Moorehead rarely played lead roles, but her skill at character development and range earned her one Primetime Emmy Award and two Golden 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 December 6, 1900, in Clinton, Massachusetts to former singer Mildred (née McCauley; 1883 – 1990) and Presbyterian clergyman John Henderson Moorehead (1869 – 1938). She was of English, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh ancestry. Moorehead would later claim that she was born in 1906 in order to appear younger for acting parts. She recalled that she made her first public performance at the age of three, when she recited 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's arriving on the set with "the Bible in one hand and the script in the other".
Moorehead always said that she graduated from Central High School in St. Louis in 1918. However, she appears in no Central High School yearbook while she does appear in the yearbook of Soldan High School. She lived near Soldan High School, on Union Boulevard; she did not live near Central High School on Grand Avenue and Bell.
Although her father did not discourage her acting ambitions, he insisted that she obtain a formal education. Moorehead earned a bachelor's degree in 1923, majoring in biology at Muskingum College in New Concord, Ohio. 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 postgraduate 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. 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 actress Helen Hayes, who encouraged her to enter films, but her first attempts were met with failure. When she was rejected as not being "the right type", Moorehead returned to radio.
Moorehead met Orson Welles, and by 1937 she 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 Lane. 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 the mother of his own character, Charles Foster Kane, in Citizen Kane (1941), which is considered one of the best films ever made. Moorehead was featured in Welles's second film, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), and received the New York Film Critics Award and an Academy Award nomination for her performance. She also appeared in Journey Into Fear (1943), a Mercury film production.
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 adolescent Virginia Weidler.
By the mid-1940s, Moorehead became a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer contract player, 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 or 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.
Throughout her career, Moorehead skillfully portrayed puritanical matrons, neurotic spinsters, possessive mothers, and comical secretaries. She played Parthy Hawks, wife of Cap'n Andy and mother of Magnolia, in MGM's hit 1951 remake of Show Boat. She also was in Dark Passage and Since You Went Away. Moorehead was in Broadway productions of Don Juan in Hell in 1951–1952, and Lord Pengo in 1962–1963.
In her first radio role, Moorehead appeared as a replacement for Dorothy Denvir's role as Min Gump in The Gumps. 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-episode-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 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 and 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 played the role in the 1948 film version.
In 1941, Moorehead played Maggie in the short-lived Bringing Up Father program on the Blue Network. From 1942 to 1949, Moorehead played the role of the mayor's housekeeper in the radio version of Mayor of the Town. She also starred in The Amazing Mrs. Danberry, a situation comedy on CBS in 1946. Moorehead's title character was described as "the lively widow of a department store owner who has a tongue as sharp as a hatpin and a heart as warm as summer." Moorehead played one of her last roles on January 6, 1974, as Mrs. Ada Canby in the inaugural episode of CBS Radio Mystery Theater.
In the 1950s, Moorehead continued to work in films and appeared on stage across the country. Her roles included a national tour of Shaw's Don Juan in Hell, co-starring Charles Boyer, Charles Laughton, and Cedric Hardwicke, and the pre-Broadway engagements of the new musical The Pink Jungle. She appeared as the hypochondriac Mrs. Snow in Disney's hit film Pollyanna (1960). She starred with Bette Davis, Olivia De Havilland, Mary Astor, and Joseph Cotten in Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) as the maid Velma, a role for which she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award.
In 1959, Moorehead guest starred on The Rebel. Her role in the radio play Sorry, Wrong Number inspired writers of the CBS television series The Twilight Zone to script an episode with Moorehead in mind. In "The Invaders" (broadcast January 27, 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.
Moorehead also had guest roles on Channing, Custer, Rawhide in "Incident at Poco Tiempo" as Sister Frances, and The Rifleman. On February 10, 1967, she portrayed Miss Emma Valentine in "The Night of the Vicious Valentine" on The Wild Wild West, a performance for which she won a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series.
In 1964, Moorehead accepted the role of Endora, Samantha's (Elizabeth Montgomery) mortal-loathing, quick-witted witch mother 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 for TV Guide. 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 aired.
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 she had enjoyed playing the role, but 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 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 fall 1964, Moorehead participated in a five-minute commercial spot featuring casts of both Bonanza and Bewitched, announcing the new 1965 Chevrolet line. Moorehead was featured with Dan Blocker extolling the virtues of the new '65 Chevy II.
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, with an all-star cast that featured Edward Mulhare, Ricardo Montalban, and Paul Henreid.
Moorehead also memorably supplied the voice of the friendly Mother Goose in Hanna-Barbera's 1973 adaptation of E.B. White's children's book Charlotte's Web.
For the 1973 Broadway adaptation of Gigi, Moorehead portrayed Aunt Alicia and performed various songs, including "The Contract" for the original cast recording. She fell ill during the production, forcing Arlene Francis to replace her. Moorehead died shortly afterward.
Three months before her death in January 1974, Moorehead performed in two episodes (including the first) of CBS Radio Mystery Theater, the popular series produced by old-time radio master Himan Brown.
In 1930, Moorehead married actor John Griffith Lee; they divorced in 1952. Moorehead and Lee adopted an orphan named Sean in 1949, but it remains unclear whether the adoption was legal. Moorehead raised Sean until he ran away from home. She married actor Robert Gist in 1954, and they divorced in 1958.
Agnes Moorehead's sexuality has been the subject of speculation. A number of articles that appeared in periodicals in the alternative press have identified her as a lesbian. Paul Lynde, Moorehead's occasional co-star on Bewitched, stated: "Well, the whole world knows Agnes was a lesbian -- I mean classy as hell, but one of the all-time Hollywood dykes". Journalist Boze Hadleigh reported an incident, also sourced to Lynde, in which, when she caught one of her husbands cheating on her, "Agnes screamed at him that if he could have a mistress, so could she." In an interview, Moorehead was reported to have acknowledged her same-sex orientation while she identified a number of other Hollywood actresses who "enjoyed lesbian or bi relationships."
Moorehead's close friend Debbie Reynolds stated categorically that Moorehead was not a lesbian. Reynolds' autobiography mentions the rumor and states it was begun by one of Moorehead's husbands during their divorce. Moorehead's longtime friend and producer Paul Gregory concurs in the assessment. Quint Benedetti, Moorehead's longtime employee who is himself gay, also stated that Moorehead was not a lesbian and attributed the story to Lynde's rumor-mongering.
Moorehead rarely spoke publicly about her political beliefs, but she supported both Franklin Roosevelt (she portrayed Eleanor Roosevelt multiple times over the course of her career) as well as close friend Ronald Reagan for his 1966 run for Governor of California.
Agnes Moorehead died of uterine cancer on April 30, 1974 in Rochester, Minnesota, aged 73. Her sole immediate survivor was her mother Mildred, who died in 1990, aged 106.
Moorehead is interred at Dayton Memorial Park in Dayton, Ohio. In 1994, She was posthumously inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame.
The Touchdown Tavern in Reedsburg, Wisconsin, opened the Agnes Moorehead Lounge, exhibiting memorabilia.
Moorehead bequeathed $25,000 to Muskingum College, with instructions to fund one or more "Agnes Moorehead Scholarships." She also left half of her manuscripts to Muskingum with the other half going to the University of Wisconsin. Her family's Ohio farm went to John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, along with her collection of Bibles and biblical scholarship materials.
Her mother Mildred received all of Moorehead's clothing and jewelry, and Moorehead made provisions to support Mildred for the rest of her life. The Beverly Hills home was left to her attorney Franklin Rohner, along with the furnishings and personal property within. Small bequests were made for friends and domestic staff along with some charitable contributions. In her will, she made no provision for Sean, né John Griffith Lee, whom she had allegedly adopted, and the will stated that she had "no children, natural or adopted, living or deceased."
Moorehead appeared on hundreds of individual broadcasts across a radio career that spanned from 1926 to her final two appearances, on CBS Radio Mystery Theatre in 1974.
Moorehead began appearing on stage during her training at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. She appeared in seven productions as a student. She continued acting in the theater throughout her career until just a few months before her death.