Elizabeth Montgomery was an American film, stage, and television actress whose career has spanned five decades. She is possibly best remembered for her roles as Samantha Stephens on the 1970s television series "Bewitched" and her 1975 portrayal of Lizzie Borden in "The Legend of Lizzie Borden," the first known portrayal of the accused murderess.
The daughter of actor Robert Montgomery, she was born Elizabeth Victoria Montgomery on April 15, 1933 in Los Angeles, California to film star Robert Montgomery and Broadway actress Elizabeth Daniel Bryan, a native of Kentucky. She had an older sister, Martha Bryan Montgomery, who died as an infant and a younger brother, Robert Montgomery, Jr. Born of Irish and Scottish descent, Montgomery had a great-grandfather, Archibald Montgomery, who was born in Belfast and emigrated to the United States in 1849. Genealogical research conducted after Montgomery's death has also revealed that Montgomery and accused 19th-century murderer Lizzie Borden were sixth cousins once removed, both descending from 17th-century Massachusetts resident John Luther. Montgomery later went on to portray Borden in a made-for-tv movie in 1972, not knowing of their familar relationship.
Montgomery attended Westlake School for Girls in Holmby Hills, California and graduated from Spence School in New York City. For three years, she attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and began her career in the 1950s on her father's television series, "Robert Montgomery Presents" as a member of his "summer stock" company of performers. She made her Broadway debut in October 1953, starring in the play, "Late Love," for which she won a Theater World Award for her performance. Shortly after the movie, she married her first husband, New York socialite Frederick Gallatin Cammann, but the couple divorced less than a year later before her film debut in "The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell" in 1955 She returned to Broadway in 1956 and appearing in "The Loud Red Patrick." In 1956, she married Academy Award-winning actor Gig Young, but they divorced in 1963.
Much of Montgomery's early career consisted of starring roles and appearances in live television dramas and series, such as "Studio One," "Kraft Television Theater," "Johnny Staccato," "Burke's Law," "The Twilight Zone," "The Eleventh Hour," "Wagon Train," "Boris Karloff's Thriller" and "Alfred Hitchcock Presents." In 1960, Montgomery was nominated for an Emmy Award for a role in "The Untouchables" opposite her future "Bewitched" co-star David White.
After her divorce to Young, she married director/producer William Asher, her director on the movie "Johnny Cool." She went on to star in the film comedy, "Who's Been Sleeping in My Bed?" with Dean Martin and Carol Burnett, this time directed by Daniel Mann. After an appearance on "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," Hitchcock considered her for a role in "Marnie," but she was unavailable.
In 1964, both Montgomery and Asher developed her most iconic role yet, that of the earthbound witch Samantha Stephens on the long-running TV series, "Bewitched." Based on the films, "I Married A Witch" and "Bell, Book and Candle," she also developed the character of Samantha's mischievous cousin, Serena, under the pseudonym Pandora Spocks (a pun on Pandora's Box) for the show. It became a ratings success and aired for eight seasons from 1964 to 1972, having possibly the highest turnover in actors for a single TV series. The most notorious was when Dick York, who played Elizabeth's on-screen husband, left the show over medical reasons and was replaced with Dick Sargent. Elizabeth and William Asher had three children during the run of the series, William Asher, Jr. (b. 1964), Robert Asher (b. 1965) and Rebecca Asher (b. 1969), the latter two pregnancies were incorporated into "Bewitched" as Samantha's pregnancies with Tabitha and Adam Stephens. However, Montgomery's marriage to Asher started to wane, and the couple had separated by the end of the eighth season. She eventually fell in love with director Richard Michaels, and their resulting affair ended both their respective marriages and the series as well. They moved in together at the end of shooting in 1972; their relationship lasting only two and a half years.
During "Bewitched," Montgomery made appearances as Samantha at the end of the 1965 beach party film "How to Stuff a Wild Bikini," directed by William Asher, and for an episode of the animated series "The Flintstones." For the character, she received five Emmies and four Golden Globe nominations. She replicated Samantha's nose twitching and on-screen magic in a series of Japanese television commercials for "Mother" chocolate biscuits and cookies by confectionery conglomerate Lotte Corp between 1980 and 1983. These Japanese commercials provided a substantial salary for Montgomery while she remained out of sight of non-Japanese fans and the Hollywood industry. Unfortunately, the role typecast her as a comedy actress and she started pursuing dramatic roles to overcome her TV persona. She played a rape victim in 'A Case of Rape" in 1974 and acquitted murderer Lizzie Borden in William Bast's 'The Legend of Lizzie Borden" the following year, both roles gernered her Emmy awards. Several years later in the Late 90s, geneaologist Rhonda McClure documented the Montgomery–Borden connection after Montgomery's death which revealed that Montgomery was Borden's distant cousin and remarked, "I wonder how Elizabeth would have felt if she knew she was playing her own cousin."
During her life, Montgomery was personally devoted to liberal political beliefs and lent her name, time and money to a wide variety of charitable and political causes. She had progressive political views and was an outspoken champion of women's rights, AIDS activism, and gay rights. She was also pro-choice throughout her life and an ardent critic of the Vietnam War. In later years, she was an active advocate for AIDS research and outreach to the disabled community. In June 1992, she joined her close friend and former "Bewitched" co-star Dick Sargent as Grand Marshals at the Los Angeles Gay Pride Parade.
Through her career, Montgomery made numerous TV appearances on the game show "Password" between movie roles. She earned another Emmy nomination for her role in the miniseries "The Awakening Land" in 1978. She returned to Broadway one last time in 1989 in a production of "Love Letters," opposite Robert Foxworth, with whom she had been living together for over twenty years. They later married on January 28, 1993. Her later movies included "A Killing Affair" with O. J. Simpson, "Amos" and a series of TV movies based on the highly rated Edna Buchanan detective series, the second and final film of the series received its first airing on May 9, 1995, only nine days before Montgomery died.
During the last year of her life, Montgomery was a volunteer for the Los Angeles Unit of Learning Ally, a nonprofit organization that recorded educational books on specially formatted CDs and in downloadable formats for disabled people. In 1994, she produced several radio and television public-service announcements for the organization's Los Angeles Unit. In January 1995, she recorded the 1952 edition of the best-selling book of poetry titled When We Were Very Young by A. A. Milne for Learning Ally. Having struggled with colon cancer for many years, she learned that the cancer had returned in Spring 1995. She ignored the influenza-like symptoms during the filming of "Deadline for Murder: From the Files of Edna Buchanan," which she finished filming in late March 1995, but by the time the cancer was diagnosed, it had spread to her liver and it was too late for medical intervention. With no hope of recovery and unwilling to die in a hospital, she chose to return to the Beverly Hills home that she shared with Foxworth. Early on the morning of May 18, 1995, Montgomery died at home at the age of 62, eight weeks after her diagnosis.
Her memorial service was held at the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills on June 18, 1995 and was attended by her closest friends and family. Her remains were cremated at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery. The Los Angeles Unit of Learning Ally dedicated the 1995 Record-A-Thon to Montgomery and secured twenty-one celebrities to assist in the reading of the book titled "Chicken Soup for the Soul," which was also dedicated to her memory.
Following her death in 1995, her 794-acre estate in Patterson, Putnam County, New York was sold to New York State and became Wonder Lake State Park, later expanded and fully opened to the public; as of 2015, it contains over eight miles of walking trails on more than a thousand acres of land. On April 19, 1998, an auction and sale of Montgomery's clothing was held by her family to benefit the AIDS Healthcare Foundation of Los Angeles. Erin Murphy, who played Tabitha on "Bewitched" modeled the clothing that was auctioned.
In June 2005, a bronze statue of Montgomery as Samantha Stephens was erected in Salem, Massachusetts. A star on The Hollywood Walk of Fame was presented in honor of Montgomery's work in television on January 4, 2008 at 6533 Hollywood Boulevard.