While rarely playing leads in films, Moorehead's skill at character development and range earned her one Primetime Emmy Award and twoGolden Globe awards in addition to four Academy Award and six Emmy Award nominations. Moorehead's transition to television won acclaim for drama and comedy. She could play many different types, but often portrayed haughty, arrogant characters.
Moorehead was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts but raised in Clinton, Massachusetts (even though her birth certificate says Clinton, Ma, Miss Moorehead often said that she was actually born in Cambridge, Ma), of English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh ancestry, to a Presbyterian clergyman, John Henderson Moorehead, and his wife, the former Mildred McCauley, who had been a singer. Moorehead later shaved six years off her age by claiming to have been born in 1906.
Moorehead recalled her first public performance was at the age of three, reciting "The Lord's Prayer" in her father's church. The family moved to St. Louis, Missouri, and Moorehead's ambition to become an actress grew "very strong". Her mother indulged her active imagination often asking, "Who are you today, Agnes?", while Moorehead and her sister would often engage in mimicry, often coming to the dinner table and imitating parishioners. Moorehead noted and was encouraged by her father's amused reactions. She joined the chorus of the St. Louis Municipal Opera Company, known as "The Muny". In addition to her interest in acting, she developed a lifelong interest in religion; in later years actors such as Dick Sargent would recall Moorehead arriving on the set with "the Bible in one hand and the script in the other".
Moorehead graduated from Central High School in St. Louis in 1918. Although her father did not discourage Moorehead's acting ambitions, he insisted that she obtain a formal education. In 1923, Moorehead earned a bachelor's degree, with a major in biology, from Muskingum College in New Concord, Ohio, and while there she also appeared in college stage plays. She later received an honorary doctorate in literature from Muskingum, and served for a year on its board of trustees. When her family moved to Reedsburg, Wisconsin, she taught public school for five years in Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin, while she also earned a master's degree in English and public speaking at the University of Wisconsin (now University of Wisconsin–Madison). She then pursued post-graduate studies at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, from which she graduated with honors in 1929. Moorehead received an honorary doctoral degree from Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois.
Moorehead's early career was unsteady, and although she was able to find stage work she was often unemployed and forced to go hungry. She later recalled going four days without food, and said that it had taught her "the value of a dollar." She found work in radio and was soon in demand, often working on several programs in a single day. She believed that it offered her excellent training and allowed her to develop her voice to create a variety of characterizations. Moorehead met the actress Helen Hayes who encouraged her to try to enter films, but her first attempts were met with failure. Rejected as not being "the right type", Moorehead returned to radio.
Moorehead met Orson Welles and by 1937 was one of his principal Mercury Players, along with Joseph Cotten. She performed in his The Mercury Theatre on the Air radio adaptations, and had a regular role opposite Welles in the serial The Shadow as Margo. In 1939, Welles moved the Mercury Theatre to Hollywood, where he started working for RKO Pictures. Several of his radio performers joined him, and Moorehead made her film debut as his mother in Citizen Kane (1941), considered one of the best films ever made. She also appeared in his films Journey Into Fear (1943), based on a novel by Eric Ambler, and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), based on a novel by Booth Tarkington. She received aNew York Film Critics Award and an Academy Award nomination for her performance in the latter film. Moorehead received positive reviews for her performance in Mrs. Parkington, as well as the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress and an Academy Award nomination.
Moorehead played another strong role in The Big Street (1942) with Henry Fonda and Lucille Ball, and then appeared in two films that failed to find an audience, Government Girl (1943) with Olivia de Havilland and The Youngest Profession (1944) with the adolescent Virginia Weidler.
By the mid-1940s, Moorehead joined MGM, negotiating a $6,000-a-week contract with the provision to perform also on radio, an unusual clause at the time. Moorehead explained that MGM usually refused to allow their actors to play on radio as "the actors didn't have the knowledge or the taste of the judgment to appear on the right sort of show." In 1943–1944, Moorehead portrayed "matronly housekeeper Mrs. Mullet", who was constantly offering her "candied opinion", in Mutual Radio's The Adventures of Leonidas Witherall; she inaugurated the role on CBS Radio.
Moorehead skillfully portrayed puritanical matrons, neurotic spinsters, possessive mothers, and comical secretaries throughout her career. She played Parthy Hawks, wife of Cap'n Andy and mother of Magnolia, in MGM's hit 1951 remake of Show Boat. She was in many important films, including Dark Passage and Since You Went Away, either playing key small or large supporting parts. Moorehead was in Broadway productions of Don Juan in Hell in 1951–1952, and Lord Pengo in 1962–1963.
During the 1940s and 1950s, Moorehead was one of the most in demand actresses for radio dramas, especially on the CBS show Suspense. During the 946 episodes run of Suspense, Moorehead was cast in more episodes than any other actor or actress. She was often introduced on the show as the "first lady of Suspense". Moorehead's most successful appearance on Suspense was in the legendary play Sorry, Wrong Number, written by Lucille Fletcher, broadcast on May 18, 1943. Moorehead played a selfish, neurotic woman who overhears a murder being plotted via crossed phone wires who eventually realizes she is the intended victim. She recreated the performance six times for Suspense and several times on other radio shows, always using her original, dog-eared script. In 1952, she recorded an album of the drama, and performed scenes from the story in her one-woman show in the 1950s. Barbara Stanwyck had played the role in the 1948 film version. "Detective Story" was an old time radio series that was later renamed "The Shadow" in which Moorehead played the part of Margot Lane from 1937 - 1939. The show always began with this memorable line, "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!"
In the 1950s, Moorehead continued to work in films and to appear on stage across the country, including a national tour of Shaw's Don Juan in Hell, co-starring Charles Boyer, Charles Laughton, and Cedric Hardwicke.
Sorry, Wrong Number also inspired writers of the CBS television series The Twilight Zone to script an episode with Moorehead in mind. In "The Invaders" (broadcast 27 January 1961) Moorehead played a woman whose isolated farm is plagued by mysterious intruders. In "Sorry, Wrong Number" Moorehead offered a famed, bravura performance using only her voice, and for "The Invaders" she was offered a script where she had no dialogue at all.
She appeared as the hypochondriac Mrs. Snow in Disney's 1960 hit film Pollyanna. Alongside Bette Davis, Olivia De Havilland, Mary Astor and Joseph Cotten, she starred in Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), as the murdered maid, Velma, a role for which she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award.
In 1959, Moorehead was cast as a town matriarch, Mrs. Martha Lassiter, in the episode "In Memoriam" of the ABC western series, The Rebel, starring Nick Adams. In the story line, Lassiter's son, Phillip, was killed in the American Civil War four years earlier. The Rebel knew her son and presents his mother a medallion that the son had placed in The Rebel's custody. Mrs. Lassister offers The Rebel a job, but he decides to continue his roaming. The episode also stars Madlyn Rhue and Bob Steele.
In the 1960–1961 season, Moorehead made two guest appearances as Aunt Harriet in the short-lived CBS sitcom, My Sister Eileen, starring Shirley Bonne and Elaine Stritch as Eileen (an aspiring actress) and Ruth Sherwood, respectively, two single sisters living together in New York City. That same season, she appeared in Pat O'Brien's ABC sitcom Harrigan and Son. She starred as a nun in the western TV series, Rawhide episode, "Incident of the Challenge", (1960).
In 1961 in Season 2, Episode 51 of The Twilight Zone, "The Invaders", Moorehead played a woman living in isolation who is terrorized by space aliens.
In the 1963–1964 season, she appeared in an episode of the ABC series about college life, Channing. In 1967, she portrayed an Indian named Watoma on the ABC military-western series Custer with Wayne Maunder in the title role.
She appeared as the nosy do-gooder "Miss Bertie" in the show The Rifleman.
Moorehead with Elizabeth Montgomery and Dick York from Bewitched (1964).
In 1964, Moorehead accepted the role of Endora, in the situation comedy Bewitched. She later commented that she had not expected it to succeed and that she ultimately felt trapped by its success. However, she had negotiated to appear in only eight of every 12 episodes made, therefore allowing her sufficient time to pursue other projects. She also felt that the television writing was often below standard and dismissed many of the Bewitched scripts as "hack" in a 1965 interview. The role brought her a level of recognition that she had not received before as Bewitched was in the top 10 programs for the first few years it screened.
Moorehead received six Emmy Award nominations, but was quick to remind interviewers that she had enjoyed a long and distinguished career. Despite her ambivalence, she remained with Bewitched until its run ended in 1972. She commented to the New York Times in 1974, "I've been in movies and played theater from coast to coast, so I was quite well known before Bewitched, and I don't particularly want to be identified as a witch." Later that year she said that she had enjoyed playing the role, but that it was not challenging and the show itself was "not breathtaking" although her flamboyant and colorful character appealed to children. She expressed a fondness for the show's star, Elizabeth Montgomery, and said that she had enjoyed working with her. Co-star Dick Sargent, who in 1969 replaced the ill Dick York as Samantha's husband, Darrin Stephens, had a more difficult relationship with Moorehead, caustically describing her as "a tough old bird."
In 1970, Moorehead appeared as a dying woman who haunts her own house in the early Night Gallery episode "Certain Shadows on the Wall." She also reprised her role in "Don Juan in Hell" on Broadway and on tour, in an all-star cast which also featured Edward Mulhare.
Moorehead also memorably supplied the voice of the friendly mother Goose in Hanna-Barbera's 1973 adaption of the E. B. Whitechildren's book Charlotte's Web
In the 1974 Broadway version of Gigi, Moorehead portrayed Aunt Alicia, in which she recorded the song, 'The Contract.' She fell ill during the production and was so sick that she had to quit and let Arlene Francis take her place. She died shortly after.
In January 1974, three months before her death, Moorehead performed in two episodes (including the very first) of CBS Radio Mystery Theater, the popular series produced by old-time radio master Himan Brown.
Moorehead married actor John Griffith Lee in 1930; they divorced in 1952. In 1954, she married actor Robert Gist; they divorced in 1958. Moorehead did not have any children.
Moorehead was a devout Presbyterian as she grew older, and, in interviews, often spoke of her relationship with God. In one of her last films, What's the Matter with Helen? (1971), she played an evangelist. Shortly before her death, Moorehead sought Christian causes to benefit after her death through her estate.
Moorehead died of uterine cancer on April 30, 1974, in Rochester, Minnesota. Her mother, Mary M. Moorehead (August 25, 1883 – June 8, 1990), survived her by 16 years, dying at the age of 106 in 1990.
Moorehead appeared in the movie The Conqueror (1956), which was shot near St. George, Utah – downwind from the Yucca Flat, Nevada nuclear test site. She was one of over 90 (of 220) cast and crew members — including co-stars Susan Hayward, John Wayne, and Pedro Armendariz, as well as director-producer Dick Powell – who, over their lifetimes, all developed cancer(s); at least 46 from the cast and crew have since died from cancer(s), including all of those named above. No bombs were tested during the actual filming of The Conqueror, but 11 explosions occurred the year before. Two of them were particularly "dirty", depositing long-lasting radiation over the area. The 51.5-kiloton shot code-named "Simon" was fired on April 25, 1953, and the 32.4-kiloton blast "Harry" went off May 19. (In contrast, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was 13 kilotons.) "Fallout was very abundant more than a year after Harry", said Robert C. Pendleton, a former AEC researcher. "Some of the isotopes, such as strontium 90 and cesium 137, would not have diminished much." Pendleton points out that radioactivity can concentrate in "hot spots" such as the rolling dunes of Snow Canyon, a natural reservoir for windblown material. It was the place where much of The Conqueror was filmed. Pendleton also notes that radioactive substances enter the food chain. By eating local meat and produce, the Conqueror cast and crew were increasing their risk. Pendleton, director of radiological health at the University of Utah, stated, "With these numbers, this case could qualify as an epidemic. The connection between fallout radiation and cancer in individual cases has been practically impossible to prove conclusively. But in a group this size you'd expect only 30-some cancers to develop. With 91, I think the tie-in to their exposure on the set of The Conqueror would hold up even in a court of law."
Moorehead was one of the first members of the company to make a connection between the film and the fallout. Her close friend Sandra Gould, who was featured with her on Bewitched, recalls that long before Moorehead developed the uterine cancer that killed her in 1974, she recounted rumors of "some radioactive germs" on location in Utah, observing: "Everybody in that picture has gotten cancer and died." As she was dying, she reportedly said: "I should never have taken that part."
Moorehead is entombed at Dayton Memorial Park in Dayton, Ohio.
Moorehead bequeathed her 1967 Primetime Emmy Award statue for The Wild Wild West, her private papers, and her home in Rix Mills, Ohio, to her alma mater, Muskingum College. She left her family's Ohio estate and farmlands, Moorehead Manor, to Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina, as well as some biblical studies books from her personal library. Her will stipulated that BJU should use the farm for retreats and special meetings "with a Christian emphasis", but the distance of the estate from the South Carolina campus rendered it mostly useless. In May 1976, BJU traded the Moorehead farmlands with an Ohio college for $25,000 and a collection of her library books. Moorehead also left her professional papers, scripts, Christmas cards and scrapbooks to the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research at the Wisconsin Historical Society.
In 1994, Moorehead was posthumously inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame. The Touchdown Tavern in Reedsburg, Wisconsin, opened the Agnes Moorehead Lounge, exhibiting memorabilia.