Magical themes abound in the magical life and career of Elizabeth Montgomery, who starred as twitch-witch Samantha Stephens on the 1964–1972 television classic, Bewitched. She followed in the spotlight footsteps her parents — film and television star Robert Montgomery and Broadway actress Elizabeth Allen — while Bewitched was replicated by TV shows like I Dream of Jeannie, Nanny and the Professor, as well as the short-lived late 1970’s Bewitched spin-off Tabitha, which featured Lisa Hartman as the grown-up edition of Samantha’s daughter (originally played by twins Erin and Diane Murphy).
But the matter of duplication was also evident in Montgomery’s early vocation-forming years, as when she made a TV-guest star appearance on a then-very risqué race-oriented episode of 77 Sunset Strip, titled, “White Lie.” In this segment, which aired October 25, 1963, 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.
“White Lie” featured a monumental premise that Moore also explored with her Oscar-nominated performance as Annie Johnson in the 1959 ground-breaking motion picture Imitation of Life. It also showcased a historic theme that Elizabeth would revisit in playing Samantha on Bewitched which began rehearsals on November 22, 1963, the fateful day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated — approximately one year after that 77 Sunset Strip episode premiered.
In an exclusive interview in 2012, Moore offered her poignant perspective on and working with Montgomery:
She was talented…she was an actress…a fine actress! She left this world too young…she was so gifted…such a divine person…so easy going. At that time of 77 Sunset Strip, we [as actresses] had limited parts. She told me concerning our parts, “Juanita, walk with it…feel free and walk with it.” She looked me right in the eye and that’s what she said to me. And I had never had that said to me before — like she said it. And we did just that in that episode — we walked with it.
Everyone said that she was stuck-up because of having her own show, but they [were] just jealous and very envious actors and nay-sayers. I think she was good [as Samantha], and I think she could have been better . . . if they [had] let her loose and allowed her to stretch herself . . . and you saw that [when she played] Serena …but [because of] TV you have to tone [things] down.
“Elizabeth was learned . . . she was ahead of all of them out there in Hollywood. . . Plus, she was a nice young lady. To me, she was just like my child . . . it’s a bond we had, ya’ know. She was a gift!”
Clearly, prejudice was the central message of the “White Lie” segment of 77 Sunset Strip and Bewitched, as well as Imitation of Life, along with the plight of civil rights, in general, for which President Kennedy had rallied. As fate would have it, both Montgomery and her then-husband, William Asher, producer/director of Bewitched, had been good friends with JFK. In fact, it was Asher who directed the President’s famed Inaugural Ball, at which Marilyn Monroe sang a breathy “Happy Birthday.”
All of it transpired during the 1960’s — an era that had become increasingly volatile with race rioting, drug abuse, the Vietnam War, against which Montgomery protested and as a result, received death threats. Also into the mix: the subsequent assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., each of whom, like JFK and Montgomery, were also liberal thinkers who endorsed equality and justice for all.
Meanwhile, on Bewitched, Montgomery’s other-worldly Samantha loved her mortal husband Darrin — played first by Dick York and then Dick Sargent — despite their “differences,” which they ignored to concentrate on what made them the same: their humanity.
No episode of Bewitched more clearly represented the cry against prejudice than the holiday story, “Sisters at Heart.” Premiering Christmas Eve, 1970, “Heart” was Elizabeth’s favorite Samantha segment. A touching tale of tolerance and acceptance, it was bold and straightforward with its plot and message. In a 1989 interview, Elizabeth assessed the episode, and recalled first reading the script in 1970, and thinking, “Yeah — this is what I want Bewitched to be all about.”
The “Sisters” story was bold:
Samantha and Darrin’s supernatural daughter Tabitha [played by twins Erin and Diane Murphy] befriends Lisa, a young African-American girl [played by Venetta Rogers]. The two children get along so well, they want to be sisters. But after a bully in the park tells them that such is not possible, because of their disparate physical appearances, Tabitha employs “wishcraft” [whatever she wishes comes true] and seeks to make both she and Lisa the same color. But the magic goes awry: white polka dots appear on Lisa, and black polka dots appear on Tabitha. Samantha, of course, is confounded and calls witch-doctor Dr. Bombay [Bernard Fox] for a remedy, though not before espousing to Tabitha and Lisa that, “All men are brothers, even if they’re girls.”
Avedon had stopped writing for Bewitched and everything else when William Asher phoned her and explained how the school children had written a solid script, which only needed a slight rewrite.”
“So, I went down to Jefferson High, which was an inner-city school, and I was horrified. Locker doors were hanging off their hinges. There wasn’t a blade of grass in sight. What was worse is that these kids had been reading on a third-grade level. It was awful. But I walked into their classroom, and when their teacher [Marcella Saunders] asked who had watched Bewitched the night before, every hand in the room went up.”
When Avedon asked the students why they liked the sitcom, one young man replied, “Well…it’s a mixed marriage. She’s a witch and he’s human, and she could have anything she wants but doesn’t use her powers for selfish reasons — only once in a while to help her husband.”
“It was really a wonderful moment,” recalled Avedon, who then read the story the class had penned and was amazed. “The script was as good as any that she had seen from established writers. It just had to be polished up a little.”
Avedon promised not to make any changes of which they would not approve because she was quite fond of the basic idea. The one major change she suggested was that they make the episode with a Christmas theme, because as, she said, ‘It was so imbued with the spirit.’”
After Avedon finished speaking with the class, she recalled, “They all just sat there, stone silent for a minute. Then one of them stood up and introduced himself. Almost immediately, the other students rose on by one, and the class and I became friends.”
Their teacher Marcella Saunders could not say enough good things about this matchless Bewitched experience. “We were writing a Christmas story, and we were experiencing a Christmas story. Everyone on the set was pleasant and supportive.”
Dick Sargent credited Saunders as the “igniting force behind her students’ creativity,” and explained:
“She was interested in innovative forms of teaching. These kids, who might have been stuck in the ghetto for the rest of their lives, loved Bewitched, and with just a little approval and motivation, came alive on the set. One of them was the assistant director, who had the chance to scream, ‘Quiet on the set!’ It was marvelous. Doing the show gave them, at least for a brief time, a change of pace and scenery, in which they reveled.”
While her adventures as Samantha Stephens on Bewitched may have provided a magical escape from harsh realities of any era, Elizabeth Montgomery ultimately became a serious, respected, and multi-Emmy-nominated actress who advocated for equal rights — before it became fashionable to do so, even prior to the conscious and subconscious declarations of independence and female empowerment that would swirl around Mary Richards and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Montgomery rallied for the less fortunate, the disabled, the outcasts, and countless minority groups, including what ultimately became the gay community. Along with good friend and fellow actress Elizabeth Taylor, she was one of the first celebrities to raise her public voice in support of those stricken with AIDS in the 1980s when that physical malady was unjustly labeled as “the Gay Disease.”
Montgomery’s alignment with what ultimately became the LGBTQ community, in particular, was further evidenced by her friendships with several Bewitched actors who just so happened to be gay: Maurice Evans (who played her magical TV dad after her real father rejected the role), Paul Lynde (who played joke-making Uncle Arthur), and Dick Sargent, who later invited Montgomery to be a Co-Grand Marshall at the 1994 Gay Pride Parade in Los Angeles.
Overall, and across the board, the very life and career of Elizabeth Montgomery, before, during, and beyond Bewitched, played out like an allegory for the underdog, opposing injustice at every turn. Samantha Stephens, as a supernatural being, may have been able to twitch her nose and make with the magic. But Montgomery, as a human being, was able to utilize her celebrity persona and make things happen, for real — and for the highest good — and equality, of all concerned.