Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Twitch Upon a Star: A New Elizabeth Montgomery Biography

There are two kinds of movie star biographies: those featuring startling revelations and those that affectionately portray the lives of their subjects. Herbie J. Pilato's entertaining Elizabeth Montgomery biography Twitch Upon a Star falls into the latter category. Pilato, who has written two previous books about the classic TV sitcom Bewitched, knows he has a highly likable subject in the spunky Montgomery. In addition to creating a beloved, nose-twitching, contemporary witch, she also earned acclaim in some of the highest-rated television movies of the 1970s. It also doesn't hurt that her father was a popular star of Hollywood's Golden Age and her mother a respected Broadway actress.

Pilato describes Elizabeth's relationship with her father, Robert Montgomery, in great detail (he was a staunch Republican, she became a Democrat). Her father supported her acting career, which included attending the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York and appearing frequently in the anthology TV series Robert Montgomery Presents. In contrast, Pilato provides little insight into Elizabeth's relationship with her mother, Elizabeth Bryan Allen, despite the fact that she and Robert Montgomery were married for 22 years.

When Elizabeth Montgomery turned 20, she married Fred Cammann, a Harvard graduate with aspirations of working in the entertainment industry. The union lasted a little over a year, with Pilato asserting that Cammann wanted "an old world wife and Lizzie wanted to be a newfangled actress." A six-year marriage to Gig Young followed, but it was doomed by Young's alcoholism and jealousy--he once accused Elizabeth of sleeping with Elvis while Young and Presley were making Kid Galahad! Prior to and between marriages, Elizabeth Montgomery had other alleged lovers, too, to include Gary Cooper (her film debut was in Cooper's The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell) and Dean Martin (her co-star in Who's Been Sleeping in My Bed?).

Montgomery in The Untouchables.
By the early 1960s, Montgomery had developed a reputation as a promising actress, earning kudos for her performance in The Twilight Zone episode "Two" (with Charles Bronson) and receiving an Emmy nomination for playing a prostitute in The Untouchables ("The Rusty Heller Story" episode). She also starred in the 1963 gangster drama Johnny Cool, where she met director William Asher--who became her third husband.

Shortly after their wedding, Asher and Montgomery approached 20th Century-Fox producer William Dozier (Batman) with an idea for a series called Couple. However, Dozier steered them toward a new series already in development about a witch who marries a mortal. Thus, Bewitched was born.

With co-star and friend Dick Sargent.
Pilato's work on his previous Bewitched books shows in his entertaining behind-the-scenes look at the classic sitcom. Among the highlights for Bewitched fans:  Dick Sargent and Richard Crenna were considered for the role of Darrin before Dick York was cast; York was "smitten" with Montgomery; Agnes Moorehead and Montgomery overcame personal friction between each other to forge a professional relationship; Paul Lynde adored Montgomery, but displayed a "different attitude" when she portrayed Samantha's mischievous lookalike cousin Serena; and, though Montgomery had praise for both of her leading men, she became good friends with Dick Sargent. After Sargent revealed he was gay in 1991, Montgomery served as co-Grand Marshal with him for the Los Angeles Gay Pride Parade.

After eight seasons of Bewitched, Elizabeth Montgomery decided to end the series although ABC tried to convince her otherwise. Pilato quotes television executive Peter Ackerman, who noted that "with it (the cancellation of Bewitched), more to the point, because of it, Bill and Liz ended their marriage." The couple had three children by then. Bill Asher had an affair with Nancy Fox, an aspiring actress and former ice skater. Elizabeth had a fling with Richard Michaels, who directed some episodes of Bewitched.
Playing accused murderer Lizzie Borden.

Elizabeth Montgomery's post-Bewitched acting career included Emmy nominations for two made-for TV movies: the potent drama A Case of Rape (1974) and the fact-based The Legend of Lizzie Borden (1975). On another television movie, Mrs. Sundance, Montgomery met actor Robert Foxworth, who became her partner and eventual husband until her death in 1995 from colon cancer. (Pilato also relates the story of Montgomery and Emma, the Labrador Retriever, who starred together in my favorite of her made-for-TV movies, Second Sight: A Love Story.)

Author Herbie J. Pilato's sources include new interviews with Montgomery's friends (e.g., Cliff Robertson, Sally Kemp), magazine articles, TV interview transcripts,  interviews conducted with his subject, and unused materials from his Bewitched books. He lists Montgomery's complete professional credits and includes an index and a nice selection of photographs.

Pilato's claims may occasionally be exaggerated (it's a stretch to call I Married a Witch "one of the best English-language motion pictures of its time"). On one page, he labels Montogomery's Twilight Zone performance as her best pre-Bewitched work. Elsewhere, he bestows that honor on her guest stint in The Untouchables. He also italicizes the proper names of all fictional characters, a small editing quirk perhaps, but one that becomes annoying.

Still, Twitch Upon a Star is an engrossing look at a strong-willed actress whose career spanned five decades. It will satisfy Elizabeth Montgomery's fans, as well as Bewitched buffs interested in learning more about that series' leading lady--and even how the famous twitch was "invented."

The Classic Film & TV Cafe received a review copy of this book.

14 comments:

  1. This sounds like an interesting read. I thought Elizabeth was quite fun in "Bewitched." Can you share with us her story about the yellow Lab? Like you, I thought "Second Sight: A Love Story" was sweet, but I am a sucker for a good dog movie.

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    1. It's a very good movie, Toto. During the filming, Liz and the dog, Emma, became very attached to each other. When the movie was completed, Emma's owner/trainer offered to give Emma to Liz. She refused at first, but eventually consented. Emma eventually died from tumors. Years later, when filming another movie, Liz caught a few minutes of SECOND SIGHT: A LOVE STORY and broke into tears.

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    2. What a precious story! Emma's trainer was very kind. I am quite certain Emma and Liz were the dearest of friends. Thank you for sharing this with us. Great post, Rick!

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  2. Rick, I have to say that your assessment of the book at the end of the article raises some question about the author's writing skills, but most of all I think that title is awful. I know what he was going for, but it doesn't work for me. Otherwise, it sounds like an entertaining look at Montgomery's career. I have always admired her as an actress, never more than her performance as Lizzie Borden. It always fascinates me to see an actor or actress who has become so well-known for light and comedic work be allowed to step out of type. She was wonderful. Excellent article, Rick!

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  3. I grew up watching Bewitched in Brazil. Very modern at that time and forever today. I really love the cast on that show, writers and all crew included. Elizabeth Montgomery? Very elegant. She had a great effect on me. Sandra Gould: perfect comic timing. Miss Moorehead? Milk Shakespearean queen. Ok, Bewitched is one of the best part of my childhood... until the end. Dick York: i love that actor.Does anyone know why i work in advertising? God bless all them and you too.

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  4. Very informative review--this book is definitely on my wish list. I just finished reading a biography of Agnes Moorehead, and I'm interested to see how this book's portrayal of the Bewitched years compares. The Moorehead book claimed that after Dick York collapsed on the set and withdrew from the series, none of the other cast members ever spoke to him again--does this book address that?

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    1. I don't recall that being in the book, but then the focus is on Liz. The same author wrote a book about the series and probably includes more behind the scenes info in it.

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  5. I know embarrassing's comment was for Rick, but I just had to chime in -- could that really be true? Why on earth would that happen? Of course you never know what an actor is like in person, but he seems such a mild-mannered guy.

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  6. Dreadful read, really boring. He quotes mag interviews and restates the same things over again. He may brag about his research, but early on he mistakes the year of Lizzie Borden's murders as 1893 instead of 1892 -- what an easy fact to check! Also, he changes names of a small child in the family within 2 pages. Sloppy journalism, all. Over and over are the same examples, all boring. It's because nothing matters to this writer except his unattainable princess, Elizabeth Montgomerey. THIS is a vanity publication!

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    1. Just finished the book and have to agree with you. Aside from the sloppy editing, so much of the book is based on conjecture and supposition. The author has a tendency to go off on political and sociological tangents of his own which reveal bias of his writing. Short on real facts and long on philosophical ramblings.

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  7. I once saw an interview with Robert Foxworth and he spoke about Elizabeth's father and how jealous he was of her and he did not treat her well. He said when her father died she was devastated and he couldn't understand why she was so upset when he was not a good father to her. Have you heard about this?

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  8. I passed on your review to another tonight. . .

    I have been curious about this book! I remember Bewitched and Elizabeth Montgomery fondly from watching them in syndication as a child. Growing up in Massachusetts not too far from Fall River, it was a kick to see her play Lizzie Borden and to play her so well. The Daily Mail had a very dishy piece promoting the book. Your review makes it sound more balanced and career-oriented. I'll have to check it out!

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  9. Elizabeth Montgomery was certainly a lovely, talented actress and also a significant figure in the history of American television. However, Pilato's rambling and often incoherent hagiography relies far too heavily on lengthy verbatim quotes from questionable sources; i.e. gossip magazines and publicity material. Plus, he tends to find a way to relate just about everything and everyone in Montgomery's life to "Bewitched". I do not recommend this book.

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  10. Regarding this remark: "Bill Asher had an affair with Nancy Fox, an aspiring actress and former ice skater." I have corresponded with Nancy Fox over the past few years and she told me that Elizabeth Montgomery was the one who noticed her in a toothpaste commercial and then recommended her to Bill Asher. Ms. Fox had this to say about Ms. Montgomery: "Elizabeth was very shy, which some people took as being cold, but she was not cold at all, she was nothing but a truly wonderful person. By the time I arrived in LA she and Bill were split-up, so I really never got to know her, but the little I saw of her was nothing but genuine and kind."

    After I received this message from Ms. Fox I informed her of the surly gossip regarding her and Bill Asher. She responded with: "There are network events that actors and producers on series are expected to attend. I went to several with Bill and Paul Lynde. In several magazines and newspapers Paul Lynde was cut out of the picture and there was Bill and I, and people will think what they want to think. I was friends with Bill … but that was it….there was no 'affair'. I did not live with Bill. I just plain liked him, and he liked me…..it was such a unique friendship that an 'ill-thinking' person could neither have nor understand."

    As for Mr. Pilato, he is a good friend of mine so I will not comment on his book other than to say that he truly admires Elizabeth Montgomery and his biography of her was a very sincere effort to chronicle her life as best as possible.

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