There was a time when twitching your nose meant an allergy was setting in. That all changed over 50 years ago in the autumn of 1964, when American TV station ABC aired its first episode of Bewitched. The classic television show centred around Samantha Stephens, played by Elizabeth Montgomery. She played a witch-turned-housewife who performed magical acts with a simple wiggle of her nose.

Whilst many simply saw it as the story of a witch who marries a mortal and settles down in suburbia, others have realised that the show's underlying theme of tolerance and its gay supporting cast still make it a cult favourite amongst the gay community, writes Paula Martinac.

In September 1964, Bewitched debuted in black and white on ABC in the states, switching to colour in 1966. In the first episode, Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery) met and married Darrin (Dick York), who was a hapless advertising account representative.

Unknown to Darrin, Samantha (nicknamed Sam) was, in fact, a witch with magical powers that she could summon up with a twitch of her nose. When Darrin found out her secret, Sam promised to keep her magic in check and act like a "normal" wife - the basic premise of the show for its entire run.

The situation presented in Bewitched was decidedly queer. Like many gay people, Samantha had to disguise her identity and remain in the closet, because mortals didn't understand or approve of witches. Her true identity, mortal society told her, was something to be ashamed of and to hide at all costs.

But although Samantha made a valiant effort to act "normal" and "pass" for mortal, her witchiness had a habit of popping out at the most inconvenient times for her husband. So, too, did her relatives - witches and warlocks who disliked her pretense and encouraged Sam to live openly. In the end, the show demonstrated that Sam couldn't really change her true nature; all she could do was try to keep it under wraps.

Prejudice, according to pop-culture writer Herbie J. Pilato, was the underlying theme of Bewitched. Although the writing directed much audience sympathy toward the long-suffering Darrin, there was also the strong suggestion that Sam should be able to live her life without concern for other people's reactions to her. In fact, the show seemed to say, being a witch could be a lot more fun than being mortal.

A strong supporting cast of queer actors helped emphasize this element of fun. Endora, Samantha's mother, was played by a veteran character actor of stage and film, Agnes Moorehead (1906-1974), who was nominated for five Academy Awards over the course of her film career.
But Moorehead didn't achieve widespread fame until she created her recurring role in "Bewitched." Endora's stubborn refusal to learn Darrin's name - she most commonly called him "Derwood" - was a running gag throughout the series.

Moorehead married and divorced twice and, during one of her marriages, adopted a son. But she was, in fact, a lesbian, part of a circle of gay and bisexual women during Hollywood's Golden Age (including Barbara Stanwyck and Jean Arthur) whose sexuality was an open secret. Moorehead remained mum on her sexual orientation throughout her life, telling an interviewer the year before she died, "I never really cared to share anything with the public, or very many people, besides my work."

Moorehead's co-star, Paul Lynde (1926-1982), was also gay. As Samantha's Uncle Arthur, a quintessential queen, Lynde appeared on Bewitched only 11 times but may be best remembered for that role, which he played to the campy hilt. Like Moorehead, Lynde was closeted about his private life, relying on a host of excuses when interviewers asked him why he was still a "confirmed bachelor."
He also made arguably homophobic statements in public, telling People magazine in 1976, "My following is straight. I'm so glad. Gay people killed Judy Garland, but they're not going to kill me." His publicity machine hushed up an incident in 1965 in which Lynde's young male "travelling companion" fell (or jumped) to his death from a hotel window in San Francisco.
In 1969, Dick York left his role as Darrin because of a back injury, and the more soft-spoken, mild-mannered Dick Sargent (1930-1994) took his place. Sargent was a closeted gay man who referred to a failed marriage whenever reporters asked him questions about his personal life.
Unlike other members of the Bewitched cast, however, Sargent decided to own up to his sexuality in 1991 on National Coming Out Day, dubbing himself "a retroactive role model." Afterwards, he told an interviewer that "it was such a relief. I lived in fear of being found out."

Although he was concerned that he would lose work because of his revelation, Sargent concluded that "this is more important. I like myself, probably more than I have most of my life." The following year, Sargent and Elizabeth Montgomery, who had remained close friends after the show's demise, served as grand marshals of a gay pride march in southern California. When asked why she agreed to do it, Montgomery reportedly quipped, "I did it for love of Dick."

Bewitched went off the air in 1972 in the states, unable to compete with a new wave of sitcoms like M*A*S*H, which engaged more directly in gritty social commentary.

Paula Martinac is a Lambda Literary Award-winning author of seven books, including The Queerest Places: A Guide to Gay and Lesbian Historic Sites.

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