In a town noted for female feuds, the friendship between Agnes Moorehead and Debbie Reynolds is heartwarming.
The visitor to the MGM commissary stopped short; in dismay, she half turned to leave. For there, right in the middle of the large dining room, sat two nuns, alternately laughing loudly, then giggling like two teenagers. Most out of character. One of them even had her knees crossed.
Then the visitor paused, sighed in relief, returned to the commissary – and marched straight across to the table where Debbie Reynolds and Agnes Moorehead were lunching. Hesitantly, she asked for their autographs. Smiling, they pushed back the wimples that covered their hair and signed.
Those two “nuns” – whose girlish giggling had somewhat unsettled the visitor – were, indeed, Agnes Moorehead and Debbie Reynolds. They were then filming The Singing Nun, and had had no time to change out of their nuns’ habits.
Debbie Reynolds and Agnes Moorehead from Photoplay 1966
And those who know say – and even Miss Moorehead admits – that when Debbie and Agnes get together, they are quite apt to giggle like young girls.
Despite the difference in their ages, Debbie and Agnes have been extremely close friends for the past six or seven years. They really got to know each other when they were making the epic How the West was Won, in which Agnes played the role of Debbie’s mother. They discovered they had many things in common, enjoyed each other’s company and became fast friends.
When asked about their friendship Agnes says, “Oh, we had met years before at somebody’s party. But How the West was Won really brought us together, when we were thrown together on the set over a period of weeks. You know, it ’s quite rare to form a lasting friendship from making a picture together. But Debbie and I have formed a friendship that has lasted.” That Debbie regards Miss Moorehead with great – and special – fondness was certainly apparent during last fall’s highly publicized Thalian benefit. It’ s common knowledge how Debbie pulled the rare feat of securing Richard Burton for the charity show – and that he and Elizabeth Taylor both attended. What many do not know, however, is that the redoubtable Debbie seated Agnes Moorehead – at the table of honor with the Burtons – at Richard ’s right hand. Every woman in the room was green with envy.
Green, incidentally, is Debbie’s favorite color. Her “lovely green dressing room” is, in reality, a mobile home that Debbie owns and uses as her dressing room when making a film. She loaned it to Agnes the first season that Bewitched went on the air, much to Agnes appreciative gratitude. And green it is, inside and out.
This season, however, Miss Moorehead has her own portable dressing room – and it’s lavender. She recently had it completely redone, beautifully so, but she laughs, rather ironically when she tells you “Yes, and I had to pay for it myself too, can you imagine?”
That laugh of Agnes is almost a trademark, and marks her acute sense of life ’s ridiculous side. And it’s certainly one of the reasons she and Debbie hit it off so well.
“Debbie has an incredible sense of humor” Agnes confided to us, “and it’s a good thing she has. You know, it’s really the only thing that keeps us actors going. If an actor either loses his sense of humor – or just doesn’t have one to start with – he can eat himself up inside. Both Debbie and I manage to see the funny side of things – and so survive.”
“Like there was this wonderful little scene in The Singing Nun – later cut out – where we’ve gone to get some tires from a man to make shoe soles for poor people. Debbie is rolling her tire, I’m carrying mine. She asks me why I don’t roll it, so I do. We start kicking the tires down the street and, of course, one rolls right into a café. Well, we started ad libbing as the camera followed us down the street. We must have looked awfully intent because later, half a dozen people on the set came over and asked us curiously what on earth we had been talking about. Frankly, neither of us could remember. We were just talking, that’s all. And we’re actresses.”
“Debbie is also a wonderful impersonator, as you may know. She spots a person’s weakness and immediately picks up on it. That’s the secret of mimicking, and she has a marvelous ear for it. Oh, yes, she does me, too. And she is simply hilarious at it. I tend to look rather austere, so here comes Debbie, very grand, very grand, like a dowager. I love it.”
“You know, her husband, Harry Karl, is also marvelously funny, but few people know it; he’s such a quiet, reserved man. His trick is to let everyone go on, and after they’re all through he comes up with a line that just absolutely tops everybody.”
“Those two are such a happy couple. They enjoy each other so, it’s a joy just to be around them. Heaven knows, they’ve both had their share of marital problems. It’s so gratifying to see two such fine persons find each other.”
Debbie and Agnes have even more in common now, since Debbie is caring for Harry’s three children by his marriage to Marie MacDonald. The older two are teenagers, as is Agnes's son Sean, who is 17.
Agnes Moorehead with Her Son, Sean
Sean recently had determined to enlist before finishing high school, requesting that he be sent to Vietnam. He feels very strongly about the matter. His mother understands his deep convictions but naturally feels he would be much better qualified to serve after he graduates. However, like all mothers, she’s having a problem convincing her son of the wisdom of this.
Debbie has been of great help to Agnes with the problem. As a friend, she can talk straighter to Sean than can Agnes – and not be accused of being “a mother” about it. She even took the young man along on one of her visits to Los Angeles huge Veteran’s Hospital, where so many wounded Vietnam soldiers are sent. She hoped that when he talked to those men, he would see for himself.
As of this writing, Debbie’s scheme seems to be working. Sean is still in high school. And, in large measure, Agnes has Debbie to thank for it.
“Both Debbie and I believe in discipline where children are concerned,” Agnes says. “I’m not sure, but I suspect Debbie is even more strict than I am. And we also believe, very strongly, that children need religion. I’m Protestant, and have only one child. So that was fairly simple.”
“But it is far from simple in the Karl household. Debbie’s children by Eddie Fisher attend a Protestant Sunday school. Harry is Jewish. But Marie brought up their three children as Catholics. Naturally the Catholic church is where they still go, and always will go, as far as Debbie is concerned. In that house, everyone respects everyone else’s religion, believe you me. It must be pandemonium getting everyone off to his own place of worship. But she handles it with as much ease as if she had been doing it all her life. She’s an amazing woman.”
“You know, when I talk about discipline, I don’t mean to imply harshness – certainly not where Debbie is concerned. Far from it. She spends a great deal of time with her children. And, except for some charity work and visits to hospitals and orphanages, she goes out very little. But one thing – she wants to know where those children are every minute – and what they are doing. She supervises them completely. No servant does that for Debbie. Never has.”
“One thing Debbie and I never discuss is politics. I really do not think actors should get mixed up in politics. Debbie would agree w/me - she has more than enough to do. It's not that I am nonpartisan; I'd be for the man, you see. It's just - well, after all, who knows anything about politics really?”
Although Debbie does not go out much socially, she adores having friends in on an informal basis. Many times, Agnes relates, even with all the help in the house, Debbie does her own cooking. She likes to cook, and nothing is more fun to her than preparing a midnight supper for friends.
Debbie is, and always has been, a lover of sports. Not so Agnes. Yet the two found a common ground there too. They are both fond of horses, and on occasion have shared early morning rides.
Agnes adds, “Oh, and once in a while we go shopping together. We shop for bargains madly – things for the house. It’s fun – and Debbie and I love discovering a new wholesale or discount house. It doesn’t bother us that we get stopped and asked for autographs. Quite the contrary – thank heavens people do it. If they didn’t, it would be terrible. It happens all the time, but you just get where you don’t think about it anymore.”
“You know, though, for all it’s so taken for granted, there is such a thing as carrying this autograph thing too far. I saw this happen to Elizabeth Taylor at the Thalian affair. Every time she’d lift a fork to her mouth, someone would turn up to ask her to sign a piece of paper. She was entirely gracious at all times, never refused once. But I will absolutely swear she never got to eat at all. Now really….”
Debbie had an even more outrageous experience along those lines. While on a personal appearance tour recently, she, like everyone else in the world, had to go to the powder room. And while she was locked in an individual cubicle, suddenly a hand, clutching an autograph book and pen, appeared under the door, and a voice said, “I hate to bother you like this, Miss Reynolds, but….”
As Agnes Moorehead would say, “Well, really….”
“With her home life the way it is, and with smaller children, Debbie, as I said, gets out much less than I do,” admitted the regal star of Bewitched, “But Debbie doesn’t have to do that now; she is completely secure, both financially and in her home life. But I feel most actors must – certainly I do. One has to be seen. Out of sight, out of mind in Hollywood. I do a lot of outside activities that she doesn’t. Like my one-woman show, you know. I could do that for 30 weeks out of the year, but can’t manage it because of the television schedule. So I work my engagements in when there is free time.”
“It was just fortunate that I was able to make The Singing Nun. I know Debbie wanted me in the cast, and luckily Bewitched was on a hiatus at the time. Otherwise it would have been impossible.”
“It is marvelous to have a friend as sensible as Debbie, with whom you can compare notes on such things as the rearing of children. She is quite concerned about hers. She feels they are given far, far too much. They do get a lot of things – but not so much that Debbie really needs to concern herself about it. Yet she does. And I admire her for it.”
“As for show business, Debbie isn’t particularly trying to steer her children away from it. But she certainly isn’t steering them toward it, either. I think her daughter Carrie just might go into show business. The child is very adept at entertaining. She’s 9, and already shows a great deal of talent, and I think she likes show business.”
“I prefer, on the other hand, to keep Sean out of it. It has so many sorrows and disappointments. And I think it is even harder for a man, who has to be the breadwinner for the family; it exerts tremendous pressures. And, of course, if you marry someone in the business, it’s even worse – you NEVER know what to expect. No two careers blossom at the same rate. It’s terrible for a man to see his wife famous if he is a performer, too, and not so well-known. It’s much easier the other way around.”
“On the other hand, it’s quite different if one’s spouse isn’t in the business. Take Harry Karl for instance. He accepts Debbie’s success completely, because he is so eminently successful in his own field. And he loves show business, thinks it’s great fun. Debbie is most fortunate in this respect. And she couldn’t be happier.”
It is difficult for many persons to comprehend how pert, vivacious Debbie, and the somewhat severe, reserved Agnes Moorehead became sisterly associates. When asked to what she attributed their special relationship, Miss Moorehead found it almost equally difficult to describe.
Said she, “It’s just some sort of chemistry, I suppose. Who can explain why you like one person and not another, why you enjoy being with one person and not another? It makes small sense when you try to explain it rationally.”
“Perhaps it’s because both of us have very high standards and principles. Did you know that Debbie spent five months, every day, learning to play the guitar for “The Singing Nun”, for instance? Many actresses would have used a double, or just faked it. Not Debbie. She’s a real professional, and I respect her tremendously.”
She thought for a moment, then said, “Or perhaps it’s because we both have this zany sense of humor. That may surprise a lot of people, I’m sure, because I always seem to appear so austere and seem to play those type roles mostly. We both, Debbie and I, have a deep faith in God, too.”
“Let’s just say there is a great rapport between us,” she finally said. “You feel this sort of thing – it can’t be explained in mere words. Why, so far, we’ve never had any differences at all. Why should we? Debbie has a marvelous way of saying, when someone starts to disagree, “Why, you’re right” – and that ends that.”
“Debbie and I, you see, are each other’s confidante.” When asked what that meant, Miss Moorehead drew herself up in her customary proud pose and said, politely but firmly, “I cannot elaborate further. That is why I am a confidante.”
Debbie is very fortunate in her friends, too.