The Hall of Hams #7: Agnes Moorehead

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The Hall of Hams is my series on some of my favorite actors who have brought the art of melodramatic acting into the modern era.

Today is the birthday of Agnes Moorehead (1900-1974). One of the marks of a good actor is a willingness to take risks, to be as “bad” as often one as one is “good”. As often as not when I watch one of Moorehead’s performances, I think to myself, “What the hell–?” and that quality certainly commands my attention. She is always doing something weird.  Ideal for an actor, she was capable of both beauty and ugliness (and unlike a great many, totally willing to exude the latter). Because we see little hints of what she was capable of from even her mundane performances, we often feel it is easy to imagine what her most famous “great performance”, the lost (cut) scenes from The Magnificent Ambersons must have been like. By all reports it was a harrowing experience.

Towards the end of her life, she hated what she was best (really exclusively) known for at the time, her ten year stint as Endora on the television show Bewitched. So much so that (judging by the clip below from What’s My Line?) she was either delusional or dishonest in her self-assessment. Her answer to the very first question may be her desired p.r. message, but it is such a perversion of the truth as to be completely misleading. It’s confounding to me that anyone guessed who she was. Why did she answer that way? I suppose, in her head, she was most closely associated with radio drama: she was one of the medium’s top actresses from the late 30s through the end of its existence in the 1950s. But, I assure you, in 1973 no one under the age of 30 had any inkling about that earlier phase of her career. Movies and tv, that’s what she was known for by then.

Sadly, a few months after this appearance, she was dead of ovarian cancer, one of the victims (it is commonly believed) of radioactive fallout encountered in a desert shoot of the 1956 film The Conquerer. (For more on that go here)

To learn more about show business history consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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