Agnes Moorehead

Ohioans You Should Know – Agnes Moorehead

Today’s Ohioan You Should Know didn’t start her life in Ohio. In fact Agnes Robertson Moorehead was born on December 6, 1900 in Clinton, Massachusetts. Her mother, Mary, had once performed as a singer. Her father, John, was a Presbyterian minister. So, you can probably guess that she was raised in a fairly strict, religious household.

The Life and Career of Agnes Moorehead

According to Agnes, her career as a performer began at the age of three, when she was asked by her father to perform The Lord’s Prayer during a Sunday Morning service. That was when, she said, she discovered that she wanted to perform.

Throughout her childhood, she and her sister were always ‘acting” but only for family or small groups. Their mother would ask them who they were that day, which would prompt the girls to mimic someone. According to her family, she had talent. But, don’t all families say that?

Agnes’ first real performing experience came when she joined the chorus of The Muny (the St. Louis Municipal Opera Company) and this was where she says she got bit by the acting bug. 

As a young lady, she moved to New Concord, Ohio (you knew she’d end up here, eventually) to study biology at Muskingum University. However, as I can only assume you’d be able to guess – she also appeared in several stage shows at the university while she was a student there.

In 1937, Agnes joined the Mercury Theatre, which was led by Orson Welles and the two became friends. A few years later, as Welles began to film a little project he wrote (and directed, and starred in, and produced) he realized Agnes would be perfect for the role of Mary, the protagonist’s mother, and cast her without hesitation. That little film would go on to get nominated for nine Academy Awards (which was quite the feat back in 1941) however the film only walked away with a single statue – Orson Welles for Best Original Screenplay. Yet, many people consider this little movie, Citizen Kane, to be among the best (if not The Absolute Best) film ever made.

The following year, Agnes would again be nominated for an Academy Award for Welles’ next film, The Magnificent Ambersons, but again she lost the award to another actress. Later that year, she would appear in another film, this one alongside Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda called The Big Street. 

Agnes would spend the rest of her life performing in movies and on television, rarely taking the leading role but always, without a doubt, playing pivotal and memorable characters, mostly strong women, but always played to perfection.

By 1960, The Twilight Zone (created by Rod Serling) had proven to be a rather popular anthology television show and was at the time filming its second season. When a script crossed his desk, written by Richard Matheson, he knew that one actress in particular would be perfect for the role. Agnes Moorehead. The story follows a character, listed only as “woman” as she resides alone, while a possible alien invasion happens around her. Up until the final moment (the twist ending) there is not another character for her to interact with, the only sound she hears is the voice on the radio. 

According to Serling, after sending her the script, Moorehead agreed to a meeting. When she got there, she stormed into the office before Serling’s secretary could announce her. She slammed the script down on his desk and asked, “Where are my lines?” before turning to walk out, supposedly uninterested in the project.

Rod Serling begged her not to go and instead pleaded that acting was more than just reciting dialog. Anybody can do that. It takes a solid actress to go beyond the lines and convince the audience that she really is this Woman. It’s in the glance of an eye, in the way she walks across the floor, the tilting of the head. That’s acting, and few people can do that anymore. He suggested that Agnes was the best. 

So, reluctantly she agreed to do the show and the episode aired on January 27, 1961.

Much to her chagrin, the role that Agnes Moorehead would be most recognized as would be Endora, Samantha Stevens’ mother on Bewitched, a role she held a love-hate relationship with from the very start. While part of her would enjoy her time on the show, another part of her felt that role was beneath her. She had done comedic roles in the past and she stated that playing that role as a classical actress often made things even funnier. She got along with her costars, especially Dick Sargent and Dick York, the two men who played Darrin, Samantha’s husband, who always seemed to be at war with Endora. 

William Asher, the show’s main director also noticed Moorehead’s discontentment, saying how she never mentioned it or let on to anyone her true feelings because that was not something professional actors did.

An Agnes Moorehead Mystery

On April 30, 1974, at the young age of 73, Agnes Moorehead passed away and then returned to the state of Ohio where she became a permanent resident of Dayton Memorial Park. 

But, there is a mystery about her death. One that most likely will never see a final answer. 

The question is … What killed Agnes Moorehead?

The easy answer is that she passed away after a lengthy battle with Cancer. However, according to some, that may not be the whole story.

As we noted earlier, Agnes Moorehead began her film career with what many people consider to be the best movie ever made.

Also, according to some people, she may have died because she also appeared in what many consider to be the worst film ever made. Please allow me to explain.

Released in 1956, The Conqueror quickly became that film that caused everyone to slap their own foreheads and ponder, “What were they thinking?” Even as they were filming, people began to realize that every decision that was made regarding this film was the wrong one. 

On paper, if you squint hard enough, you might be lured into thinking that the film just might turn out okay (and if you had a few adult beverages in your system,  you might even think it would be great. After all, some very talented people were in this picture, including (as if you didn’t see this coming) Agnes Moorehead. Other talented names included Susan Hayward, John Hoyt, Pedro Armendáriz, and of course there was the star of the show, a man who would not then, nor now, need any introduction – John Wayne, who played Genghis Khan.

Yes, you read that right. And no, I don’t get it either.

I didn’t even mention the number of Native Americans who were hired as extras, playing Mongolians. 

If casting wasn’t enough of a problem, the production was hit with problem after problem. Duke Wayne was drunk most days, as were most of the extras, and various film crews.

One of the early film sets was nearly completely destroyed in a flash flood.

But, none of that is really the worst part. The worst part of all this was…

The film was shot in the Escalante Desert of Utah. Or, just a few hundred miles downwind of where the US Government was testing a ton of radioactive bombs. And before you say that they didn’t know about radiation back then, let me dispel that myth by discussing how the Utah sets were equipped with Geiger Counters and that nearly every time they turned one on, the machine would beep furiously as the sensor needle danced back and forth. 

After production in Utah had finished, producer Howard Hughes (Yes, Mr. RKO himself) shipped 60 Tons of the radioactive sand and rock back to Hollywood, in case they needed reshoots (which, as usual, they did). 

And then, a few years after the film came out, many of the cast and crew began to die.

  • Director Dick Powell died in January, 1963 of lymphoma
  • Pedro Armendáriz died by his own hand after being told he had terminal brain cancer.
  • Susan Hayward died of brain cancer in 1975
  • John Wayne was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1964 and died with stomach cancer in 1979
  • Michael and Patrick Wayne (John’s kids who were also in the movie) developed skin cancer (Michael) and a brain tumor (Patrick)
  • Tim Baker (Hayward’s son) developed a tumor in his mouth that had to be removed
  • Agnes Morehead died after a lengthy battle with Cancer in 1974. (It is worth noting that Agnes never touched alcohol, never smoked, and promoted a healthy diet)
  • Howard Hughest died in 1976 and had a rather list of things wrong with him, medically speaking (although to be fair, he didn’t exactly take the best care of himself)
  • John Hoyt died of cancer in 1991
  • After Lee Van Cleef’s death in 1989, it was discovered he had advanced throat cancer

By some estimates, about sixty percent of the cast and crew died with some connection to cancer, although it’s impossible to give a definitive number.

When the cancer began to show up, some were quick to blame The Conqueror, but Hollywood wasn’t exactly buying it. Official records show how the film studios, and a bunch of lawyers, dismissed the fallout radiation theory by pointing out that there are a number things that cause cancer, which include things like drinking and smoking (which a large part of the cast and crew seemed to indulge in) and while they admitted it could, possibly, the exposure to radioactive sand while filming, there was no way to prove that, as opposed to other forces, were responsible for any of the cancers.

So, I ask you again…

What killed Agnes Moorehead? Or, maybe a better way to put it … Was her cancer caused by the radioactive sands of the Utah desert?

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