IMDb tidbit- Agnes’ death from cancer is often linked to other actors and crew members who worked on The Conqueror (1956). Including Susan Hayward, John Wayne and director Dick Powell, to name a few. The conspiracy theory behind the strong beliefs are that they were exposed while on location at the site which received heavy fallout from nuclear testing at the (then) Nevada Proving Grounds.
Fiercely private. Considered not beautiful because of her ‘hawk-like’ face. I would boldly beg to disagree. Agnes Moorehead has a beauty that transcends the quaint and lovely upturned nose. She has a regal beauty as if royalty runs in her veins, with a sage otherworldliness and a voice like a chameleon that can change its tone and tenor to fit her myriad characterizations. I wish she and hope she knew that although she was THE consummate character actress for the ages, she too was as beautiful as any other leading star with a deep & fiery magnetism that draws you in ~
Agnes had that spark in her since she was a very little Agnes, embodying, manifesting & emoting like the characters from the books she read and from the theater. Her adoring father or mother would find her re-enacting scenes in her room!
Here’s a beautifully written snapshot of Agnes Moorehead by The Red List– data base by Romuald Leblond & Jessica Vaillat
“Wanting to become a comedian from a young age – her mother had become accustomed to discovering her daughter in her imaginary world and often asked her: ‘Who are you today, Agnes?’ – Agnes Moorehead appeared regularly on Broadway stages during the late 1920s. She rapidly became a celebrated radio actress and joined Orson Welles’s Mercury Theater on the Air from 1940. In 1941, Orson Welles offered the ‘Fabulous Redhead’ her first film role in Citizen Kane as the cruel and bitter mother of the lead role. The part soon shaped the other roles Agnes Moorehead would be offered while they privileged heartless authoritarian or neurotic women such as the menacing aunt of Johnny Belinda, in 1948. In 1943, on the radio, the American comedian delivered one of her most legendary performances in Sorry, Wrong Number for which she created an exhausting and dynamic presentation – ‘radiant and terrifying’. In 1964, she was cast as Samantha Steven’s sarcastic and buoyant mother, in Bewitched and, although she disliked the rapid pace of television series, the show helped install the actress in the pantheon of American pop culture icons. Quite an irony for a woman who didn’t ‘particularly want to be identified as a witch.”
Agnes Moorehead went on from her imaginative childhood musings to play some of the most colorful characters on stage, radio, film, and television- perhaps her persona had been ‘shaped by Citizen Kane’ but Agnes obviously had a range of emotions and archetypes she could readily tap into as she is a natural, authentic artist… making her a cultural icon recognized by so many people & an even a new generation of avid fans!
Agnes -[commenting on the “Method” school of acting] “The Method school thinks the emotion is the art. It isn’t. All emotion isn’t sublime. The theater isn’t reality. If you want reality, go to the morgue. The theater is human behavior that is effective and interesting.” –from Charles Tranberg’s book I Love the Illusion: The Life and Career of Agnes Moorehead
Tranberg’s book is a wonderful read, he discusses from the beginning, the wealth of material he found at the historical society at the University of Wisconsin’s Historical Society. It is a marvelous place with marble floors worn down by years and the warm & musty smell of bygone years, the building holds the archives of so many historical documents and films. For Agnes Moorehead, 159 boxes of material to be precise. He was not just a fan of Endora but her performances on old-time radio in which she really shined. His book hints that her fire and brimstone Rev. John Moorehead with his sermons had a bit of the frustrated actor in the man, and why Aggie felt drawn to theater in the first place. He also read Shakespeare to the children. Her mother Molly was the boisterous outgoing flamboyant one who lived to be 106 and died in 1990… always saying what was on her mind, unless it was a strictly personal subject… sound familiar?
He also writes about Agnes’ spirituality and religious devoutness. That is ‘wasn’t a gimmick or publicity stunt’ she really was a devoted Christian. It might cause heads to tilt, how such a fundamentalist woman would pick a career where she would be surrounded by creative types, often gay people that would become her friends. And though she was not thrilled with the idea of playing a witch, she certainly conjured the most iconic embodiment of the vexing & colorful Endora.
“Lavender is just pink trying to be purple” she paraphrased Proust… by Quint Benedetti from his book- (My Travels with) Agnes Moorehead: The Lavender Lady: (more BEWITCHING than Endora)– he goes onto to say, “And now I can see all the hues of her personality in that statement: the royalty, the naivete, the selfhishness, the piercing intuition and sometimes the astonishing lack of it (her two marriages), the phoniness and the irrepressible humanity it contained, the coldness and the longing to be warm and sometimes the warmth, the insecurity and the yearning to be loved, the human simplicity touching greatness. Agnes Moorehead in a way did what so many actor and actresses never did. She left her mark on society both as an actress and as a person.” Benedetti knew Agnes Moorehead for ten years and was her personal assistant for five of those years.
In her long & unforgettable career – Agnes Moorehead’s film debut as Charles Foster Kane’s picture of stoic motherhood, the bitter and icy cold Mary Kane.
She went on to play the emotionally tortured Aunt Fanny in what Charles Transberg rightly refers to Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons as ‘a mangled masterpiece’ I would give anything to see the footage that RKO hacked to pieces… and the ending that should have been, where Fanny is playing cards in the boarding house with the other old maids. The more nihilistic coda that RKO feared would turn the public off in the midst of WWII.
Agnes Moorehead as the heartless & cruel Mrs. Reed who sends young Jane away to Thornfield in Jane Eyre-aside from mothers, aunts spinsters & old maids, Moorehead performs her first evil character! in director Robert Stevenson’s adaptation of Jane Eyre (1943).
Stage: Agnes began touring in George Bernard Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell (1951) & revival 1973, Gigi 1973 co-starring with Alfred Drake.
Selected Radio:– Mercury Theater founded with Orson Welles- Mysteries in Paris, The Gumps, The New Penny, The March of Time (1967-38), The Shadow (1937-39), The Mercury Theater of the Air (ensemble) The Campbell Playhouse, The Cavalcade of America (1938-41), Mayor of the Town
(1942-49), Suspense (1942-1960.) And of course, in 1945 she played the women-in-peril-(in bed) Mrs. Stevenson in the CBS radio mystery program Suspense- Sorry, Wrong Number, which became “radio’s most famous play.”
According to Charles Tranberg, Agnes was offered a supportive role in the film version starring Barbara Stanwyck, saying that she wisely turned it down, coming to understand that she would always be considered a ‘character actress’ and not a leading lady. This would influence her decision to focus more on the stage, beginning with her affiliation with the acclaimed Don Juan in Hell and later her very popular one-woman show.
On December 10, 2008 Celebrating Moorehead’s 108th anniversary on Turner Classic Movies- Moira Finnie writing for Movie Morlocks published a wonderful interview with Tranberg when asked if Agnes enjoyed both the mediums of radio and stage, he answered “I think she liked the challenges offered by all he mediums she worked on. The stage because it’s proximity in front of an audience. Radio because she had to create a complex characterization without being seen and could use her voice in many different ways. Film because it offered her the opportunity to visualize a characterization. Television because of its intimacy.”
Moira Finnie’s piece is wonderfully insightful and witty. While watching David O Selznick’s Since You Went Away (1945) “It struck me for the hundredth time that the presence of Agnes Moorehead in many classic and not so classic films was often what gave a movie a spine.”
“She proved her versatility throughout her career. She arranged her aquiline features accordingly to convey a believable briskness, sometimes comforting, sometimes disapproving. She most often appeared as a pragmatic presence in many films that have etched themselves on our collective memory.”
Moira Finnie aptly says it perfectly, honing in on the essence of what truly makes Agnes Moorehead such a powerful performer, “The actress could shift her characterizations easily from vinegary disapproval to warmly compassionate to richly detailed portraits of good and evil women.”
Selected Films– Citizen Kane 1941 (Mary Kane), The Magnificent Ambersons 1942 (Fanny), The Big Street 1942 (Violet Shumberg), Journey into Fear 1943 (Mrs. Mathews), Jane Eyre 1944 (Mrs.Reed), Since You Went Away 1944 (Mrs. Emily Hawkins), Dragon Seed 1944 (Third Cousin’s Wife), The Seventh Cross 1944 (Mme. Morelli), Mrs Parkington 1944 (Baroness Aspasia Conti), Our Vines Have Tender Grapes 1945 (Bruna Jacobson) Dark Passage 1947 (Madge Rapf) The Lost Moment 1947 (Juliana Borderau), Summer Holiday 1948 (Cousin Lily), The Woman in White 1948 (Countess Fosco), Johnny Belinda 1948 (Aggie MacDonald-nominated best supporting actress) The Great Sinner 1949 (Emma Getzel), Caged 1950 (Ruth Benton progressive Prison Warden), Captain Blackjack 1950 (Mrs. Emily Birk), Fourteen Hours 1951 (Christine Hill Cosick) , Showboat 1951 (Parthy Hawks), Magnificent Obsession 1954 (Nancy Ashford), All That Heaven Allows 1955 (Sara Warren), The Left Hand of God 1955 (Beryl Sigman), The Revolt of Mamie Stover 1956 (Bertha Parchman), Jeanne Eagels 1957 (Nellie Neilson), Raintree County 1957 (Ellen Shawnessy), The Story of Mankind 1957 (Queen Elizabeth I), Night of the Quarter Moon 1959 (Cornelia Nelson), The Bat 1959 (Cornelia van Gorder) Pollyanna 1960 (Mrs. Snow), Twenty Plus Two 1961 (Mrs. Eleanor Delaney) How the West Was Won 1962-(Rebecca Prescott), Who’s Minding the Store? 1963 (Mrs. Phoebe Tuttle), The Singing Nun 1966 (Sister Cluny)
Nominated four times for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Mrs. Parkington (1944), Johnny Belinda (1948), and of course as Velma in director Robert Aldrich’s Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)
It is the vitriolic, cantankerous yet loyal & righteous companion Velma to Bette Davis’ tragic Southern Gothic has- been belle Charlotte that won my heart. Moorehead brought to life a raw and rugged plain quality of humanness that touched me so deeply, as did Davis’ incredible performance.
How impressed I was with her pantomime in The Invaders credited as ‘The Woman’ in Rod Serling’s sociological anthology fantasy series Twilight Zone… Moorehead had no dialogue in the episode yet she demonstrated so much art and emotion from her ‘primal woman’s body language.
She did win a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress -Laurel Award 2nd place for Top Supporting Performance for Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte 1964.
For many people, she will be remembered as Endora, Samantha, and Darrin Steven’s (the fabulous Dick York) caustic ill-provoking mother-in-law from the netherworld. who hands down the legacy of being Bewitched… from 1964-1972. Initially, Moorehead had turned down the role of Endora, and it wasn’t until Elizabeth Montgomery herself asked the actress to join the cast, never expecting it to last more than one season!
Moorehead did her string of horror films in the 70s that featured many fine actresses who had played fine ladies in their day, only to find Grand Dame Guignol roles waiting for them on the other side of fabulous fame…
What’s The Matter With Helen 1971 Curtis Harrington’s wonderful horror of personality psycho-drama where Aggie plays an Aimee Semple McPherson-type character called Sister Alma co-starring with friend Debbie Reynolds and the incomparable Shelley Winters!
And then there’s always the campy & gruesome Dear Dead Delilah 1972 she plays Delilah Charles, and appeared in Night of Terror 1972 a tv movie of the week… & Frankenstein: The True Story 1973.
The much talked about ‘boiler scene’ Agnes as Aunt Fanny from The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
Mary Kane the picture of stoic motherhood in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941)
Agnes as Baroness Conti in Mrs. Parkington (1944)
Agnes as Aggie MacDonald in Johnny Belinda (1948)
Agnes as Warden Bond with poor Eleanor Parker in prison noir classic Caged (1950)
Agnes as mystery writer Cornelia Van Gorder in The Bat (1959)
Agnes as Madame Bertha Parchman in The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956)
Agnes as Mme. Morelli in The Seventh Cross (1944)
Agnes as the indomitable Velma Cruthers in Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)
Agnes as The Primal ‘Woman’ in a short clip -The Invaders ep. of The Twilight Zone 1961
Agnes as the vexing but always colorful Endora in television’s popular series Bewitched
A sign reads “NO TRESPASSING ~VIOLATORS WILL BE SHOT ON SIGHT~DokTor Konrad Markesan”
The Incredible DokTor Markesan aired Feb 26 1962 perhaps the most creepy of all the Thriller stories, originally appeared in Weird Tales Magazine and was taken from a story written by August Derleth and Mark Schorer, and adapted by Donald S Sanford and directed by Robert Florey. The rotting corpse makeup by Jack Barron actually predates Romero’s 1968 Night Of The Living Dead, which I feel only made both effectively more creepy by the B&W film.
Mort Stevens’s score begins as gravely contemplative and daydreamy single notes on the piano beckon us into this episode, then begins the darker, deeper cello strings foreboding and ominous. As the piano resolves into more somber chords, the young Fred Bancroft and his new bride Molly drive up to the entrance of Oakmoor. What has happened to the broad green lawns and the servants in starched white uniforms? They proceed to enter the house, the door having been strangely left unlocked. Seemingly vacant, Oakmoor is crocheted in cobwebs, from years of neglect. There is no electricity. Fred lights a candelabra and the couple continue to search for Fred’s Uncle Konrad. As they start to ascend the staircase, suddenly a door creaks open, the music sways from ominous to severe, and a sallow, blank, expressionless, Konrad Markesan steps out of the shadows. Uncle Konrad stares up at them, ashen, emotionless, his right hand poised in a state of rigor, he stares off, silent. Fred trying to ingratiate himself awkwardly, remains smiling, excruciatingly strained in the midst of his Uncle’s peculiarly inhospitable behavior. Molly acutely more aware of his uncle’s bizarre presence stands there obviously horrified and uncomfortable while Fred still flounders to make a connection with his relative. Molly chirps out a “Hello” and from the moment Fred holds out his hand to shake his Uncle’s, Markesan turns away and says “Come with me” and proceeds to leave the grand hallway.
From the show’s opening iconic musical score, you know something deliciously sinister is about to occur. The word THRILLER appears against a fractured white web like graphic title design quite a bit in the style of Saul Bass. The discordant piano and horn stabs of modern jazz already bring you into the inner sanctum of menacing story telling. As Boris would often say as a precursory welcome,“Let me assure you ladies and gentlemen, as sure as my name is Boris Karloff, this is a thriller.”
Boris Karloff’s THRILLER was an anthology series that ran from 1960-1962. It included 60 minute B&W episodes, 67 in all, that were expected to compete with The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
The series was developed by Executive Producer Hubbell Robinson and producers William Frye, Fletcher Markle & Maxwell Shane for MCA’s Revue Studios. The format was somewhat plagued by two ambivalent themes, leaving the show’s narrative straddling both crime melodrama and tales of the macabre genres. But… either atmospheres created by some of the best writers, directors and players delivered a highly intoxicating blend of both.
“I think the title leaves the stories wide open to be based on melodrama not violence or shock. They’ll be stories about people in ordinary surroundings and something happened to them. The whole thing boils down to taste. Anybody can show you a bucket of blood and say-‘This is a bucket of blood’, but not everyone can produce a skilful story”-Boris Karloff (1960)
Karloff starred in five episodes: The Prediction, The Premature Burial, The Last of the Somervilles, Dialogues With Death, and The Incredible Doctor Markesan.
Many of the stories were based on writing taken from Weird Tales and scripted by that magazine’s contributors such as Robert Bloch (author of the novel Psycho) who wrote one of my favorite episodes The Cheaters as well as adapting his story The Weird Tailor.
Other contributing writers were Donald S. Sanford, Richard Matheson, Barré Lyndon and August Derleth John Kneubuhl, Alan Caillou, Robert Hardy Andrews, Charles Beaumont, Robert Arthur, William D. Gordon, Jay Simms and Wilkie Collins.
THRILLER had an incredible line up of serious dramatic players. Leslie Nielsen, Mary Astor, Rip Torn, Patricia Barry, Richard Anderson, Martin Gabel, Cloris Leachman, Fay Bainter, Victor Buono, Audrey Dalton, Alan Caillou, Elisha Cook, Robert Lansing, Mary Tyler Moore, Beverly Garland,Warren Oates, Werner Klemperer, Harry Townes, Jack Weston, Paul Newlan, Ed Nelson, Mildred Dunnock, Phyllis Thaxter,William Shatner, Elizabeth Allen, Guy Stockwell, Susan Oliver, Nehemiah Persoff, Torin Thatcher, Marlo Thomas, Robert Vaughn, John Ireland, Pippa Scott, Jeanette Nolan, Guy Rolfe, Hazel Court, Lloyd Bochner, Brandon DeWilde, Sidney Blackmer, George Macready, Tom Poston, Constance Ford, Elizabeth Montgomery, John Carradine, Edward Andrews, Estelle Windwood, Bruce Dern, Jo Van Fleet, Jane Greer, Richard Long, Ursula Andress, Lillian Bronson, Reta Shaw, Dick York, Howard McNear, Richard Carlson, Nancy Kelly, John Fiedler, Linda Watkins, Martita Hunt, George Grizzard, Robert Middleton, Natalie Schafer, James Griffith, Bethel Leslie, Patricia Medina, Richard Chamberlain, Sarah Marshall, Conrad Nagel, Reggie Nalder, Henry Jones, Russell Johnson, Natalie Trundy, Diana Millay, Philip Carey, Kathleen Crowley, Susan Oliver, J. Pat O’Malley, Judith Evelyn, Tom Helmore, Robert Vaughn, Virginia Gregg, Scott Marlowe, Judson Pratt, Marion Ross, Antoinette Bower, Jocelyn Brando, William Windom, George Kennedy, Abraham Sofaer, Monte Markham, Patricia Breslin, Charles Aidman and so many other great character actors.
The series drew much of its artist edge because of the directors who contributed their stylistic observations of the storytelling like Robert Florey, a French Screenwriter who was responsible for contributing to The Outer Limits, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and The Twilight Zone as well as assistant director on Murders In The Rue Morgue and the 1946 film The Beast With 5 Fingers yet another take of the Orlac saga. John Brahm directed the 1944 version of The Lodger and Hangover Square. Much of the overall tone of the series combined elements of film noir and classical horror. The shadowy gray-toned cinematography created so much of the atmospherics for some of the most memorable episodes in the series. Pigeons From Hell is yet another story adapted from Weird Tales Magazine. This episode was directed by John Newland of One Step Beyond, a television series consisting of half-hour episodes that were purported to be based on true paranormal events. Some other notable directors who contributed their work to the series were the ever-versatile Ida Lupino, Arthur Hiller, Lazlo Benedak, (The Wild One ’53) Hershel Daugherty, Paul Henreid, Douglas Heyes, and Jules Bricken.
THRILLER’S musical compositions seemed to be sculpted perfectly for each episode, underscoring the haunting and poignant quality of each story in such an evocative way that the music itself became integral to the narrative. The subtly intrinsic emotional quality in each of the arrangements help forge a climate of the distinctive theater of dramatic and unearthly chills.
Jerry Goldsmith, Morton Stevens & Pete Rugolo wrote some of the most vivid and beautiful melodies for the series. I was inspired by the episode God Grante That She Lye Stille, to name a song on my album Fools and Orphans after it.
Henry Daniell, who in addition to his marvelous face, had a wonderfully theatrical voice, plays the 17th-century reincarnation of his ancestor Vicar Weatherford in God Grante She Lye Stille. He condemns the witch Elsbeth Clewer to be damned to the fires of hell and burn at the stake. Memorable is his invocation “God Grant That She Lye Still.” in that measured and lucidly flowing tone of his.”Thou shall not suffer a witch to live!”
Daniell would inhabit several striking characters in the series, including Dirk van Prinn the alchemist in The Cheaters.
I’ll be writing about some of my favorite episodes in depth because THRILLER was so ahead of its time in terms of the serious and artful risk-taking of the various directors on board, the incredibly spellbinding storytelling and dialogue, inspired set & art design, experimental cinematography, dramatic performances, and evocative musical scoring.
Together the confluence of all these elements contributed to a show that often pushed the boundaries of what you might expect from a 1960s television series. Its moody, compelling, and haunting quality, has not been duplicated on any other anthology series of its type to date. Although I also feel passionate about The Outer Limits for much of the same reasons, a show philosophizing on morality with a very science fiction lens. I plan on covering that series in depth as well. Alfred Hitchcock Presents & The Alfred Hitchcock Hour was a fabulous mystery series that also merged noir with suspense. This is another show I’ll be talking about in the future. Yet THRILLER holds a special fascination for me, partly due to my enduring love for Boris Karloff.
Somehow THRILLER seemed to encapsulate its own Gothic methodology and mythos.
The sets had a uniquely eerie landscape and their own vitally uncanny, bizarre, and shadowy environment. Not unlike the way Val Lewton seemed to create his own unique cycle of supernaturally themed shadow plays for RKO.
The show still evokes chills and Gestalt responses in me even after having watched these episodes a hundred times over.
Also notable is Jack Barron’s make-up on the series, including The Incredible Doktor Markesan~
So please stay tuned as I journey back to Boris Karloff’s Thriller and wander through some of my most treasured episodes I’d love to share with you!