In this innovative and immensely popular sitcom—it ranked in TV's top twenty-five all but two of its eight years on the air and was nominated for twenty-two Emmy awards—suburbia meets the supernatural in the guise of Samantha, television's most loveable witch. Played by the talented and genial Elizabeth Montgomery, Samantha is the all-American wife of Darrin Stephens, a hapless advertising executive who asks his wife to curb her witchery in the interest of having a normal life together. Originally broadcast from 1964 to 1972, on the surface Bewitched seemed like simply another suburban sitcom, but in fact it captured the mood of the nation in dealing with a "mixed marriage" between a witch and a mortal, as well as the difficulties faced by a strong woman forced to subdue her powers for the sake of her marriage. A quarter of a century later, Bewitched remains a pop culture favorite, a nostalgic take on the 1960s that has remained surprisingly hip.
Bewitched was borne of the marriage of actress Elizabeth Montgomery and award-winning television director William Asher. The couple met and fell in love in 1963, when Elizabeth starred in Asher's film, Johnny Cool, and they were married shortly thereafter. Suddenly, Montgomery—an Emmy nominee and a veteran of more than 200 television programs—began talking about retiring in order to raise a family. But Asher felt his wife was too talented to bow out of show business and suggested that they work together on a television series. When Elizabeth enthusiastically agreed, their search for the right property began.
Asher, an Emmy-award-winning director of I Love Lucy, forged an agreement with ABC, who forwarded him a script which had been written for Tammy Grimes. The Witch of Westport took as its premise a marriage between a witch and a mortal. Asher and Montgomery both liked the script and, with Grimes committed to a Broadway play, the couple worked to transform the series into a show suited to Montgomery's talents and sensibilities, by increasing the comedic elements and losing a lot of what they felt was stereotypical witchery and hocus pocus.
The Ashers shot the pilot for their new series, which they called Bewitched, in November, 1963. But when ABC saw the show, the network feared that in airing a show about the supernatural they risked losing both their sponsors and their audiences in the Bible Belt. But after Asher personally flew to Detroit to secure Chevrolet's backing, ABC greenlighted Bewitched for their 1964 fall lineup.
From the start, Bewitched was a huge hit, climbing to number two in the ratings in its very first season. Much of the show's success was due to the superb ensemble cast of top-notch actors delivering superb comic acting. With Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha, Dick York (later Dick Sargent) as Darrin, and veteran actress Agnes Moorehead as Samantha's meddling mother, Endora, at its core, the cast also featured David White as Darrin's troublesome boss, Larry Tate; George Tobias and Alice Pearce (later Sandra Gould) as the nosy-next-door-neighbor Kravitzes; the inimitable Paul Lynde as Uncle Arthur; the hysterical Marian Lorne as bumbling Aunt Clara; and the great English actor, Maurice Evans, as Samantha's father.
As Herbie J. Pilato writes in The Bewitched Book, "Each episode … is a new misadventure as Sam (as she's affectionately known to Darrin) tries to adapt her unique ways to the life of the average suburban woman. Learning to live with witchcraft is one thing, but Endora's petulant dislike of her son-in-law (due to his eagerness to succeed without witchcraft) is the story conflict that carried the sitcom through its extensive run. This dissension, coupled with the fact that Samantha and Darrin love each other in spite of their differences, is the core of the show's appeal."
Unquestionably, the star of the show was Elizabeth Montgomery, a gifted actress whose dramatic and comedic acting abilities made her immensely attractive to TV audiences of both sexes and all ages. The daughter of movie star Robert Montgomery, Elizabeth had been a professional actress since her teens, with many credits to her name. But Bewitched made her both a television star and a pop culture icon. Capitalizing on his wife's unconscious habit of twitching her upper lip, William Asher created a magical nose twitch by which Samantha, with a mischievous glint in her eye, cast her spells. Though fans loved the show's magic, Samantha's supernatural powers were never overused. As Montgomery herself would later remark, "If you have a weapon, be it a gun, witchcraft, or sharp-tongued wit, you recognize it as something you rely on. But your principles are such that you do not pull out the big guns unless you really have to. There's a certain dignity to Samantha's decision to hold back on her power…. It had to do with Samantha's promise to herself and to Darrin of not using witchcraft … her own self-expectations and living up to them."
Audiences quickly came to adore Samantha and to eagerly await the use of her powers. And they identified with the character, seeing her as an outsider in mainstream society, trying to do her best to fit in. The appeal of Montgomery, as a beautiful and talented woman who wasn't afraid to be funny, carried the show, and Montgomery attracted a large and loyal fan following.
Although most episodes centered around the Stephens' household and Darrin's advertising office, among the most popular shows were those featuring magical incarnations in the form of animals or famous people from history, such as Leonardo da Vinci or Julius Caesar. Other popular episodes included Darrin and Samantha's baby daughter, Tabitha, a little witch played by twins Erin and Diane Murphy.
A television fixture throughout the Sixties, Bewitched finally dropped out of TV's top twenty-five in 1970 when Dick York left the show, forced into early retirement because of a chronic back injury. Although the chemistry between Montgomery and York's replacement, Dick Sargent, was superb, audiences didn't warm to the casting change. As more cutting-edge sitcoms like All in the Family hit the airwaves in the early 1970s, Bewitched no longer seemed so innovative, and Montgomery decided to call it quits.
Although Bewitched went off the air in 1972, it soon found its way into syndication, where it became a perennial favorite, until moving to the immensely popular Nick at Nite cable lineup, where it is a permanent feature of their prime-time lineup. Now, more than twenty-five years since the last episode was filmed, Bewitched continues to enchant audiences with its winning blend of award-winning sitcom humor and its wry look at suburban American culture.
Pilato, Herbie J. The Bewitched Book: The Cosmic Companion to TV's Most Magical Supernatural Situation Comedy. New York, Delta, 1992.