Question: Every TV fan who knows anything knows Dick Sargent replaced Dick York on Bewitched. But why? Mark F., Overland Park, Kans.
Televisionary: The late York, who played put-upon mortal hubby Darrin Stephens on the ABC hit for the first five years of its 1964-72 run, suffered from serious back problems dating back to an injury he suffered while filming 1959's They Came to Cordura. From that shoot on, he struggled with chronic pain and addiction to painkillers, problems which eventually led to his leaving the show after he collapsed on the set and decided he couldn't continue with the work.
So they brought in Sargent as the new Darrin and figured the audience would just go along with it. After all, poor York, for all his comic ability, always worked in the shadows of star Elizabeth Montgomery, who played witch-wife Samantha Stephens, and Agnes Moorehead, the distinguished actress who played nightmare mother-in-law Endora. "The two witches are by far more spectacular than I am. I'm just a human being," York told TV Guide in 1965. "I guess it's a lot more exciting to identify with someone superhuman than with someone normal. Maybe it's me. I don't think so, but the only way to tell if it's me or not is to kill me off in one show, give the witch another husband and see if I'm missed."
Turns out he was a lot. Bewitched was a ratings success from its first episode, hitting No. 2 in its first season and hovering around the Top 10 from then on... until York departed. For the 1968-69 season, the show was tied for 11th place. The following season, the first without York, it was tied for 24th.
And poor Sargent had a tough time of it before his first episode even aired. "I went all over the country on tour for Bewitched this summer, supposedly so that the country would get used to me, or ready for the change," he said in 1970. "The press has a way of having at you. [O]ne of the articles that came out of the tour had the headline 'Dick York Becomes Darrin.'"
The funny thing was, here the press was getting his name wrong when Sargent had been considered for the part from the get-go but turned it down due to a previous commitment to another ABC sitcom, the short-lived Navy comedy Broadside. After that, he went to work on the even shorter-lived Tammy Grimes Show, the irony there being that the part of Samantha was first offered to Grimes, who did the producers the favor of saying it "wasn't her cup of oolong." (That's according to Screen Gems exec William Dozier, who wrote in 1968 that soon after they asked Grimes to come on board, they realized they really wanted Montgomery and were hoping against hope Grimes wouldn't want it.)
The cast changes didn't end there, but that was the most significant one. After wee witch Tabitha was born in 1966, she was played as an infant by two sets of twins, Heidi and Laura Gentry and Julie and Tamar Young. Once she hit the toddler years she was played by Erin and Diane Murphy before Erin took over the role by herself.
More noticeable to viewers, of course, were changes in the other adult roles. Irene Vernon left the show in 1966 and Kasey Rogers stepped in as Louise Tate, wife of ad-man Larry. And Alice Pearce, who played Gladys Kravitz, passed away that same year and was replaced in the role by Sandra Gould.
The sad part about that latter switch was that when Gould was offered the role, she was mourning her late husband and Pearce, who'd been a good friend, and was reluctant to take over. Even after they convinced her to change her mind, she still would start crying and retreat to her dressing room if someone on the set accidentally called her "Alice." Sadder still was Gould's take on the career that led her to playing the exaggerated nosy neighbor. "I started out to be an actress and ended up as a caricature," she said in 1970.
For her part, the celebrated Moorehead, who'd already been showered with accolades for her work on stage and in such films as Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, may not have shed any tears, but that's probably because she had no illusions about her show or her medium. "You may be sure I didn't decide to go into TV," she sniffed in 1965. "I was trapped. I did the pilot sort of while I wasn't looking, if that makes any sense. I was convinced it wouldn't sell. How could witchcraft appeal to the general public? Uhhrgh! In this business you need the strength of an Amazon, the guile of a general and the hide of a crocodile."
She forgot, apparently, the ethics of a mercenary. I mean, as far as I know she didn't stay with the show for all eight seasons for free.