Today is Agnes Moorehead’s 113th birthday. Everyone loves her amazing over-the-top scenery-chewing performance as Endora on Bewitched. She was fierce before fierce was fierce. You should also watch Citizen Kane and pay attention to her character: simply perfection. Then, she stole focus in every scene in What’s the Matter With Helen? and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, she made you want to watch her every move, to not miss a second of her. She was in Pollyanna and Rain Tree County and Dark Passage (have you seen Dark Passage? Amazing.) She carved out a bigger-that-life life that no one has replicated.
Agnes Robertson Moorehead (December 6, 1900 – April 30, 1974) was an American actress. Although she began with the Mercury Theatre, appeared in more than seventy films beginning with Citizen Kane and on dozens of television shows during a career that spanned more than thirty years, Moorehead is most widely known to modern audiences for her role as the witch Endora in the series Bewitched.
While rarely playing leads in films, Moorehead’s skill at character development and range earned her one Emmy Award and two Golden Globe awards in addition to four Academy Award and six Emmy Award nominations. Moorehead’s transition to television won acclaim for drama and comedy. She could play many different types, but often portrayed haughty, arrogant characters.
Moorehead died of uterine cancer on April 30, 1974 in Rochester, Minnesota. Her mother, Mary M. Moorehead (August 25, 1883 – June 8, 1990) survived her by 16 years, dying at the age of 106 in 1990.
Moorehead appeared in the movie The Conqueror (1956), which was shot near St. George, Utah — downwind from the Yucca Flat, Nevada nuclear test site. She was one of over 90 (of 220) cast and crew members–including costars Susan Hayward, John Wayne, and Pedro Armendariz, as well as director-producer Dick Powell — who, over their lifetimes, all developed cancer; at least 46 from cast and crew have since died from cancer, including all of those named above. No bombs were tested during the actual filming of The Conqueror, but 11 explosions occurred the year before. Two of them were particularly “dirty,” depositing long-lasting radiation over the area. The 51.5-kiloton shot code-named “Simon” was fired on April 25, 1953, and the 32.4-kiloton blast “Harry” went off May 19. (In contrast, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was 13 kilotons.) “Fallout was very abundant more than a year after Harry,” says Dr. Pendleton, a former AEC researcher. “Some of the isotopes, such as strontium 90 and cesium 137, would not have diminished much.” Pendleton points out that radioactivity can concentrate in “hot spots” such as the rolling dunes of Snow Canyon, a natural reservoir for windblown material. It was the place where much of The Conqueror was filmed. Pendleton also notes that radioactive substances enter the food chain. By eating local meat and produce, the Conqueror cast and crew were increasing their risk. Says Dr. Robert C. Pendleton, director of radiological health at the University of Utah stated, “With these numbers, this case could qualify as an epidemic. The connection between fallout radiation and cancer in individual cases has been practically impossible to prove conclusively. But in a group this size you’d expect only 30-some cancers to develop. With 91, I think the tie-in to their exposure on the set of The Conqueror would hold up even in a court of law.”
Agnes was one of the first members of the company to make a connection between the film and the fallout. Her close friend Sandra Gould, who was featured with her on Bewitched, recalls that long before Moorehead developed the uterine cancer that killed her in 1974, she recounted rumors of “some radioactive germs” on location in Utah, observing:
“Everybody in that picture has gotten cancer and died.” As she was dying, she reportedly said: “I should never have taken that part.”
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