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#BornThisDay: Actor, Elizabeth Montgomery

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Photo via YouTube

April 15, 1933Elizabeth Montgomery:

”Don’t think that didn’t enter our minds at the time. We talked about it on the set… this was about people not being allowed to be what they really are. If you think about it, Bewitched is about repression in general and all the frustration and trouble it can cause. It was a neat message to get across to people at that time in a subtle way.”

Bewitched made Montgomery one of the biggest television stars of the 1960s and 1970s. If you don’t already know, the series was about Darrin Stephens, an advertising executive who marries Samantha who turns out to be a witch but craves a life as a “normal” housewife, for reasons I never could understand. Still, she cannot resist twitching her nose to accomplish her wifely duties of cleaning and cooking. Bewitched ran from 1963 to 1972.

It took me some time to realize that this favorite childhood television sitcom was actually a satirical allegory on the issues of American prejudice. Montgomery plays Samantha, who lives among the mortals while hiding her true identity from a society who would never accept her. She is in the broom closet.

Agnes Moorehead played Endora, Samantha’s meddling mother who hates Samantha’s father played by a very fey Maurice Evans. Endora insists that Samantha not hide away her true nature just because she might possibly be rejected by society. Each episode of the popular show was another zany example of the perils of not coming out.

The series had possibly the gayest cast ever: Moorehead, Evans, Dick Sargent (Darrin Stephens number two), and of course Paul Lynde as Uncle Arthur, were all queer.

“Bewitched” cast 1970, ABC via YouTube

The queer allegory seems obvious today. Samantha came out in the first episode, later in the first season, in the episode The Witches Are Out, her friend Mary wanted to tell everyone that they are witches so ”they’d see what wonderful, nice people we really are”. Proving that coming out is a process, Samantha comes clean to her mother-in-law in Samantha’s Secret Is Discovered and speaks out about: ”…the relief of not having to pretend anymore”. Throughout the series, Samantha lobbies for mortals to drop their misconceptions about witches.

In a very thoughtful episode, Samantha discovers that her daughter, Tabitha, is a witch too. Samantha says the words every queen should have heard growing up:

”I know what fun it is to be a part of the magical life, to have so much at your fingertips. But we’re living in a world that’s just not ready for people like us, and I’m afraid they may never be. So, you’re going to have to learn when you can use your witchcraft and when you can’t.”

ABC via YouTube

In two episodes, Okay, Who’s the Wise Witch? (#195) and Samantha’s Psychic Pslip (#225), Samantha is infected with a witch illness as a result of denying her authentic self, and she passes this knowledge to Darrin in Adam, Warlock Or Washout? (#242) by warning him that frustrating their son’s burgeoning powers ”would not only be unfair, but it could be harmful”.

Endora thinks that Darrin endorses anti-witch images, so she turned him into a werewolf in Trick Or Treat (#43). Yet, Samantha insists to her Mother: ”You’re acting just like those ignorant people think a witch acts … and you’re doing it to the one person who was willing to believe we were different!”

In George The Warlock, Endora tries to get a warlock George to tempt Samantha, but he falls for their hot neighbor, ”Danger” O’Riley, who says it all when learning her hunk isn’t human: ”When a person is attracted to another one, why fight it?”

Plus, Darrin goes gay under a vanity spell in Mirror, Mirror On The Wall; a bit of a stereotype for sure, but bold for primetime in 1968.

How modern that Samantha’s parents live separately, travel in different circles, and are often seen cavorting with other partners. Though the term ”open marriage” is never used, the concept was certainly acknowledged from Maurice and Endora’s first scene together, likely the first mutually non-monogamous marriage television history.

In its first season, Bewitched was the Number One show on ABC and the top-rated sitcom of all three networks. It was Number Two in the ratings, only Bonanza was bigger.

Dick York and, later, Dick Sargent played Montgomery’s screen husband, Darrin Stephens. Montgomery also played Samantha’s naughty cousin Serena.

As Serena, ABC via YouTube

ABC publicity still

ABC via YouTube

The show had won three Emmy Awards. Montgomery’s then-husband William Asher won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series in 1966. The great Alice Pearce posthumously won an Emmy in 1966 for her portrayal of nosy neighbor Gladys Kravitz and amazing Marion Lorne won posthumously in 1968 for her playing dotty Aunt Clara.

Montgomery was born into showbiz. She is the daughter of actors Elizabeth Allen and Robert Montgomery, who was one of the first film stars to move over to working mostly on television. She trained at the American Academy of Dramatic Art in NYC and made her television debut in her father’s series Robert Montgomery Presents (1950-57) when she was 17-years-old. She appeared in another 26 episodes of his program over the next five years, as well as appearing in other live television drama series of the era such as Armstrong Circle Theater, Kraft Theater, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

1955 via UCLA Film Archives

Montgomery worked steadily in television with guest roles in popular series: The Loretta Young Show (1959), Wagon Train (1959), Twilight Zone (1961), Burke’s Law (1963, 1964), Rawhide (1963) and 77 Sunset Strip (1963), before finding fame in Bewitched.

Montgomery was the second actress to be approached for the role of Samantha, after Tammy Grimes turned it down saying it was too silly. Instead, she did The Tammy Grimes Show for ABC during the 1966–67 season. It was canceled after only four episodes.

Montgomery and Asher, were looking for a show to work on together and, after reading the script, she told series co-creator William Dozier: “This is a series I just must do, that’s all.”

Montgomery and Asher got the job and Bewitched became a pop culture phenomenon. It was the first “fantasy sitcom” and was followed by others such as I Dream Of Jeannie (1965-1970s) and The Addams Family (1964-66), although the genre had already become a part of film history, with I Married a Witch (1942) where Fredric March plays a descendant of people who executed witches at the Salem witch trials. As revenge, a witch (Veronica Lake) prepares a love potion for him. She ends up consuming her own potion and falling for her enemy. Her father is against their union. In the film version of gay playwright John Van Druten‘s Broadway hit Bell, Book and Candle (1958), modern witch (Kim Novak) uses a spell on James Stewart to have a little fling, but then genuinely falls for him.

ABC moved the show’s airtime to Wednesdays at the beginning of its eighth season. The schedule change had it up against CBS’s popular The Carol Burnett Show (1967-1978). Fewer recurring characters were used that season, with the Kravitzes, Darrin’s parents, and Uncle Arthur not appearing at all. In 1972, the show was moved to Saturday night at 8:00 pm, opposite television’s Number One show, the inventive All In The Family (1971-79), which spelled the end, with Bewitched finishing in 72nd place.

After Bewitched folded, Montgomery turned to drama and acted in some of the most highly-rated and turgid television films of the era.

Montgomery received eight Emmy nominations, including five for Bewitched. She was also nominated for four Golden Globes. Montgomery appeared in every single episode of Bewitched, 254 in total. Can you guess which character appeared second most frequently in the series? Not Darrin, even with two actors playing him. It was Larry Tate, Darrin’s boss at the ad agency McMann and Tate, played by David White. He appeared in a total of 166 episodes.

With David White as Larry Tate, ABC via YouTube

Montgomery bewitched television viewers, but her personal life was a bit of a mess. She married four times and had many affairs, including with Elvis Presley, Dean Martin, Gary Cooper (when she was 20 and he was 52) and John F. Kennedy. Her husbands included actors Gig Young and Robert Foxworth.

Robert Montgomery was a very conservative Republican, but his daughter was a dedicated liberal who gave a great deal of time, money, and energy to political causes. She had was an outspoken champion of Women’s Rights and Gay Rights. She was a vocal critic of the Vietnam War, and an advocate for HIV/AIDS research and charities. Professionally, she narrated two documentary films critical of U.S. foreign policy, Cover Up: Behind The Iran Contra Affair (1988) and the Academy Award-winning The Panama Deception (1992), about the U.S. invasion of Panama. In June 1992, Montgomery and her Bewitched co-star Dick Sargent, who remained good friends, were grand marshals at the Los Angeles Gay Pride Parade.

Montgomery seemed to have beaten colon cancer, yet in the spring of 1995, the cancer had spread to her liver. With no hope of recovery and unwilling to die in a hospital, she chose to return to her Beverly Hills home that she shared with Foxworth. Her final credits rolled just eight weeks after her diagnosis. She was 62-years-old.


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