Shakespeare, technique, and movement, and tried to steer them away from the sordidness that was becoming prevalent in modern entertainment. During this time, Agnes was diagnosed with cancer. Like Dick Powell, Susan Hayward, and John Wayne, she had contracted the disease during location filming for The Conqueror in St. George, Utah…not far from the nuclear test area in Yucca Flat, Nevada.
Moorehead spent as much time as she could back at her Cambridge farm before the effects of cancer set in and she was hospitalized. In her last days, only her good friend Debbie Reynolds, whom she had met during the making of How the West Was Won, was by her side. Agnes and Debbie were over thirty years apart in age, but sisters in heart. “Debbie has an incredible sense of humor,” Agnes once said, “and it’s a good thing she had. You know, it’s really the only thing that keeps us actors going. If an actor either loses his sense of humor – or just doesn’t have one to start with – he can eat himself up inside. Both Debbie and I manage to see the funny side of things – and so survive.”
Agnes’ son Sean had walked out on Agnes years before, and during Agnes’ illness was rumored to have been living with Paulette Goddard in Switzerland. She passed away on April 30th, 1974. In her final will she left most of her estate, including both of her Ohio homes, to Muskingum College and Bob Jones University. She was buried in her family plot in Dayton, Ohio.
Constance Metzinger runs the website Silver Scenes, “a blog for classic film lovers.”