This week on Classic Hotties we profile a lady who in some ways is a little different from those we've covered up to this point. While just as beautiful, talented and acclaimed as many of the ladies we profile, Elizabeth Montgomery differs from many of her contemporaries in that she didn't crash and burn like so many who came before and after her. Never a figure of controversy, never subject to diatribe and censure from an outraged studio system or an angry public, she was most well known for only one role - a role that nonetheless made her a icon of motherly love and affection for generations of children and adults alike. Yet, beneath that warm public persona lay a woman with desires and dreams for love that eluded her until the very end of her life.
Born Elizabeth Victoria Montgomery in Los Angeles, California in 1933, Elizabeth came into the world with one foot already in the business. Her father, actor Robert Montgomery, was already an established actor of classic Hollywood. Her mother, Elizabeth Bryan, a Broadway dancer. Being the child of an entertainment family, it was little surprise that Elizabeth followed in her parent's illustrious footsteps. After spending much of her youth in east coast boarding schools, Elizabeth returned to Hollywood and almost immediately entered the biz on her father's TV show Robert Montgomery Presents. One of the most acclaimed series to run during what many call The Golden Age of Television, Robert Montgomery Presents was a collection of various live performances of classic and contemporary literature, movies and history. A popular show among many skilled actors looking to find work outside of film, the show attracted such notable names as Charlton Heston, Jack Lemmon, James Dean and Grace Kelly. It was a rich environment for a young actress like Elizabeth, looking to cut her teeth in the business.
From there Elizabeth moved into movies, though her fortunes were somewhat mixed. Starring in several films into the early 1960s, including WHO'S BEEN SLEEPING IN MY BED? and JOHNNY COOL, she was only a modest name in the business. Though she did come close to winning major roles in films like ON THE WATERFRONT and MARNIE, she remained only a mid-level name in the business until the mid 60s, when a return to TV marked the true rise of her fame. Her big break came in the form of a quirky little TV show that premiered in 1964, revolving around the madcap adventures of a suburban family with a twist. The twist, of course, was witchcraft and the name of the show Bewitched. Portraying the matriarch of a magical sitcom family quickly became Elizabeth's biggest claim to fame. As the character Samantha Stevens, she played a witch turned housewife and mother on the hit show, famous for her funny little nose twitch when casting the occasional spell.
Bewitched ran for 8 years on ABC, consistently performing at the top of their nightly ratings and scoring huge numbers across several demographics. The show earned Elizabeth numerous Emmy wins and a firm reputation as a major player in television throughout the 1960s. More importantly, her performance as the funny, caring, compassionate mother trapped between a normal life and the unstable world of magic, made Elizabeth a household name. Subsequent reruns in syndication later introduced the show to successive generations, making her a lasting pop culture phenomenon.
A ninth season of Bewitched was planned for the 1973 fall season, but by that time the 40-year-old Elizabeth was tired of the role and ready to move on more socially challenging and controversial parts. Thus many of the TV movies she made during the 70s and 80s revolved around issues challenging the prevailing views of the day, including issues of rape, interracial relationships, and controversial figures like Lizzy Borden. Portrayals of complex, powerful women were a preference for her, as were roles appealing to her liberal politics. Though she did the occasional TV movie, by the 80s Elizabeth was spending the bulk of her public life contributing and campaigning to the issues dearest to her heart, including AIDS research and gay rights.
While her public persona as America's sweetheart on its favorite sitcom was the Elizabeth most people know about, her real life away from the camera was a mixed bag. A complicated relationship with her conservative father left her with "daddy issues" that often spurred her into abusive relations with so-called "bad boys." Many of these men were abusive to her mentally and physically. Though married 4 times and the mother of 3 children, none of her marriages lasted. Elizabeth was known as an accomplished charmer and had several affairs with many famous men during her time in the spotlight, among them Elvis Presley, Dean Martin and Gary Cooper.
After years mostly out of the spotlight, Elizabeth made a return to television in 1995. While filming what would be her final performance in the TV movie Deadline for Murder: From the Files of Edna Buchanan, flu-like symptoms prompted her to seek medical attention. Unfortunately, her illness was much more serious. Suffering from colorectal cancer of a particularly lethal variety, she quickly began to decline. With a grim prognosis, she returned to the Hollywood home she shared with her 4th husband, actor Robert Foxworth. Less than 8 weeks after her initial diagnosis, Elizabeth succumbed to her illness. She was 62.
While not as prolific an actress as many of her contemporaries, Elizabeth Montgomery and her role as Samantha Stevens remain beloved pop culture icons across multiple generations, thanks to years of syndicated reruns of Bewitched. As a result of these repeated airings, she remains a recognizable figure where many other prolific ladies of her time fall into obscurity. Her activism and devotion to the causes close to her heart would only increase her adoration among many. A complicated and sometimes troubled woman away from the camera, her role as one of television's most beloved mother figures will surely keep Elizabeth's memory alive for many years to come.