Thirty years before Will & Grace opened up the floodgates for sitcoms centered around gay characters and a decade before Billy Crystal’s groundbreaking supporting work as a gay man on Soap, LGBT viewers eager for representation looked for coded versions of themselves on television. Few series offered more than the sparkly supernatural comedy Bewitched, which ran from 1964-1972 and starred Elizabeth Montgomery as a gorgeous witch married to mortal Darren (Dick York, later Dick Sargent) and mother of Tabitha and Adam, who subjugates her magic powers to pass as mortal. It wasn’t much of a challenge for queer viewers during the turbulent civil rights era to interpret the hit series as a metaphor for living in the closet. Another reason for the show’s popularity was surely its colorful cast of supporting characters such as Samantha’s flamboyant mother Endora (Agnes Moorehead), outrageous Uncle Arthur (gay actor Paul Lynde) and mischievous cousin Serena (Montgomery in a black wig). Author Adam-Michael James spent eight months watching all 254 episodes back to back and making copious notes for his recently-published The Bewitched Continuum: The Ultimate Linear Guide to the Classic TV Series. At nearly 700 pages, it’s an indispensable, entertaining read for both longtime fans and newcomers to the series. James chatted with Queerty about the book, how the series was ahead of its time and Elizabeth Montgomery’s commitment to equality.
Adam-Michael James: This was a show that was dealing with a mixed marriage between a witch and a mortal and different cultures. The main witch had to repress and conceal her powers from the world so there was definitely some of that in there. Elizabeth Montgomery was certainly pro-gay and we’re talking about a show that was out at the height of the original civil rights movement and on through the hippie counter-culture and free love era of the early ‘70s. I think there was definitely a message in there, not only for gay people but for everyone.
It’s a series that still feels smart and sophisticated to modern viewers. What’s responsible for the continued appeal?
Part of it is the magic. People like to see that. Also the show was so intelligently written and sophisticated. It spoke to not only things that were going on at the time but also universal messages about tolerance and acceptance. Samantha, for being a witch, is so human in that she conveys human emotions. I think that’s why people connect to her. She’s the flashpoint for the whole thing.
My favorite is “Sisters at Heart” during season seven. Tabitha had an African-American friend Lisa and they wanted to be sisters so much that Tabatha accidentally turned them polka dots in an effort to unite them. Samantha was very clear that all men are brothers even if they’re girls. There was another plot within that episode in which Darren had a bigoted client who thought Darren was married to a black woman so he pulled his account. Samantha fixes it so that when the client looks in the mirror he see himself as black. This was in 1971 so it was pretty renegade. It was also so well-written. I think the overall message of the series was tolerance and acceptance, but it was so clearly defiant in that episode that it makes the top of my list.
That was a clever way to introduce civil rights to young kids.
Exactly. You watch it as a child and pick up on some things, but as an adult you get a whole other layer. You certainly get a good example that everyone should be free to live as they want as long as they’re not hurting anybody.
And for some it was likely their first exposure to such a character as Paul Lynde as Uncle Arthur, who must have read very gay even then.
He had so much fun doing it. It’s amazing that Uncle Arthur was only in about 10 episodes but he made such an impression that when someone says, “Bewitched,” Uncle Arthur is one of the first characters you think of. There were certainly episodes with Uncle Arthur when he wasn’t hiding anything. Things got a little campy toward the end.
Dick Sergeant who famously replaced Dick York as Darren was gay and eventually came out in 1991. It’s interesting that even though he was closeted publicly for much of his career, casting him as a straight leading man in a hit series back then didn’t concern the producers.
As I understand it, Elizabeth Montgomery and her husband William Asher (the producer) knew and they didn’t care. I don’t know why they would. it was their own acceptance in their personal life that led to the message on the show. Obviously it was a different era where you didn’t make these things public but I certainly don’t think it was a problem.
Elizabeth Montgomery was a longtime friend to the LGBT community and even served with Dick Sargent as pride marshals during the parade in West Hollywood in 1992. Why do you think this was something she was passionate about?
She just accepted everybody. As I understand it she grew up in a rather politically conservative family. Her father was the actor Robert Montgomery who was a staunch Republican, but I guess she decided she had her own ideas about life and went in the other direction. She was for everybody — the gay and lesbian community, African-Americans, animals… Her heart was open to everybody and I think that’s what made her such a relatable actress.