January 1, 2013

Pop Culture Memoir: New Biography About Actress Elizabeth Montgomery

Happy New Year!

2013 kicked off with a few marathons of truly classic television.  Most notable was a day-long airing of "Bewitched" on both Me-TV (which stands for "Memorable Entertainment Television", note that I addressed that network in a prior post at http://goo.gl/gZcVJ) and also on Viacom/MTV's gay-themed network Logo.  The show had been picked up by both networks in late 2012 after what was arguably a long absence from television.   It was last shown in 2008-2009 on WGN America, but later discontinued.  While it's a perfectly logical fit for Me-TV, its fit on Logo seems likely to do better in the ratings than did several MTV reality shows ported over to Logo, most notably "16 and Pregnant" which did not resonate at all with lesbians or gay men and has drawn poor ratings (as if it's hard to understand why?!, BTW, I wrote about that issue previously, see http://goo.gl/aZkMS for details).

Side Notes About "Bewitched" Cast

One interesting side-note: of the original "Bewitched" cast, aside from the actress who played daughter Tabitha (Erin Murphy, who I covered in another post, see http://goo.gl/iKsTG for that, as well as her twin sister Dianne who was later dropped) and perhaps the un-credited child actor who played cameos of brother Adam in the last few seasons, the only surviving original actor from the show is the actor who played the recurring role of Dr. Bombay (played by British-actor Bernard Fox) who remains alive today, and is reportedly age 85.  However, "Bewitched" also has the notable distinction of having replaced several cast members throughout the show’s production, most notably actor Dick York who was replaced by actor Dick Sargent in 1969.  Other cast members who were replaced include the actress who played the busybody neighbor Gladys Kravitz, as well as the actress who played Louise Tate, all of whom were played by multiple actors, and unfortunately, even the replacement actors/actresses have since passed away.

New Biography About "Bewitched's" Elizabeth Montgomery

Of course, entire series of "Bewitched" is available on DVD including the original Black & White version of the first 2 seasons (which weren't originally recorded in color, but were later colorized by Ted Turner) hence the content for "Bewitched" is completely digitized.  Also of note is that the original show's producer (and star Elizabeth Montgomery’s ex-husband), William Asher (best known for his work on "I Love Lucy"), just passed away in the summer of 2012 (see the obituary at http://lat.ms/12WINJl).  "Bewitched's" recent TV resurrection happens to coincide with a recent book (published November 2012) called "Twitch Upon A Star: The Bewitched Life and Career of Elizabeth Montgomery" by pop culture scholar Herbie J. Pilato.

While books about dead celebs happen somewhat regularly, the reality is that actress Elizabeth Montgomery hasn't exactly been a TV icon for a number of years, and as I noted in the preceding paragraph, her signature TV show "Bewitched" wasn't even airing in U.S. syndication when the book went to press.  The author has written several other books about Hollywood (indeed, this is his second book on "Bewitched", so I'm presuming it's a personal favorite for the author) and he describes himself as a "pop culture scholar".  He also started a nonprofit organization called The Classic TV Preservation Society and does consulting on the topic.  As I understand it, Mr. Pilato actually interviewed Ms. Montgomery prior to her death in 1995 for his first book entitled “The Bewitched Book" and discovered he had lots of unused interview material left over from which he was able to put in this new book, along with interviews with some other people from Liz's life like her friends Sally Kemp and Cliff Robertson.

This particular book is breaking some unspoken rules about publishing, notably that the subject of a biography usually requires that the subject is (or at least their work) is still in the public eye, at least that’s what publishers usually look for when printing a book.  But the publishing industry is undergoing some fundamental changes, in fact, two of the largest publishers merged in 2012 (Random House and Penguin, see the NPR story about that merger at http://n.pr/Up0mh5), although the merger may be as much about fundamental changes to the business climate for book publishers as it is about big publishers getting even bigger.  The new predator isn't other, traditional publishers, but retailers like Amazon.com, the very company that began as an online bookseller (see http://n.pr/yhDsct for more about that, although the story is a bit more complicated than simply disruptive technology, see http://n.pr/Ym1aCd for more on that).  Beyond her extended absence from television, actress Elizabeth Montgomery died 17 years (in 1995) ago from colon cancer (in fact, she died just 6 weeks after diagnosis), and as I've already noted, she's been out of the public eye for the same amount of time.

As the book title indicates, the subject of his biography is actress Elizabeth Montgomery, best known for portrayal as the bubbly, blonde, nose-twitching housewife witch Samantha Stephens of the TV sitcom "Bewitched" which began in the mid-1960s, but peaked in popularity during the 1970s, and was followed by a very successful run in syndication.  In fact, the show was so popular that the "Samantha" character that she (along with a very brief cameo of Darrin) was featured in a full episode of Hanna-Barbera's animated cartoon "The Flintstones" which were sold on VHS together under the title "The Flintstones Meet Samantha" (the actual episode from October 1965 was known simply as "Samantha").  The actual celebrities provided the voice talent for that particular episode, as both "Samantha" and "Darrin" from "Bewitched" were voiced by Elizabeth Montgomery and Dick York, respectively.

Behind the Scenes on the Set of "Bewitched"

As already noted, "Bewitched" re-emerged on television after an absence of several years in late 2012 on Viacom/MTV's "Logo" network as well as Me-TV, but is reportedly also slated to air on Tribune’s Antenna TV starting next fall (2013), as reports of the license agreement were revealed several months ago.

In any event, the behind-the-scenes look at Elizabeth Montgomery's life was not the first, but is perhaps designed to tell the story in a way that's more likely to sell books today, which in publishing is what matters most these days.  Most reviews, for example, suggest that Elizabeth Montgomery didn't get along with co-star Dick York (the first actor to play Darrin).  However, the reality is it was less about Mr. York than about his lack of professionalism, and she did push her then-husband and "Bewitched" producer William Asher to find a replacement him because he was addicted to painkillers and kept missing recordings, which made her life more difficult.  (Ms. Montgomery's father was also in show business, hence she had a belief that a certain level of decorum was appropriate for this type of work).

The role of Darrin went to actor Dick Sargent whose professionalism Elizabeth Montgomery seemed to like better.  But that move didn't sit very well with co-star Agnes Moorehead (who played her mother Endora), an entertainment legend from stage, radio, TV and movies.  The author wrote that Elizabeth had battles with Agnes Moorehead. Apparently, Agnes was rather fond of Dick York and didn't want to see him go.  The book writes that Ms. Moorehead reduced his replacement, Dick Sargent, to tears on occasion, according to the new book.

Ms. Montgomery was ready to quit the show during it's height of success, tired of the hassles and bickering in the studio, but apparently the studio made her a salary offer she couldn't afford to turn down, so she stayed on for a few more seasons.  But when that ended, she wanted to move on.  One of her more memorable roles post-Bewitched was for the TV movie "The Legend of Lizzie Borden" in which she played the axe murderess Lizzie Borden in 1975.

The author offered the following teasers in in his new book (see http://goo.gl/rR4a2 for details):
  • Why did Elizabeth Montgomery, star of TV's Bewitched, hate Ronald Reagan?
  • How are JFK and Marilyn Monroe related to "Bewitched"?
  • What does the Iran/Contra Affair have to do with "Bewitched"?
  • What does the 1988 Pan Am incident over Lockerbie have to do with "Bewitched"?
  • Why did Elizabeth view prejudice as the core message of "Bewitched"?
  • How did Elizabeth twitch her nose as Samantha on "Bewitched"?
  • Was she really related to ax-murderess Lizzie Borden?
  • Did Gary Cooper make a play for a pre-witched Elizabeth?
  • Did she have an affair with Dean Martin (on the set of their hit movie, "Who's Been Sleeping In My Bed")?
  • Did dueling affairs break-up Elizabeth's marriage to "Bewitched" producer/director William Asher?
  • Did Elvis Presley have a thing for Elizabeth?
  • Just exactly how abusive was her marriage to alcoholic actor Gig Young (her second of four husbands)?
  • Did Darrin really love Samantha behind the "Bewitched" scenes? Is THAT why there were two Darrin's?
  • Did Samantha and Endora battle behind the witch cameras?
He closes by writing "The answers to these questions and more are found in my new biography of Elizabeth Montgomery, 'Twitch Upon a Star: The Bewitched Life and Career of Elizabeth Montgomery'", which is based on Mr. Pilato's exclusive interviews with Elizabeth Montgomery (and others).

I haven't read the book personally, but I would say the subject is more appealing than, say,  another book about Steve Jobs, if for no other reason than the content seems fresh by comparison!

Author P.S., October 9, 2014: Actress Elizabeth Montgomery did not retire after "Bewitched" ended, she continued acting in guest roles and on TV game shows for a time.  One of her most enduring post-Bewitched roles was in a 1975 made-for-TV movie called "The Legend of Lizzie Borden" which I believe ran on ABC.  As the chant (often sang by school girls doing jump rope) goes: "Lizzy Borden took an axe, gave her mother forty whacks, When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty one" - that's basically all you need to know, except that Elizabeth Montgomery played the leading role (the name was easy for her to remember!).  The character was of course, about a Fall River, Massachusetts woman who supposedly committed these horrific acts of murder on August 4, 1892.  The legend has persisted for generations.  Described by DVD Talk as "Hypnotically creepy, one of the best made-for-TV movies of the 1970s--and that's saying something from that golden age of the form" (see the review at http://ow.ly/CwsFA), or for those already familiar with this legendary TV movie, you can actually buy it at Amazon by visting http://amzn.to/10WoUp6.

Author P.S., October 17, 2014:  Its hard for many of us to believe, but television's "Bewitched" series turn's 50 this year (indeed, Erin Murphy, one of the twins who played Tabitha in the original show, recently hosted a marathon in observance of the anniversary!  The series originally ran on ABC from 1964 to 1972, and sometimes people forget that the first two seasons were shot in black and white, before switching to color in season 3.  Ted Turner colorized the first two season, and many prefer the colorized versions.  The show, which quickly soared to the top of the ratings, used creative filming to create an illusion of witchcraft-magic.  Needless to say, in the late sixties to early seventies, the show ruled the airwaves.

There was a kind of a reboot (or reimagining) on the big screen in 2005 that starred Nicole Kidman as Samantha and Will Farrell, but the concept for the film (and as a result, box office numbers) bombed.  Frankly, the film stunk, and deserved the ridicule it received from critics because it had none of the magic of the original.  But there is news from Deadline that Sony is reportedly shopping the idea for a TV reboot.  Whether it makes it past the concept stage remains to be seen, and a lot has happened since the original series (for example, the idea of stay-at-home housewives as Samantha was, is largely history), so a reboot would need to reflect today's reality, not 1970's.

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