By Alan Hurst
It’s October and for cinephiles and retro-TV junkies thoughts turn to spooky movies and Halloween tinged TV shows.
For people of a certain age, just mention the name “Samantha Stephens” and there is instant recognition, usually followed by a little smile as they remember back to the original run or the endless syndicated reruns of Bewitched (1964-72). This was one of the most iconic series of the sixties – and one that fueled many fantasies of being able to do exactly what Elizabeth Montgomery did as Samantha on a weekly basis. She could turn people into toads, help her advertising executive husband land an account, and fly to Paris for lunch in a split second. She could do anything she set her mind to with just the twitch of her nose.
But there was more to Bewitched than Samantha’s fantasy inducing skills as a witch. Before it evolved into more cartoonish (but still fun) fare later in its run, in the show’s first few seasons it was a witty, warm and atmospheric look at newlywed life, suburbia, and acceptance. The show worked best when it used the magic to support the story, not when the tricks and spells were front and centre.
Taking some inspiration from Rene Clair’s I Married a Witch (1942) and the James Stewart-Kim Novak vehicle Bell, Book and Candle (1958), Bewitched premiered in 1964. In the first episode the two main characters meet, fall in love and get married in relatively quick order. Elizabeth Montgomery’s Samantha is the heart of the show – an attractive, stylish young witch who has fallen in love with Darrin (Dick York), a mere mortal. She finally lets Darrin know about her special powers and the stage is set for most of the story lines going forward: after the initial shock, Darrin still loves Samantha but there is agreement between them that she will attempt to hide her powers so they can live life as a typical married couple. Her mother and father aren’t keen on a “mixed” marriage, his parents will never find out, and magic will be sprinkled liberally in every episode for the next eight seasons.
The theme of acceptance and accepting people for who they are and what they’re capable of is a thread throughout the series. It may have been wrapped up in sixties sitcom dialogue, but it’s no less impactful. An episode from season one – “A is for Aardvark” – is one of the series’ best as Samantha gives Darrin a taste of what it’s like to have the powers of witch and how he handles it. By the end, she wants him back to his mortal self, and he has new respect for her powers.
The show was a hit out of the gate for ABC, soon becoming the network’s biggest hit up to that time. At the end of the first season it was the #2 show in the country. Bewitched fever had officially taken hold. Although dismissed by some as being just another one-gimmick series, it was much more than that and that’s the reason it lasted for eight years. Although there was a gentle decline in quality after about season four, and some plot ideas were recycled, Bewitched always managed to be charming and funny.
A key factor in being able to sustain the humour can be found in the cast, one of the great ensembles in TV history.
First and foremost is Elizabeth Montgomery, who was the wife of show runner William Asher. Asher, who had directed 100 episodes of I Love Lucy among other credits, convinced Montgomery to headline Bewitched at a time when she had achieved some success on television (she was an Emmy nominee for an episode of The Untouchables), but her film career had never really taken off. Bewitched ensured she would become a household name. Montgomery made the character of Samantha both grounded and a little zany at the same time, a combination that allowed her to be the voice of reason and also contribute to some of the weekly chaos. She was an expert comedic actress, but with an underlying warmth and sincerity that helped you believe even the most nonsensical situations. On top of that, she was incredibly attractive – blonde, chic, tanned – the exact opposite of our stereotypical image of a witch. One of the running themes on Bewitched was that you never really knew any of the actual ages of Samantha or any of her family. We got some hints, but nothing definite. The fact that Montgomery appeared to get younger over the course of the series – thanks to changes in fashion and slight adjustments to hair styles – helped with the illusion that witches age at a much different pace. Montgomery received five deserved Emmy nominations for her work here, but no wins.
In addition to playing Samantha, Montgomery also got to play her identical cousin Serena. Serena popped up in a few early episodes, and then because a regular fixture mid-way through the run. You can see Montgomery having a terrific time playing the wild and scatterbrained Serena, a 180-degree counterpart to Samantha.
Dick York played Darrin for the show’s first five seasons before a debilitating back injury (from a film shoot in the 1950’s) forced him to leave. York was a great foil for the never-ending trickery from Samantha’s family. Good at his job, obviously in love with Samantha, and handsome enough to make their quick and mutual attraction believable, York was the ideal leading man for the series. Quick to exasperation, physically game for anything, he was the one who was always trying to keep witchcraft on the back burner, if not out of the picture entirely. He provided the impetus for many of the conflicts. Dick Sargent took over the role in season six, but he was less of a farceur than York. His Darrin was more cranky than exasperated, and not nearly as much fun.
Agnes Moorehead happily found a late career success with her role as Endora, Samantha’s uber sophisticated, temperamental, and acerbically witty mother Endora. Moorehead deserves considerable credit for elevating the humour of the series, and at the same time adding to a winning macabre undertone with her flaming red hair and her purple and green “witch” attire. Moorehead was one of the best character actresses in films in the forties and fifties, and it’s a treat to see her having such a good time with her disapproval of her daughter’s marriage and generally wreaking havoc in the Stephens’ household. Moorhead received six Emmy nominations for her work as Endora, but alas no win.
If you’ve ever heard anyone refer to their nosy neighbour as a “Gladys Kravitz” type, this is where that took hold. Alice Pearce and George Tobias played next door neighbours Gladys and Abner Kravitz. Pearce’s Gladys was privy to a lot of the magical goings on, but she could never get her husband to believe her. She was always looking out the window to see what was going on, and sometimes crossing the street to look into the windows of the Stephens’ home. Pearce was manic and hysterical perfection, nicely countered with Tobias’ cynical indifference. Pearce won an Emmy for Best Supporting Actress at the end of season two, but she had unfortunately passed away from cancer before the ceremony. She was replaced by Sandra Gould, a veteran of many movies and sitcoms, and she’s the Gladys that many remember, joining the show during season three when it started filming in color. Gould provided a more annoying – but still funny – version of the nosy neighbor.
Marion Lorne played Aunt Clara, a favourite aunt of Samantha’s. She appeared in only 28 episodes in the show’s first four years before she passed away, but her creation of the aging, bumbling witch Clara is one of the show’s hallmarks. Lorne was hysterical – whether crash landing in the fire place, walking into a wall, or conjuring up Benjamin Franklin to fix a lamp. The combination of confusion and naivete she brought to the role were perfection. She was awarded a posthumous Emmy in 1968 for her work, winning Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series. After Lorne passed away, the creators brought in Alice Ghostly to play Esmerelda, a pseudo nanny for Samantha and Darrin’s kids. Ghostly was great – but the character’s sub-par witch craft, combined with acute shyness, didn’t have the same charm as Clara.
Many of the plots of the show focused on mixing Darrin’s work and home life, with one of the many witches in the family trying to magically help (or hinder) his efforts to land an account. His boss Larry (David White) was a regular throughout the series’ run. They were TV’s original Mad Men. White was terrific as the boss with no scruples – he would do anything to land an account, throw anyone under the bus, and was on the receiving end of more spells than just about anyone, but he never really turned the character into a villain. A little sleazy at times, but he always did the right thing in the end.
Other regulars on the show included Paul Lynde as Samantha’s flamboyant practical joker Uncle Arthur, Maurice Evans as her Shakespearean spouting father Maurice, Casey Rogers as Louise Tate (played by Irene Vernon during the first two seasons), and Bernard Fox as the exasperating Doctor Bombay.
Although it’s not easily found on any of the streaming services, all eight seasons of Bewitched are available on DVD. Do your self a favour and seek it out for the escape, the magic and some retro perfection.
Some essential episodes:
“I, Darrin, Take This Witch Samantha” (Season One, Episode #1): This is the pilot episode and there’s a lot packed in here but it sets the stage nicely for the series. Samantha and Darrin meet and marry, we are introduced to Endora, and at a dinner party where Samantha is meeting Darrin’s jealous former girlfriend, we see the fun that can be had as Samantha’s uses her powers on the girlfriend.
“A is for Aardvark” (Season 1, Episode #17): Darrin hurts his ankle and proves to be a needy patient, so Samantha casts a spell where he can have every wish fulfilled.
“ … And Then There Were Three” (Season 2, Episode #54): Samantha and Darrin becomes parents, Endora meddles, and we get to meet Serena for the first time, all in a fast paced and funny half hour. A highlight here is guest star Eve Arden as a nurse.
“Charlie Harper, Winner” (Season 3, Episode #99): By trying to impress the snobby wife of an old college friend of Darrin’s, Samantha’s competitive streak (and some witchcraft) gets the better of her, hurting Darrin’s feelings in the process.
“The Crone of Cawdor” (Season 3, Episode #101): When Bewitched did spooky, they usually got it right. This one is a treat as The Crone of Cawdor has taken over the body of the daughter of one of Darrin’s clients and if Darrin kisses her, they will trade ages.
“The Safe and Sane Halloween:” (Season 4, Episode #115): Bewitched did both Halloween and Christmas well. In this one Tabitha brings three ghouls to life from a storybook: A Goblin, a Gremlin, and a Jack O’Lantern. Chaos ensues.
“Allergic to Ancient Macedonian DoDo Birds” (Season 4, Episode #118): Endora loses her powers, Clara’s powers are strengthened. Endora becoming helpless is one of the comical highlights of the series. One of Moorehead’s best episodes.
“Humbug Not To Be Spoken Here” (Season 4, Episode #123) A modern take on A Christmas Carol with Samantha providing the yuletide lessons for a client of Darrin’s.
“Samantha’s Old Salem Trip” (Season 7, Episode #208): A series of episodes set in Salem, Massachusetts gave the show a much-needed shot of Adrenalin late in its run. In this one Samantha is whisked backed to old Salem during the time of the Salem witch trials.
“Sisters at Heart” (Season 7, Episode #213): Another strong Christmas episode, this time tacking racial equality and acceptance straight on thanks to Tabitha’s “wishcraft”. This won a special award at the 1970-71 Emmys.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.