EDITOR’S NOTE: Classic TV mayven Herbie J takes this opportunity to remind us that no matter how good your script is, the final production will be even better if the casting is right. Witnesseth:
by Herbie J Pilato
Elizabeth Montgomery is best known for playing Samantha Stephens, the good witch-with-a-twitch, on television’s classic sitcom, Bewitched, which originally aired on ABC from 1964 to 1972 – and for which she received eight Emmy nominations (among other accolades). A staple in syndication ever since (and available on DVD), the show marks its 50thAnniversary this TV season, while May 18th commemorates the 20th Anniversary of Montgomery’s demise (from colon cancer).
As Samantha, Montgomery delivered a down-to-earth sincerity and, in the process, made an earnest connection with the home viewer. But her most famous role was by-far not her first – nor certainly her last.
Born April 15, 1933 to heralded film and TV actor Robert Montgomery and Broadway actress Elizabeth Allen, the daughter Montgomery made over 200 appearances on stage and screen before Bewitched. Her television career ignited on December 3, 1951 in the “Top Secret” episode of her father’s anthology series, Robert Montgomery Presents, in which she played none other than her father’s daughter.
On October 13, 1953, she made her Broadway debut in “Late Love,” for which she received the Daniel Blum Theatre Award for Most Promising Newcomer. She went on to appear in movies like The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955), Who’s Been Sleeping In My Bed? and Johnny Cool (both released in 1963, the latter of which was directed by future Bewitched director/producer William Asher, her third husband. (Her first was New York high-roller Fred Cammann, her second and fourth: actors Gig Young and Robert Foxworth.)
But it was on the small screen where Montgomery assuredly made her undeniable mark with shows like The Twilight Zone, The Untouchables, and 77 Sunset Strip, the latter of which holds particular significance in the scope of her career and in TV history.
In the Twilight episode, “Two” (debuting on CBS, September 15, 1961), she and future film star Charles Bronson were the only cast members playing the last two surviving soldiers from opposite sides who meet five years after an apocalyptic world war. There was only one word of dialogue in the episode, and Montgomery spoke it: pryekrasnyy, the Russian word for “pretty.”
On The Untouchables, the beloved actress received her first Emmy-nomination for playing a prostitute in “The Rusty Heller Story” (debuting on ABC January 7, 1960).
In the Sunset segment, “White Lie” (ABC, October 23, 1953), she portrayed Charlotte DeLavalle, the conflicted half-white, half-black granddaughter of a character named Celia Jackson, who was played by the iconic Juanita Moore.
“Lie” featured a monumental premise that Moore had previously explored with her Oscar-nominated performance as Annie Johnson in the ground-breaking 1959 movie, Imitation of Life. The “White” episode also showcased a substantial and historic theme that Montgomery would revisit on Bewitched – which began rehearsals on November 22, 1963 – the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
Bewitched initially aired during the era of race rioting, the Vietnam War, amidst additional cultural and political challenges and assassinations (Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King).
For Montgomery, it was all very personal. She and then-husband William Asher were good friends with President Kennedy (Asher directed Kennedy’s famous Inaugural event at which Marilyn Monroe sang a breathy “Happy Birthday”), and she felt the central message of Bewitched was prejudice. “Yes, “she once wistfully intoned. “That’s what it’s all about.”
In her view, Samantha loved her mortal husband Darrin (double-played by Dick York then Dick Sargent) despite their cultural differences (and the fierce objection of from Samantha’s mother Endora played by Agnes Moorehead), as they focused on what made the same: their common humanity. “It was really a love story,” Montgomery said.
Bewitched bespoke other noteworthy themes including a strong work ethic, family values and priorities, and female independence. Montgomery’s Samantha was one of the first liberated women of the television age, before Marlo Thomas as Ann Marie on That Girl (ABC, 1966-1971), and prior to Mary Tyler Moore’s Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (CBS, 1970-1977).
On Bewitched it was Samantha’s choice to live the mortal life. She could have easily left Darrin in the lurch, but she chose to stay with her “human-half” because she loved him for who he was, and not for what he could buy her or do for her. Because whatever he could buy or do she could twitch up something better. In turn, Darrin objected to Samantha’s use of her special powers only because he nobly sought to care for her in what she frequently termed as “the every-day mortal way.”
Beyond Bewitched, Montgomery’s resume proved equally expressive and impressive, if not only for her theatrical abilities as an actress, but for the content of her work – on and off-screen.
In yet another Emmy-nominated performance, Montgomery played a woman who was raped twice in the TV-movie, A Case of Rape, premiering on NBC, February 20, 1974, a film that helped to change the laws of domestic violence and abuse. She was a political activist throughout her life and career offering her name, time, money and efforts to a number of charitable causes, including UNICEF, the disabled community, and those suffering from AIDS.
As the daughter of wealthy and famous parents, Elizabeth Montgomery could have easily adopted an arrogant celebrity persona. Instead, she did the exact opposite and, in the process, encouraged and instilled the same approachable demeanor into her three children (with William Asher: Bill, Robert and Rebecca Asher), inspiring her millions of fans along the way.
Herbie J Pilato is the premiere authority on Bewitched. As the author of the original Bewitched Book, revised and updated as Bewitched Forever, Herbie J has been a scholar of the series since it debuted on ABC, September 17th, 1964. He befriended Elizabeth Montgomery five years before she passed away in 1995, and he went on to chronicle her life and career in two top-selling, critically-acclaimed biographies: Twitch Upon A Star and The Essential Elizabeth Montgomery. Visit his Author’s Page at Amazon.com for information on how to order his Montgomery literary companions, and all of his books.