Yesterday & Today
A Touch of Magic
Elizabeth Montgomery led a bewitching life that was cut short by colorectal cancer in 1995.
By Sue Rochman
Photo by Robert Lerner / Getty Images
Decades before the name Harry Potter became a household word, it was Samantha, the beautiful wife on the television comedy Bewitched, who introduced witchcraft into the lives of ordinary muggles. With a twitch of her nose, Samantha, played by Elizabeth Montgomery, brought an alluring blend of confusion and havoc to her marriage to nonmagical Darrin Stephens, and their spirited suburban relationship—complete with a meddling witch/mother-in-law—quickly became the No. 2 show in America (behind Bonanza) when it debuted in 1964.
Nearly five decades later, it is the role of Samantha that remains Montgomery’s most indelible. But throughout her career, Montgomery’s acting acumen and her desire to defy typecasting led her to seek out many other challenging roles. This work resulted in a series of Emmy Award nominations: one for her leading role in the 1974 made-for-television movie A Case of Rape; one for her portrayal in 1975 of the 19th century accused murderess at the center of The Legend of Lizzie Borden; and, three years later, another for her depiction of a female pioneer making a home in the Ohio River Valley in the TV miniseries The Awakening Land. (She also received nominations every year from 1966 to 1970 for her role on Bewitched.)
Montgomery was determined to go beyond her beauty and background to make a name for herself, on her own terms. Never a diva, she was unfailingly polite to her co-workers, and to her fans she was pert perfection. To her family members and close friends, she was known for her desire to shield her personal life from the public eye, and for a stubborn streak that few could defy. Both were visible when she learned in March 1995 that she had stage IV colorectal cancer. She was 62, and less than two months would pass between her diagnosis and her death.
Born to Act
Montgomery was born in 1933 in Los Angeles. Her father was actor and director Robert Montgomery, who, in 1935, became the president of the Screen Actors Guild. Her mother was Elizabeth Bryan Allen, a socialite who performed a handful of times on the New York stage in the 1920s. The couple moved to California in 1929, when Robert signed a contract with MGM studios. In 1950, when Elizabeth was 17, a new job opportunity for her father led the family to return to New York City.
There, Montgomery attended the Spence School, one of the city’s most exclusive all-girls schools, and then the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Her acting debut occurred in 1951, at age 18, on her father’s television show Robert Montgomery Presents, which aired live from a studio in Rockefeller Center. Four years later, she appeared in her first film, The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell. Over the next decade, she performed in episodes of many popular series, including Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone and The Untouchables.
Montgomery’s first marriage, to socialite Frederic Gallatin Cammann, lasted less than a year. Her second, to actor Gig Young, lasted a little more than six years. In October 1963, Montgomery married writer-director-producer William Asher, whom she met when she auditioned for the lead role in his movie Johnny Cool
. The following year, they worked together to develop the series Bewitched
. Their first son, William Asher Jr., was born shortly before Bewitched
premiered in 1964.
Montgomery’s next two pregnancies were written into the script, and were the catalysts for the show’s addition of the Stephens’ children, Tabitha and Adam. Bewitched ended its eight-year run in 1972, and in 1973, she and Asher divorced. She then entered a relationship with actor Robert Foxworth. They had been together nearly two decades when they married in January 1993, a little more than two years before her death.
Private, But Not Shy
Having been raised with an insider’s knowledge of Hollywood glamour and New York nightlife, Montgomery knew how to carve a life among the stars. “There was a big sort of kind of paradox between her public self and her private self,” says Foxworth. “She was gorgeous and sexy and funny and witty, and in public she loved to dress up and go out. And on the other hand, she loved to dig in the garden and get her fingers dirty and make things grow or get a paintbrush and paint things. She was a lot of fun and she could dance like a demon. But what she most loved was her work—she loved being an actress.”
Montgomery developed a political side as well. Her father, an active member of the Republican Party, had appeared as a friendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, and he later served as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s television coach during his run for the presidency. “At some point,” says Foxworth, “she realized that her father had been very political … and she was kind of motivated to oppose him.”
It was no accident that Montgomery decided to play a rape survivor treated horribly by the criminal justice system in A Case of Rape. “She felt it was important,” says Foxworth, “and she was proud that it contributed to the legislation” that most states implemented in the late 1970s to expand the ability of prosecutors to bring rape cases to trial.