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People Top 5
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- June 05, 1995
- Vol. 43
- No. 22
That Magic Feeling
Stricken with Cancer, Elizabeth Montgomery Faced Death with the Same Dignity She Displayed Throughout a Career That Bewitched Us All
Rebecca was the one most often at her mother's bedside, comforting her between periods of fitful sleep. Foxworth describes those last days as "loving and intense." At one point, Montgomery joked that she wanted piña coladas poured into her IV Another time, she was feeling energetic enough to cheer on the New York Knicks during a televised basketball game. "But she knew she was losing the battle," says Asher, who remained close to Montgomery after their 1974 divorce. He now lives in Palm Springs but was in Los Angeles in those final days.
In the early morning hours of May 18, Montgomery was alone in her bedroom, dying. Foxworth was waiting quietly in the living room with her children, as Montgomery had requested. "She didn't want anyone to see her that way," says Asher. "Then she slipped away." There was no funeral, and the body was cremated (as yet, the family has not made a decision about a memorial).
The cancer was diagnosed just eight weeks ago, shortly after Montgomery finished production on her last TV movie, CBS's Deadline for Murder. While filming Murder—her second turn as Miami crime reporter Edna Buchanan—in March, Montgomery suffered from what she assumed were symptoms of a hard-to-shake flu. She was losing weight and feeling tired. But the only concession she made to her illness was to rest in her trailer between shots. "Otherwise, she was out there, rooting the crew on," says producer Bob Sertner. "She never complained."
Away from the set, Montgomery was busy nursing Foxworth, who had recently undergone hip-replacement surgery. "She was very strong and confident, where I was rather apprehensive," says Foxworth. "And she was there for me when I first tried getting up on crutches."
As soon as shooting was completed, Montgomery checked into Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Her mood, says ex-husband Asher, was upbeat but nervous. Exploratory surgery brought the devastating diagnosis: colon cancer. "First she was shocked," says Asher. "Then she was angry." Too weak for radiation therapy, she was sent home. Within four days, though, she was back in the hospital, feeling far worse. A second round of surgery revealed that the disease had spread and that all hope was gone. Frustrated and depressed, says Asher, "Lizzie said she wanted to go home. And that was her final acceptance."
Her quiet death was in keeping with the dignified life of a woman who found fame as Samantha Stephens, a blithe, blonde witch determined to be the perfect wife to a sputteringly flustered adman named Darrin—played, with varying degrees of spleen, by Dick York and then Dick Sargent. The daughter of movie star Robert Montgomery and stage actress Elizabeth Allen, Montgomery had firm notions about how Hollywood royalty should behave. That meant keeping her personal life far from the limelight. Although she never stopped acting—"She loved working more than almost anything," says Foxworth—she hadn't given an interview in 20 years. "There was no Hollywood b.s. about her," says her manager Barry Krost. "She was born here, she'd seen it all, and she knew how to dodge the arrows." According to Foxworth, "She was shy. She didn't like to have to run the gauntlet of photographers." It was only after her death that Krost disclosed publicly that she and Foxworth had been secretly married in Krost's L.A. apartment in 1993 after living together for nearly two decades. "We knew we were going to spend the rest of our lives together," says Foxworth. "And there was something comforting and unifying about marriage."
Montgomery grew up in a Beverly Hills mansion with her younger brother, Robert, now a retired stockbroker. Their neighbors included Bette Davis. ("Lizzie," as her family called her, later remembered baking cakes for Davis.) After her parents' divorce in 1950, she moved to New York City with her father and attended the exclusive Spence School before dropping out to study acting at Manhattan's American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Montgomery, who had made her theatrical debut at 5, as Red Riding Hood's Wolf in a French-language production at Westlake School in L.A., was soon playing ingenues on Broadway.
Her father was producer, director and occasional star of NBC's live omnibus-drama series Robert Montgomery Presents. Elizabeth made her television debut on his show in 1951, playing his daughter in a spy story. In her off-hours she partied with a crowd that included composer Stephen Sondheim and director Hal Prince. "We were bright young things, and she was hilarious, madcap," says writer Dominick Dunne, then stage manager for her father's show. "She always wanted to be a star, and she got it."
Having a famous father helped, of course, but the elder Montgomery could be a tough critic, sending her curt, disapproving notes after performances he didn't like. But when she once suggested, idly, that maybe she should change her name, she recalled, "my father gave me a real pathetic look and said to me, 'You ashamed?' " In fact, she regarded him ultimately as an inspiration. "Like Daddy," she said, "I try to be neat, concise in my work—and in anything else, for that matter."
Her love life was not so orderly. In 1954 she married blue-blooded New Yorker Fred Cammann, a descendant of Albert Gallatin, Thomas Jefferson's Secretary of the Treasury. Because he had married an actress, Cammann was expelled from the Social Register. "I saw a headline about it," says Cammann, now a tree farmer in Bridgehampton, N.Y., "and brought it home to her. We thought it was hysterical."
Within a year the marriage failed—amicably, says Cammann. "She thought her career demanded that she head back to Hollywood," he says, "and I didn't see how I could fit in out there." In 1957, Montgomery married her second husband, actor Gig Young. Even then, she was reticent about sharing details of her personal life. In 1963 a reporter asked Montgomery if there was any truth to the rumor that she and Young were splitting. She laughingly admitted that they had squabbled and that she'd even thrown a statue against the wall, but the union, she said, was just fine. The next day she flew to Mexico and obtained a quickie divorce.
In those years, Montgomery was making hundreds of television appearances—"I guess I am a TV baby," she said—and earned the first of nine Emmy nominations (none of which led to an Emmy) as a gun moll on The Untouchables in 1961. She also starred in the not-very-successful feature films Who's Been Sleeping in My Bed, a roil mantic comedy with Dean Martin, and Johnny Cool, a gangster tale with Sammy Davis Jr.
It was on the set of Johnny Cool, in 1963, that she met Asher, who later directed Beach Blanket Bingo and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini. After they married that same year, Elizabeth told him she wanted to give up acting and concentrate on raising a family. "But I felt that she was too good," says Asher. "So I came up with the idea that we could work on something together." They picked Bewitched as her first TV series.
The show turned out to be just right for a mother and actress. When it began taping in July 1964, Montgomery had just given birth to William Jr. As Montgomery recuperated, the crew began taping episodes, minus shots including Montgomery. Then, a month later, she showed up on the set. The first completed episode aired days later.
The births of her other children, Robert and Rebecca, were also blended into the production schedule. (When Samantha was pregnant with her TV son Adam in 1969, Montgomery was pregnant with Rebecca.) She was ever "the consummate professional," recalls Saundra Gould, who took over as nosy Gladys Kravitz when actress Alice Pearce died in 1966. "Other actors would retire to their dressing room when their scenes are done. But not Elizabeth. She would stay and feed the other actors their lines."
Montgomery worked even harder to make sure her kids led normal lives. "She didn't want them to have any distortions," says Asher. She sent them to public elementary school. She insisted that they be in bed by 9—which meant that they didn't get to watch Bewitched in the early years. And, an avid watercolorist, she taught them to draw. "She was a working mom when it wasn't in style to be one," says Erin Murphy, who with her twin sister, Diane, played Samantha's daughter Tabitha.
All of this Montgomery accomplished without resorting to Samantha's equivalent of the magic wand, the nose twitch seen 'round the world. That signature bit of business was actually one of the few private details that Montgomery ever shared with the public. "She used to twitch her nose when she was frustrated," says Asher. (The sound effect—twickle, twickle—was created by a xylophone.)
Montgomery owned 20 percent of Bewitched and made millions in its first run and residuals. The show, now enjoying renewed popularity on Nick at Nite, went off the air in 1972, and the magic went out of Montgomery's marriage to Asher a few years later. After their divorce the couple shared custody of the children. "Divorce is not as big a bugaboo as it was years ago," Montgomery said at the time. "And if it's handled openly and honestly, especially if there are children involved, which there were with Bill and me, I think it's fine."
By then, Montgomery was embarking on the second phase of her career, as the doyenne of TV movies. "She wanted to get beyond Samantha," says Asher. In fact, one wall of a hallway of her home was lined with photos of her TV movie roles—she played everyone from Lizzie Borden to Belle Starr and made a specialty of psychopathic matrons—but none from Bewitched. "She always chose roles that challenged her and surprised the audience," says Foxworth. And she tended to like movies with a provocative message. A Case of Rape (1974), about a middle-class housewife's emotional ordeal in trying to bring her rapist to trial, was unusually frank for its time.
Montgomery met Fox worth, who played wine merchant Chase Gioberti on Falcon Crest, on the set of her 1974 movie Mrs. Sundance. They moved in together the following year, and she loved to spend time at home cooking and gardening. "For all her grace and glamor," he says, "when it came to gardening, she'd get out there and it was dirty-fingernail time." If she came across a dish she liked in a restaurant, she'd try to piece together the recipe in her own kitchen. "Lots of times," says Foxworth, "she made it even better." She also loved to handicap the horse races. "She'd been going to the track since she was a kid," says manager Krost. "I wish I had a commission on her winnings."
Though Montgomery and Foxworth mostly kept to themselves, they were happy to use their celebrity clout to back favorite liberal causes. Critical of Reagan-Bush policies in Central America, Montgomery narrated the 1988 documentary Coverup: Behind the Iran-Contra Affair and The Panama Deception, which won an Oscar in 1993. Barbara Trent, who directed both movies, recalls that when she needed the actress to redo some narration for Iran-Contra, "we were too embarrassed to ask her to come back into our little Santa Monica studio, where the temperatures sometimes went up to 80 degrees. But Elizabeth said, 'I think it's important.' Once she made a commitment, she saw it through."
She worked with AIDS Project Los Angeles and AmFAR, the American Foundation for AIDS Research. And she was publicly supportive of Dick Sargent when he announced his homosexuality in 1991. (His Darrin predecessor, Dick York, died in 1992 of emphysema; Sargent died of prostate cancer last year.) Montgomery even served with Sargent as grand marshal of a 1992 gay-pride parade in L.A. "You wouldn't see her at parties," says publicist Howard Bragman, "but you would always see her at benefits."
She was a star without a star attitude, says Edna Buchanan, who befriended the actress during the filming of the 1992 TV movie The Corpse Had a Familiar Face. One night they were dining together, Buchanan remembers, and everyone from the busboy to the maitre d' greeted Montgomery and asked her how she was doing. She in turn asked all of them about their friends and families. "Elizabeth just acted like a terrific, friendly, wonderful, buoyant person," says Buchanan. The magic didn't end with Samantha.
BETTY CORTINA, LOIS ARMSTRONG and DANELLE MORTON in Los Angeles
- Betty Cortina,
- Lois Armstrong,
- Danelle Morton.
September 28, 2016
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