Wednesday, 17 September 2014

The 50th Anniversary of Bewitched

It will be 50 years ago tonight that the TV show Bewitched debuted. The show is arguably the most successful programme to debut on the American broadcasting Company (ABC) in the Sixties. It received extremely high ratings for much of its original run and then went onto a phenomenal run as a syndicated rerun. Indeed, nearly 50 years after its debut Bewitched is still being rerun on TV stations and cable channels across the United States, as well as much of the world.

For those few of you who have never seen the series, Bewitched centred on a witch named Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery) who married a mortal named Darrin Stevens (originally played by Dick York, later played by Dick Sargent). In the world of Bewitched, witches were exceedingly powerful, able to conjure up nearly anything with a spell. They even lived thousands of years. As such, they tended to look down on mere mortals. Samantha's marriage to Darrin was then not greeted with joy by much of her family, especially not her overbearing mother, Endora (Agnes Moorehead). Endora was very unhappy that her daughter would give up her life as a witch and casting spells to be a common homemaker.

Fortunately, for Sam (as she was affectionately called by Darrin), not all of her family shared this attitude. Her favourite Aunt, Clara, had no problem accepting Darrin. Unfortunately, due to her advanced age Clara's powers were failing. As a result, her spells would sometimes go haywire and cause all sorts of chaos, from bringing aliens to Earth to summoning Queen Victoria to the present.

Naturally, Darrin and Samantha chose to keep the fact that she was a witch secret from the mortal world. Even Larry Tate, Darrin's boss at the advertising firm of McMann and Tate, did not know Sam's true nature. This was perhaps fortunate, as Larry's mind was always on making money and bringing new clients to his firm. One can guess what he would probably have wanted to use Sam's powers for! Darrin and Samantha's, nosey neighbour Gladys Kravitz (originally played by Alice Pierce and later played by Sandra Gould) kept a constant eye on the Stephens household and was always certain that there was something strange taking place there. Fortunately, her husband Abner (George Tobias) always dismissed any wild (and usually true) claims that she made.

In addition to the regular characters, other members of Sam's family and the witch community would appear from time to time. Uncle Arthur (Paul Lynde) was a practical joker who often made Darrin the butt of his jokes. Her cousin Serena (played by Elizabeth Montgomery herself) was Sam's brunette look-alike. She was also the wild child of the family, very much at home in the swinging Sixties. Dr. Bombay (Bernard Fox) was the witch doctor who had to treat Sam any time she fell ill.

While writer Sol Saks is listed as the show's creator in the credits for Bewitched, its creation was actually a bit more complex than one writer with a great idea. The genesis of Bewitched can be traced back to two Screen Gems executives: William Dozier (then Vice President of Screen Gems Operations, he would later go onto gain fame as the producer of TV's Batman) and Harry Ackerman (the company's Vice President of Production). It was at a lunch in 1963 that the two of them developed the idea of a young, beautiful witch who is married to an ordinary man. Mr. Dozier first approached writer George Axelrod (perhaps most famous for the play The Seven Year Itch) about writing the pilot.

Unfortunately at the time Mr. Axelrod had an agreement with United Artists to write, produce and maybe even direct movies for the studio. As a result George Axelrod was unable to write the pilot. Mr. Dozier then approached Charles Lederer, who had written the films His Girl Friday (1940), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), about writing the pilot. Unfortunately at the time Mr. Lederer was already committed to writing the screenplay for Mutiny on the Bounty for MGM. Harry Ackerman and William Dozier then turned to Sol Saks to write the pilot.  Mr. Saks had considerable experience as a writer, having written for such radio shows as Duffy's Tavern, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, and The Baby Snooks Show, as well as such television shows as My Favourite Husband, I Married Joan, and Mr. Adams and Eve (which he also developed). In writing the pilot Mr. Saks was inspired by both the 1942 film I Married a Witch and the 1958 film Bell, Book, and Candle.

Although it now seems impossible to conceive of anyone playing Samantha Stevens (called "Cassandra" in the original pilot script) but Elizabeth Montgomery, she was not the only actress considered for the role. At the time Tammy Grimes was under contract to do a television series for Screen Gems, as well as feature films. Miss Grimes was not particularly happy with Sol Saks' script and requested revisions. Sol Saks then went ahead and rewrote the script.

As to Elizabeth Montgomery (actor Robert Montgomery's daughter and already a veteran of television and film) and her husband, writer, director and producer William Asher (who had directed many episodes of I Love Lucy), they were developing their own series that was in many respects similar to Bewitched. The Fun Couple, based on John Haase's novel of the same name, centred on the richest woman in the world who was married to an ordinary car mechanic. William Asher took The Fun Couple to Wiliam Dozier. William Dozier liked the idea behind The Fun Couple, but saw its similarity to Bewitched and told Mr. Asher that he should talk to Harry Ackerman. As it turned out, both Elizabeth Montgomery and William Asher loved the premise of Bewitched, preferring it to The Fun Couple. Naturally they expressed interest in dong Bewitched.

In the meantime Noel Coward asked Tammy Grimes to star in High Spirits (a musical version of his play Blithe Spirit) on Broadway. Ultimately Tammy Grimes chose to do High Spirits on Broadway. Elizabeth Montgomery was then cast as Samantha on Bewitched.

As to the role of Darrin Stephens, in the end three actors were considered for the role. Curiously, all three of them were named Richard. During the period that Tammy Grimes was being considered, a young actor named Dick Sargent was the top choice to play Darrin. Mr. Sargent had made many guest appearances on TV shows and had been the star of the short lived sitcom One Happy Family.  He would eventually go onto take a role in the short lived service comedy Broadside (it starred Kathleen Nolan, formerly of The Real McCoys, and centred on a group of WAVES during WWII). After Elizabeth Montgomery was cast as Samantha, Richard Crenna was considered for the role. He had been part of the cast of Our Miss Brooks and had just finished his run as one of the stars of The Real McCoys. As it turned out, however, Richard Crenna was not eager to do another regular series very soon. It was then that Dick York was considered.
Dick York already had an impressive résumé. He had appeared on Broadway in Tea and Sympathy and Bus Stop. He had appeared in such films as My Sister Eileen (1955) and Inherit the Wind (1960). It was while he was making They Came to Cordura (1959) that he received a disabling back injury that would ultimately affect his career. He also had an impressive list of television credits, including appearances on The United States Steel Hour, Studio One, The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Thriller. He had been a regular on the short lived series Going My Way.  After an audition with Elizabeth Montgomery, Dick York was cast in the role of Darrin.

It was Elizabeth Montgomery who asked legendary actress Agnes Moorehad to play the pivotal role of Endora, Samanth'a mother and Darrin's mother in law. Miss Moorehead had been one of Orson Welle's Mercury Players and was a veteran of stage, screen, and radio. She had appeared in such films as Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, and Show Boat. On radio she was the voice of Margo Lane on The Shadow. Agnes Moorehead was initially hesitant to take the role, but eventually agreed.

While Sol Saks wrote the pilot for Bewitched and created its central characters (Samantha, Darrin, Ednora, Larry Tate, and so on), he wrote no more episodes of the show. It would be left to others to develop Bewitched as we know it. There can be no doubt that much of the credit goes to the star of the show, Elizabeth Montgomery, and her husband, William Asher. Both had considerable input into the show. Indeed, William Asher not only directed a lion's share of the episodes, but at various times served as a creative consultant and producer on Bewitched as well.

Another important figure in shaping Bewitched into the show we now know was Danny Arnold (who would go onto create Barney Miller), who served as the show's producer during its first season and as a script consultant in its first two seasons. He also wrote many of its episodes. It was Danny Arnold who shaped Bewitched as essentially a romantic comedy. Indeed, while he was the show's script consultant the magic on the show would be kept to a minimum. Bernard Slade (who would go onto create The Partridge Family) served a script consultant in the show's second season and also wrote many episodes. Over the years various writers would contribute the many relatives of Samantha that the show's fans have come to know and love: her look-alike cousin Serena, her elderly Aunt Clara, her practical joking Uncle Arthur, and witch doctor Dr. Bombay. While Sol Saks is quite rightfully credited as the creator of Bewitched, the show was very much a collaborative effort (as most TV programmes are) and much of what we identify with the show was developed by others.

Bewitched debuted on 17 September 1964 on ABC. It opened to largely positive reviews. In his review in TV Guide Cleveland Amory gave the pilot a good notice. He wrote in his review, "Between you and me and Halloween we are Bewitched by Bewitched." Jack Gould of The New York Times wrote of the show, "Bewitched promises to be a bright niche of poplar TV." Bob Thomas of the Associated Press also gave Bewitched good marks. He wrote, "The town also likes a hit, and it seems certain that Miss Montgomery's television vehicle, Bewitched, is a runaway success of the new season." Associated Press writer Cynthia Lowry seems to have been one of the very few critics who was not enchanted by Bewitched. In her review she wrote, "The result on display for the first time on Thursday night was disappointing, for the original idea was enchanting."

Not only was Bewitched well received by critics, but it was also a smash hit with audiences. In its very first season it was the #2 show for the year in the Nielsen ratings. Bewitched would continue to do fairly well for most of the eight years it was on the air.  It remained in the top ten for its second and third seasons before dropping to #11 for its fourth season. Over all it remained in the top 30 for its first six seasons, not dropping out until its seventh and penultimate season.

Despite the success of Bewitched, the show would see a good number of changes in its cast over the years.  In fact, the second season would see two major additions to the cast of the show. The first was the introduction of Paul Lynde as Samantha's Uncle Arthur (he was Endora's younger brother). The second was the introduction of Sam and Darrin's daughter Tabitha. At the beginning of the second season Samantha learned she was pregnant and at mid-season she gave birth Tabitha (whose name was initially spelled "Tabatha" in the credits). ). In her first appearance Tabitha was played by Cynthia Black. For several episodes afterwards Tabitha was then played by twins Julie and Tamar Young. It was at the beginning of the third season that fraternal twins Diane and Erin Murphy assumed the role. It was during the fourth season that Erin Murphy took over the role of Tabitha entirely. As Erin and Diane Muprhy had grown older they had also come to look less alike. Since Erin Muprhy more resembled Elizabeth Montgomery, she took over the part of Tabitha.

Another new character was added to the show in its second season, although it was done so without adding another actor to the cast. Serena was Samantha's look-alike cousin and was played by Elizabeth Montgomery. She would continue to appear as a recurring character on the show for the rest of its run.

The third season would see yet more cast changes. The role of Larry Tate's wife Louise was originally played by actress Irene Vernon, who left the series at the end of the second season. According to Irene Vernon, she was fired due to her close friendship with former producer Danny Arnold, with whom Elizabeth Montgomery and William Asher did not get along.  At the start of the third season the role of Louise Tate was then assumed by Kasey Rogers. Kasey Rogers already had an impressive list of credits. Under her original stage name of Laura Elliott she had played the cheating wife of Guy Haines (Farley Granger) in Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (1951).  She played Louise Tate until the show's end of the run.

Another cast change during the third season would come about to an untimely death. Veteran actress Alice Pearce had appeared in such films as On the Town (1949) and The Belle of New York (1952) before assuming the role of nosey neighbour Gladys Kravitz.  Unfortunately, she was diagnosed with terminal cancer even as Bewitched went into production. She was able to keep her illness secret from the cast and crew. She died on 3 March 1966 of ovarian cancer. Sandra Gould assumed the role of Gladys Kravitz at the start of the third season and remained with the show for the rest of its run.

The third season would also see the introduction of a recurring character who would prove important to the show.  Appearing late in the third season, the character of Dr. Bombay (played by Bernard Fox), the witch doctor, would prove popular and would appear for the remainder of the show's run.

The fourth season would see another cast change due to a death, and this time it would be one of the show's most popular characters. Aside from her mother Endora and her father Maurice, Samantha's lovable Aunt Clara was among the first of her relatives to appear on the show. Played by veteran actress Marion Lorne, she was a recurring character on the show's first four seasons. Marion Lorne died at the age of 84 of a heart attack on 9 May 1968.  Aunt Clara appeared one last time on the show, on the 18 April 1968 "Samantha's Secret Saucer", just aired about two weeks before Miss Lorne's death.

Of course, by far the biggest cast change on Bewitched occurred when Dick York left the show at the end of the 5th season and Dick Sargent replaced him as Darrin in the 6th season. As mentioned earlier, Dick York had injured his back on the set of the film They Came to Cordura (1959). Over the years the condition of his spine degenerated and he eventually developed an addiction to pain killers. This probably was not helped by Bewitched's shooting schedule, which often required the cast to work 12 to 14 hour days. Dick York began missing episodes of Bewitched starting with the third season, during which he missed two. During the fourth season he missed a total of four episodes. By the fifth season his condition had worsened to the point that he missed a whole eight episodes. It was during the shooting of the episode "Daddy Does His Thing" that Dick York collapsed on the set and was rushed to hospital. It was when William Asher visited Dick York in hospital that Mr. York decided he could not go on with the show.

Dick York's departure from Bewitched left the show's production staff in a precarious position. Bewitched was still getting good ratings. It had ranked #11 for the year in its fourth season and would rank #12 in its fifth season. Given its ratings there was quite naturally a desire to continue the show. The problem was that Bewitched was essentially a romantic comedy centred around the marriage of Samantha and Darrin. For that reason the producers could not simply kill Darrin off. And even if divorce had been a more acceptable topic on American television in 1969, they could not have Samantha and Darrin divorce after their love story had unfolded on American airwaves for several years. The producers then decided to simply recast the role of Darrin. It was then with the 6th season that Dick Sargent took over the role of Darrin. As mentioned earlier, Mr. Sargent had been considered for the role when Tammy Grimes was being considered for the role of Samantha on the show. Curiously it was never explained on the show why or how Darrin's appearance and voice had changed. There was no episode in which Endora or another witch cast a spell and suddenly Dick York's Darrin became Dick Sargent's Darrin.

It was also in the 6th season that Alice Ghostley joined the cast as the Stephens' neurotic, magically bungling housekeeper Esmerelda. Alice Ghostley was a television veteran who had not only made several guest appearances on shows, but had also been a regular on both The Jackie Gleason Show and Captain Nice. Another addition to the cast in the sixth season was the Stephens' son Adam. It was in the fifth season that Samantha learned she was pregnant and in the sixth season that she gave birth to Adam. Adam, like their daughter Tabitha before him, would not be mortal. It was revealed in the seventh season that Adam was a warlock. Adam was played by twins David and Greg Lawrence.

Bewitched would end its original network run on 25 March 1972. While the show was phenomenally successful in its early years, its ratings would decline over time. The #2 show in the Nielsens for the year in its first season, it dropped to #7 in its second season. It remained in the top ten until its fifth season, when it dropped to #11 for the year. The reason for the drop in Bewitched's ratings seems most likely to have been due to a slight shift in timeslot. For its fifth season ABC moved Bewitched from 9:00 PM EST Thursday to 8:30 PM EST Thursday. This put it in direct competition with NBC's new hit police drama Ironside. Despite the more competitive time slot, Bewitched would only slip to #12 for the year in the following season.

Unfortunately, Bewitched would take a steep dive in the ratings in its sixth season. The show dropped from the 12th ranked show for the year the previous season to the 24th rated show for the year that season. The general consensus among television historians and critics is that this drop in the ratings was largely due to Dick York's departure from the show and the role of Darrin being re-cast with Dick Sargent in the part. As mentioned earlier, the change was never explained on the show.  It seems likely this confused many viewers, who may have wondered why Darrin had suddenly changed in both appearance and voice. And while viewers probably had nothing against Dick Sargent (personally I always thought he was a wonderful actor), there were probably many of them who simply could not accept anyone else but Dick York as Darrin after he had been in the role for five seasons.  Regardless, in its 7th season Bewitched dropped out of the top 25 for the year entirely.

Of course, here it must be pointed out the poor handling of the switch from Dick York as Darrin to Dick Sargent in the role was probably not the only reason Bewitched declined in the ratings. Many Bewitched fans feel the show declined in quality over the years. A common complaint from fans is that in later years (particularly after Dick Sargent had taken over the role of Darrin) plots from previous episodes were recycled, sometimes even scene for scene. In some instances complete dialogue was even repeated. Even with Bewitched not in reruns yet, it seems quite possible that many viewers recognised that scripts were being reused. It also seems quite possible that many of these viewers may have abandoned the show because of it.

For the show's eighth season ABC moved Bewitched from Thursday nights, where it had spent its entire run, to a new, 8:00 PM EST slot on Wednesday. Unfortunately, this placed Bewitched in direct competition with two highly rated shows, The Carol Burnett Show on CBS (which would rank #23rd for the season) and Adam-12 on NBC (which ranked #8 for the season).  Already declining in the ratings the past two seasons, Bewitched dropped in the ratings even further. Bewitched was not even allowed to finish out the season, going off the air in the spring of 1972.

Here it must be pointed out that had Bewitched not fallen the ratings it still seems unlikely that the show would have continued beyond its eighth season. By the show's final season Elizabeth Montgomery was eager to go onto other projects. Of course, if Elizabeth Montgomery had left Bewitched, then the show would have effectively been over.

Bewitched would go onto one of what could be one of the most successful syndication runs of all time. It would also see crossovers, a spinoff, and even several remakes. In fact, the first crossover occurred while the show was still on the air. During the 1965-1966 Elizabeth Montgomery and Dick York provided voices for The Flintstones episode, "Samantha", in which Samantha and Darrin Stephens (well, their Stone Age equivalents, anyway) moved next door to the Flintstones.

Bewitched would also see an animated spinoff air on The ABC Saturday Superstar Movie during the 1972-1973 season. The animated film Tabitha and Adam and the Clown Family featured Tabitha and Adam as teenagers spending the summer with their Aunt Georgia, who belongs to a circus. None of the actors from the original series reprised their roles.

 Tabitha and Adam and the Clown Family would not be the only spinoff from and sequel to Bewitched. On 24 April 1976 ABC aired a pilot for a series that used the spelling Tabatha. The pilot featured Liberty Williams (best known for her voice work in Saturday morning cartoons) as Tabatha and Bruce Kimmel as Adam. Strangely enough, both were portrayed as adults, which was impossible given Bewitched's continuity (Tabitha was born in 1966 and Adam in 1969). The pilot did preserve the continuity of making Tabatha a witch and Adam a warlock.  No explanation was given for how Tabatha and Adam had aged so quickly. ABC rejected this particular pilot and went forward with new pilot, this time with the spelling Tabitha that was used for the majority of Bewitched's run.

In the new pilot the role of Tabitha Stephens was played by Lisa Hartman and the role of Adam Stephens was played by David Akrum. This pilot, like the series that followed it, also ignored the continuity of the original series by making both Tabitha and Adam adults.  It further ignored the continuity of the original series by making Adam a mortal and making Adam the older sibling.  ABC bought this series and it debuted on 10 September 1977.

Given the level of discontinuity with Bewitched, it is perhaps surprising that characters from the original show actually appeared on Tabitha. Bernard Fox guest starred as Dr. Bombay in the episodes "Tabitha's Weighty Problem" and "Halloween Party". George Tobias and Sandra Gould reprised their roles as Abner and Gladys Kravitz in the episode "Arrival of Nancy". Dick Wilson, who appeared frequently on Bewitched as a drunk, also guest starred in two episodes. Elizabeth Montgomery was asked to make an appearance as Samantha, but she declined to do so. She later noted that she received a good deal of mail from fans who were outraged at Tabitha's discontinuities with Bewitched.

Tabitha would ultimately last only about a season. Ratings for the show were good at first, but swiftly dropped. The show was also moved from its Saturday night time slot to Friday night time slot in January 1977, and scheduled erratically throughout its run. Between alienating fans of Bewitched with its lack of continuity with the original series and erratic scheduling on the part of ABC, it would seem Tabitha was doomed from the start.

Bewitched would cross over with another television show many years after it had left the air. In 1999 and 2000 Bernard Fox guest starred as Dr. Bombay on two episodes of the supernatural soap opera Passions. The Naughts would also see Bewitched being remade in several countries around the world. In 2002  Meri Biwi Wonderful aired in India. In 2004 the Tokyo Broadcasting System aired Okusama wa majo, a Japanese remake of the show. In 2007 Telefé in Argentina broadcast their own version of Bewitched, entitled Hechizada (they even adapted scripts from the original show to a modern day, Argentinean setting).  In 2008 the BBC made a pilot for a British version of Bewitched, but it never became a series. In 2009 TV3 in Russia aired their own remake of Bewitched, Moya lyobimaya vyedʲma, with several episodes based on those of the original show.

The year 2005 saw the release of Bewitched, a film inspired by the television show. The film is not an adaptation of the TV show, but instead centres on a famous actor (Will Ferrell) who is cast in the role of Darrin in a remake of Bewitched opposite an unknown actress (Nicole Kidman) as Samantha who turns out to be an actual witch. The film received largely bad reviews and did poorly at the box office.

Despite its success, I have always thought that in some ways Bewitched has never quite gotten the respect it deserves. Because of its premise, many dismiss it as a bit of fantastic fluff, much like some of the other imaginative comedies of the Sixties. In reality, however, Bewitched was actually a very sophisticated show.  It was very well written and its cast (one of the best in Sixties television) consistently gave good performances. At its heart Bewitched was a romantic comedy that centred on the travails of a married couple, albeit an unusual one. At the same time, however, Bewitched was capable of addressing serious issues that might have been off limits if not for not for its fantastic premise. Bewitched tackled such issues as bigotry, capitalism, and feminism. Of course, it can also be pointed out that its premise essentially centred on a "mixed" marriage. It is perhaps for these reasons that Bewitched is still being rerun today, nearly fifty years after its debut. A sophisticated romantic comedy that at times addressed the issues of the day, Bewitched is essentially timeless. 

3 comments:

Citizen Screen said...

FANTASTIC!!!

Aurora

Bill O said...

Should be mentioned that Bewitched, like Bell Book And Candle, presents its witches.warlocks as gay allegories-they're freer. nore creative, more colorful than the mortals/straights.And in Bewiched, protrayed mostly by gay actors. Ironically, that's one of the reasons Sargent was rejected. Audiences, rather than be confused, sensed his lack of passion.

Tom Sax said...

I live in Brasil where Bewitched was a big sucess in those day and very important to improve my criativity. I work in advertising, of course.Love it forever