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'Bewitched' Star Agnes Moorehead Was Convinced Set of 'The Conquerer' Caused Her Cancer

Monica Otayza
Jun 07, 2019
01:45 P.M.
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Perhaps better known as Endora, the witch from "Bewitched," Agnes Moorehead sadly passed from cancer in 1974. Moorehead claimed she got the illness from a feature film she starred in, and she was not the only one.

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Fans of classic films may remember the sappy 1956 movie "The Conqueror." It was a movie centered on the love affair between a beautiful captive princess and Genghis Khan.

The film was shot from June to August 1954 at a location with red bluffs and white dunes near Saint George, Utah. The area they filmed in was chosen for its resemblance to the central Asian steppes.

Agnes Moorehead as "Endora" on "Bewitched" circa 1968 | Source: Getty Images

Agnes Moorehead as "Endora" on "Bewitched" circa 1968 | Source: Getty Images

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FILMING "THE CONQUEROR"

Unfortunately, soon after they finished filming, the cast and crew members started falling ill. One of those who ended up with the terminal illness was Moorehead, who was diagnosed with uterine cancer.

Long before her diagnosis, a close friend of hers, Sandra Gould, recalled that Moorehead once shared rumors of "radioactive germs" on the film set location in Utah. She observed that everybody in a photo she had ended up being diagnosed with cancer and died.

Jimmy Stewart and Agnes Moorehead in the 1949 film "The Stratton Story" | Source: Getty Images

Jimmy Stewart and Agnes Moorehead in the 1949 film "The Stratton Story" | Source: Getty Images

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MOOREHEAD'S YOUNGER YEARS

Born Agnes Robertson Moorehead on December 6, 1900, in Massachusetts, she was the daughter of singer Mary McCauley and Presbyterian clergyman John Henderson Moorehead. She had a happy childhood and adored her parents.

Moorehead grew up well-loved by her parents, and she would speak highly of her mother and father. In the end, their best characteristics rubbed off on Moorehead, who went on to pursue a career in the entertainment industry.

Portrait of Agnes Moorehead at the start of her acting career | Photo: Getty Images

Portrait of Agnes Moorehead at the start of her acting career | Photo: Getty Images

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GROWING UP AS THE PREACHER'S KIDS

The actress enjoyed growing up with a younger sister named Margaret. Other children often teased them because they were the preacher's children. They spent a lot of time in church, prayer meetings, and volunteering to help their parents out.

Back then, Moorehead became an expert at quickly memorizing dialogue. This was all thanks to her father, who chose to punish them for being naughty by letting them learn a bible passage and recite it back to him.

Agnes Moorehead at CBS Radio microphone in Hollywood, California, in January 1943 | Photo: Getty Images

Agnes Moorehead at CBS Radio microphone in Hollywood, California, in January 1943 | Photo: Getty Images

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FINDING HER WAY INTO SHOWBUSINESS

When she finally decided to enter the entertainment industry after realizing her passion for performing, her parents were a huge factor in her decision. After years of studying and teaching in Wisconsin, she saved up enough money to head to New York.

There, she finally fulfilled one of her dreams to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (AADA), which was the beginning of her career. She became both an actress and a teacher, this time teaching dramatics.

Portrait of Agnes Moorehead circa 1938 | Photo: Getty Images

Portrait of Agnes Moorehead circa 1938 | Photo: Getty Images

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HER CAREER

Moorehead had an extensive career in the entertainment industry in various fields like radio, movies, stage, and television. She accomplished a lot long before starring as Endora on "Bewitched."

Although she was admittedly reluctant to sign on to "Bewitched," she ended up liking her character. In fact, it enhanced her career and allowed her to achieve stardom.

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AGNES' TRAGIC END

After connecting the dots between "The Conqueror" and cancer, Moorehead was diagnosed with uterine cancer. Her co-star, Jeanne Gerson, contracted skin cancer in 1965 before being diagnosed with breast cancer years later.

As Moorehead lay dying, she told Debbie Reynolds, her best friend, "I should never have taken that part." While she could not take part, her co-star, Gerson, filed a class-action suit against the US government.

Agnes Moorehead on July 1, 1947 in Hollywood, California | Photo: Getty Images

Agnes Moorehead on July 1, 1947 in Hollywood, California | Photo: Getty Images

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THE OUTCOME

Reports ascertained that 220 crew and cast members worked on "The Conqueror," of which 91 contracted cancer. Of those, 46 people died, including Moorehead and her co-stars, Susan Hayward, John Wayne, and the film's director-producer, Dick Powell.

Back then, the federal government constantly reassured local residents that their bomb testing posed no danger to anyone. With Saint George 137 miles from the atomic testing range at Yucca Flat, Nevada, no one expected to be in danger from any toxins.

Agnes Moorehead filming "Summer Holiday" circa 1948 | Photo: Getty Images

Agnes Moorehead filming "Summer Holiday" circa 1948 | Photo: Getty Images

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ITS CONNECTION WITH BOMB TESTING

Although no atomic bomb got tested during the movie's filming, 11 bombs were tested the previous year, with two particularly labeled "dirty." The radiation blasts were more than double the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, which was 13 kilotons.

"Harry" fired a 32.4-kiloton blast on May 19, 1953, while "Simon" blasted 51.5-kiloton of long-lasting radiation over the area on April 25, 1953. Dr. Pendleton, a former AEC researcher, said:

“Fallout was very abundant more than a year after Harry. Some of the isotopes, such as strontium 90 and cesium 137, would not have diminished much.”

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Charles Boyer, Agnes Moorhead, Charles Laughton and Sir Cedric Hardwicke duirng "Don Juan In Hell" in June 1951 | Source: Getty Images

Charles Boyer, Agnes Moorhead, Charles Laughton and Sir Cedric Hardwicke duirng "Don Juan In Hell" in June 1951 | Source: Getty Images

RADIOACTIVITY IN THE AREA

According to Dr. Pendleton, radioactivity can settle in "hot spots" such as the canyon where the film got shot, as it becomes a natural reservoir for windswept material. While Agnes blamed it for her cancer, she requested that the cause of her death remained private after her passing.

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Moorehead died aged 67 a few weeks after being admitted to the Methodist Hospital in Rochester, Minnesota, on April 9, 1974. Most of her final years were spent on her 320-acre farm in Ohio, land homesteaded by her great-grandparents.

Elizabeth Montgomery, Agnes Moorhead, and Dick York from the “Bewitched” cast on October 26, 1966. | Source: Getty Images.

Elizabeth Montgomery, Agnes Moorhead, and Dick York from the “Bewitched” cast on October 26, 1966. | Source: Getty Images.

Moorehead was married twice to actors Robert Gist and Jack G. Lee. Both marriages ended in divorce. She never had children and had no known close relatives at the time of her passing.

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