EDITOR’S NOTE: Today is the 50th anniversary of BEWITCHED’s debut on our screens. What better way to celebrate it than to turn this space over to the World’s Foremost Authority on this show, Contributing Editor Herbie J Pilato, author of 3 definitive books on the subject – The Essential Elizabeth Montgomery, Twitch Upon A Star, and Bewitched Forever? Take it away Herbie J:
by Herbie J Pilato
So, what makes Bewitched great – and why are we still talking about it fifty years after its original lengthy hit run on ABC (from September 17, 1964 to July 2, 1972)?
Like any superior television show, feature film or live stage production, it all begins with the script.
And the pilot script for Bewitched, written by Sol Saks, is one of the most well-rounded half-hour initial teleplays ever conceived.
Saks explained it all in his wonderful book, The Craft of Comedy Writing, first published by Writers Digest Books in 1985 (and which I recommend every writer should reads, be they novice and veteran).
In a tight thirty minutes, the Bewitched not only introduces and marries the two main characters – Samantha, the graceful good and wise witch-with-a-twitch (portrayed by the one and only Elizabeth Montgomery, who was nominated eight-times for the role), and her mortal husband Darrin (a role shared by Dick York and Dick Sargent) – it manages to intertwine a solid B-story about Samantha meeting Darrin’s arrogant ex-fiancé (played by Nancy Kovak). In the process, the pilot sets up nicely the entire premise of the series: Samantha and Darrin love each other despite their differences, and the stern objection of her feisty sorceress mother Endora (played to perfection by Agnes Moorehead), and while he is initially shocked with his wife’s heritage, he loves her no matter what – if only requesting that she promise not to use her powers.
As the series continues, of course, Samantha breaks her promise on a weekly basis. And the human home she shares with Darrin is not only frequently visited by the interfering Endora, but nosy neighbor Gladsy Kravitz (first played by the Emmy-winning Alice Peace, then Sandra Gould), and any number of witches, warlocks and various supernatural beings, or other-worldly sorts that arrive because of any assorted amount of magic mayhem.
Behind Sol Saks, the core premise of Bewitched was inspired by the show’s executive producer, Harry Ackerman, the master-mind of many of classic sitcoms, including Dennis the Menace, The Famer’s Daughter, Hazel, and the under-appreciated Gidget (which introduced the world to the Oscar-winning Sally Field).
Ackerman, a former executive for CBS, had an idea for a weekly witch series, which he titled, The Witch of Westport. In a meeting with Ackerman, Elizabeth Montgomery and then-husband producer/director William Asher (who worked with Ackerman on I Love Lucy at CBS) had introduced a show concept called The Fun Couple, about a wealthy woman who falls in love with an auto-mechanic. Ackerman suggested Bewitched and witchcraft instead of The Fun Couple and “richcraft.”
Elizabeth and Bill Asher loved the Samantha series idea, and the rest is history. Bewitched became an instant hit for ABC.
However, that would not have transpired if all the pieces were in place beforehand…the pieces placed, again – in the script.
The characters of Bewitched were finely-tuned. No two characters talked alike, looked alike, or behaved alike. The stories were fanciful, but whatever transpired within the world of Bewitched made sense in that world. There was a logic to the illogic of what was portrayed. If Samantha placed a spell on someone, only Samantha could remove that spell. Witches could work any kind of sorcery imaginable, but they could not alter time, and so forth. The Bewitched writer’s bible for the series was crafted with immense detail by William Asher, and the show’s early writers, including genius minds like Danny Arnold (who later created the heralded Barney Miller sitcom for ABC), and Bernard Slade (who went on to attain super success on Broadway with “Same Time, Next Year”; and also with ABC’s The Partridge Family).
An important component in the over-all quality and presentation of Bewitched’s was the high-likeability factor and various talents of its cast: Elizabeth, York, Sargent, Moorehead – and others like David White (Darrin’s conniving ad-man boss Larry Tate), Marion Lorne (the bumbling witch Aunt Clara), George Tobias (Abner Kravitz, the curmudgeon), Kasey Rogers and Irene Vernon (who shared the role of Larry’s wife Louise Tate), Bernard Fox (witch Dr. Bombay), Maurice Evans (Samantha’s warlock father Maurice, pronounced “Moor-eese!”), Paul Lynde (the practical-joking Uncle Arthur) – and twins Erin and Diane Murphy (as little magical Tabitha), and the also twinned David and Greg Lawrence (as Tabitha’s younger brother Adam) always hit their magic mark.
In short, their is no one reason why Bewitched remains a classic and beloved series five decades after its debut.
Just like there is not any one reason why any quality TV show, film or stage play becomes a hit.
Such success is always a result of a combination of factors.
With Bewitched, in particular, however, it was the perfection combination “X” factors – times a million.
Herbie J Pilato is a Contributing Editor to TVWriter™. You can learn more about him HERE.