‘Elizabeth Montgomery: A Bewitched Life’ Explores the True Story Behind the TV Icon
It was May of 1989 when Herbie J Pilato (a former NBC page turned actor, turned producer), buzzed the intercom outside of Elizabeth Montgomery’s gated Beverly Hills home and announced himself to the TV icon saying, “Hi, this is Herbie.”
“Oh, goodie,” an enthused Elizabeth said, and she opened the gates.
She was expecting Herbie as he was the one person her ex-husband Bill Asher told her to talk with. Herbie was there to write a book on the star’s most iconic series.
His stories, along with countless others, are captured in the new documentary Elizabeth Montgomery: A Bewitched Life that aired in April on Reelz.
Forever remembered for that little twitch of her nose, Elizabeth Montgomery warmed our hearts as Samantha Stephens for eight seasons on ABC’s Bewitched (1964-72), always proving that suburban life was less than typical for a witch and her mortal husband, Darrin (Dick York and, later, Dick Sargent).
Elizabeth Montgomery, Dick York and Agnes Moorehead.
Herbie, an expert on Bewitched and Elizabeth Montgomery, serves as one of the executive producers (along with Andy Strietfeld, of AMS Pictures, and Joel Eisenberg), writers and commenters on the two-hour documentary, timed to air just one day after what would have been Elizabeth’s 90th birthday (she was born April 15, 1933). Sara Gauchat, also from AMS Pictures — the studio who backed the doc, cowrote the script with Herbie. But Herbie is quick to credit countless creatives for their “dignity” and “teamwork” in bringing this film to light including, Steve Cheskin, senior vice president of programming for Reelz, as he “is the one who believed in the project from the beginning.”
“I’m just so very proud of it,” Herbie shares of the doc. “Billy Asher, Elizabeth’s son, is interviewed on it. Erin Murphy, who played Tabitha (pictured below) is interviewed on it. People like Elliott Gould, who was good friends with Elizabeth and who did the TV movie The Rules of Marriage with her. And Richard Dreyfuss, who made a guest appearance on Bewitched; one of his first ever TV screen appearances, long before Close Encounters.”
The documentary further explores her complicated relationship with her father Robert Montgomery (1904-81), also a screen legend, who was part of many of her major life decisions.
“Even though her father didn’t want her to act, she finally convinced him that that’s what she wanted to do,” Herbie shares. “She ended up making her TV debut on his show, Robert Montgomery Presents. He loved it when she married Fred Cammann, her first marriage, because he was was a sophisticated, well-respected member of the upper crust of New York City. And he had worked as a casting director and a producer on Robert Montgomery Presents, and that’s where Elizabeth met him. But Fred wants a wife, she wants stardom.”
Their marriage would only last a year, before Elizabeth falls for Gig Young (1956-63). “Her father was furious, because No. 1, Gig Young [who tragically would later kill his fifth wife and himself] was 20 years older, but he was also not a nice guy. But Elizabeth was like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to do this. I want to marry Gig, I think, to bug my dad.’ That was the sense of it, because she had some major daddy issues. She did. And then when she became a bigger star on TV than he ever was on the movies, it no longer became, ‘Hi, I’m Robert Montgomery, and this is my daughter, Elizabeth.’ It was, ‘Hi, I’m Elizabeth Montgomery, and this is my father, Robert.’”
Director and husband William Asher with Elizabeth Montgomery and their son William Asher Jr., on set in 1967.
Elizabeth found love again with director/producer William “Bill” Asher when working on 1963’s Johnny Cool. A year after their marriage they collaborated on the TV pilot Bewitched and the rest became history, Asher served as director and Elizabeth as the star. The two were married from 1963-74, and had three children: William Jr., Robert and Rebecca. Her later two pregnancies were actually incorporated into the series as Samantha’s pregnancies. Creatively, however, toward the end of the series Elizabeth was getting bored with her role. While Asher was able to step away and do other projects, Elizabeth could not. After she had an affair with her new director, the show would end and she filled out her contract with other ABC made for TV movies. Her fourth husband was Robert Foxworth, who she met on the ABC TV film Mrs. Sundance in 1973 but didn’t marry until 1993.
Herbie collected some of these stories in the multiple interviews he did with Elizabeth at her house.
Their first meet up, was memorable, as Elizabeth opened the door adorned in all black, dressed just like Samantha.
“The first time I met her, she still had the ax from her film The Legend of Lizzie Borden (1975), with the dried, fake blood on it. And she had it next to the fireplace. She picked it up and I said, ‘Would you please put that down?’ Herbie laughs recalling. “She was freaking me out, and she knew it and she loved it. At the end of our first meeting, I gave her a crystal unicorn, because Samantha loved unicorns and Elizabeth loved unicorns.”
As Herbie left her house after that first interview, Elizabeth yelled to him, “Do you want some zucchini?” Laughing, Herbie remembered responded “I guess.” The star then proceeded to jump into her garden in the middle of her driveway and pick a few for him. “She loved that kind of thing,” Herbie shares.
When he got home his phone rings, “Hi Herbie, it’s Lizzie.” And she asked him if he remembered an episode where she was singing. Herbie knew immediately. A few minutes go by and she calls back again. “When are we meeting next?”
So began an exchange of her memories over four interviews. Elizabeth surprised him on their second interview by inviting David White, who played Larry Tate on Bewitched (pictured below). She also got Dick Sargent, who played the second Darrin (1969-72), to call Herbie as well. Sargent called Herbie out of the blue saying: “I just talked to Elizabeth Montgomery, who I haven’t heard from in years, and she says that I need to talk to you.” Elizabeth just had a way about her.
The documentary is a tribute to her career — she logged over 200 guest episodes before she even filmed Bewitched and was THE TV movie queen for decades — but doesn’t shy away from controversy either.
“I made her understand that she was still loved all these years later, because she had moved on,” Herbie concludes. Elizabeth died of cancer in May of 1995.
And beloved she still is!
The “Bewitched” Expert: A Bit More On Herbie Pilato …
Herbie J Pilato wrote and published The Bewitched Book in 1992. He revised and updated the book in 1996 as Bewitched Forever, and again in 2004 to coincide with Nora Ephron’s Bewitched feature film, which he served as a consultant. In Fall of 2012, he released Twitch Upon a Star: The Bewitched Life and Career of Elizabeth Montgomery, which is a narrative biography. The following Fall of 2013 The Essential Elizabeth Montgomery: A Guide to Her Magical Performances was published, which is more of an encyclopedia of her entire body of work, before, during and after Bewitched.
“If it wasn’t for Bill Asher, I would’ve never got to her. And if it wasn’t for Elizabeth, I would’ve never done the book. And every good thing that has happened in my career, happened because of that book. I went on to write two biographies about her. I went on to do books about Kung Fu, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, Life Goes On. I went on to write for the Television Academy, I went on to produce documentaries, including the first Bewitched documentary for E! TV — Bewitched: The E! True Hollywood Story, which became the seventh, highest rated E! True Hollywood story in the network’s history.”