How a bewitching childhood incantation ignited a lifelong career
“Zibbin-Zobbin-Whibee-Wah-Woo! Send this house back in time when I count to two…one-two.”
And nothing happened. But there I stood in 1967, at seven-years-old, in front of the treasured red-brick house in which I was born and raised on Erie Street in Rochester, New York. I was creating my own TV magic “incantation,” enmeshed in the world of Bewitched — the famed 1960s “wituation comedy,” starring Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha Stephens — the witch with a twitch.
Some of my favorite episodes dealt with time travel — Samantha being zapped into the past by some evil witch, and Endora having to bond with Darrin to send him back to rescue her…or having historic figures (Benjamin Franklin, Caesar, Napoleon) being zapped into the present, due to the magic mishaps of either bubbling witches Aunt Clara (Marion Lorne) or Esmeralda (Alice Ghostley).
And there I stood, attempting to emulate the magic of television into my reality — which was not always the happiest.
Erie Street was the tough part of town. And I was a “pretty boy.” I was athletic but lacked confidence. I had all the little girls after me, but all the little boys were jealous of me…and took every chance they could to badger me and call me names (just like in Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer).
I played all sports, but only on the street, with 2x4’s for first base, and chestnuts for baseballs. My parents had some money, but never enough — and they never thought about the future, investments, etc.. My father was a hard-working man, but he never received a formal education. My mother was a sweetheart, a saint, but not aggressive in the ways of the world.
In short, no one instilled the kind of knowledge in me that I should have had — that every child should have — in the ways of the world.
In the process, the lack of confidence infiltrated every area of my life.
But there was always Bewitched.
Naturally, I loved the magic and special effects of the show. But somehow, down deep, I identified with the show on other levels.
Samantha felt isolated.
I felt isolated — and lacking.
But I always held out hope, even in the midst of prejudice; prejudice against my innercity upbringing, the fact that I grew up essentially “poor”; my “pretty-boy” looks; my small-in-size physical stature (I’m under 5'8"). I was always afraid that I wouldn’t be enough…rich enough…tall enough.
It sounds silly, but that’s how I felt.
But again, there was Bewitched…and Samantha and Darrin, almost divided into the two sides of Herbie J:
I identified with Samantha’s ostracization. But I also identified with Darrin’s strong work ethic and his “imperfections.”
I was short and cute. He was tall and gangly. But somehow, I bonded with him. We both had positive and negative traits; both, human.
Elizabeth Montgomery once told me, “Samantha could have zapped up the most gorgeous guy in the world, straight out of GQ” — but she didn’t.
That wasn’t her style. Her style was truth and sincere love:
She actually loved Darrin — the man — for who he was — and not what he could do or buy for her.
When Worlds Collide
In December of 1985, my 18-month contract as a page with NBC is up. I pass up promotions within the network and move on — though not before I have the chance to work the press junket for I Dream of Jeannie: 15 Years Later — a TV-movie reuniting Barbara Eden, Bill Daily and Hayden Roarke from the original Jeannie series. Larry Hagman says no-dice, and they replace him with Wayne Rogers, of all people.
Throughout all the press parties for 15 Years Later, I can’t help but pine for a Bewitched TV reunion movie. If any supernatural sitcom about a magical woman’s relationship with a mortal man should have a reunion movie, it should be Bewitched…NOT I Dream of Jeannie (which debuted one year later).
In the 1960s, NBC had asked Bewitched creator Sol Saks was asked to create another “witch” for TV but declined. So they hired Sidney Sheldon to create I Dream of Jeannie.
Sheldon was good friends with Bewitched’s Bill Asher. Sidney asked Bill if minded if he did a show about a genie.
Bill didn’t care.
Elizabeth was upset.
But Bill didn’t care.
On The Floor
At NBC, in 1985, more than twenty years after Bewitched debuted on ABC, I was still loving Bewitched…even lying on my stomach in the NBC Page lounge, and watching the show in between giving studio tours, working Wheel of Fortune, The Tonight Show, and handing out tickets to Scrabble.
And then there is the Jeannie: 15 Years Later movie — and my major complaint:
Bewitched should have a reunion.
Soon, J-15-Y-L airs. I still feel obligated to watch it. So I cozy myself up in front of my little 12" black and white TV in my tiny Santa Monica studio apartment and begin to watch.
The credits begin to roll: “Starring Barbara Eden, Bill Daily, Hayden Roarke — and WAYNE ROGERS.”
I roll my eyes.
But then — I see — the final credit:
Directed by WILLIAM ASHER.
Now I really feel betrayed. How could he do this? How could he, of all people, direct the reunion movie for I Dream of Jeannie. I was substantially pissed off.
And I would tell him this later — when I would meet him for the first interview (at which he responded: “YOU were pissed off? You should have heard Liz!”)
Back to ‘85
But let’s return again to 1985. December to be exact. My page contract is up, though not before I experience the Jeannie reunion movie debacle. After that, it’s time for me to move on.
But there’s really nowhere to go.
I decide I want to act, I’m able to collect unemployment, and it’s the Holidays.
It’s common knowledge that Hollywood closes down from November through January.
So I go home to Rochester for Christmas through New Years.
It Happened One Christmas
One night, at my sister’s house, we watch the Bob Hope Christmas Special.
It’s different this year for me because, even though I’ve always watched the Bob Hope Christmas Specials through the years, this one, in particular, I happened to work.
And now, here I was, back in Rochester, watching a very special Christmas special, like I had every year, but now after actually being a part of it.
In a moment, however, a curve will be thrown. My sister yells from downstairs, “Herbie J — com’ere!!”
“What?!” I scream back. “I’m watching Bob Hope.”
“But ya’ gotta see this!” she insists.
“Forget it!” I yell back once more.
“Oh, alright! Alright!!”
And I start running down the hallway to the iron staircase.
Without watching my step, I end up breaking my little toe on my right foot — which SLAMS into the iron banister.
That’s it! I’m outta here [Rochester]. You never know how much you need that little toe. But you do.
I actually go back to L.A. with a mini-cast on it — and a limp, though I was by then no longer employed by NBC — or anybody else.
The Unemployment Line of Dialogue
There’s nothing I can do except collect my unemployment checks — and watch TV — which during the day in L.A. in the “Big ‘80s,” meant viewing two episodes of Bewitched, on Channel 13 — KCOP, from 10:00 AM to 11:00 AM.
I’ve always loyally watched the show through the years, but since the Jeannie reunion movie outrage, and the breaking of my baby toe — and somewhat of the maturity that comes with being 24 and unemployed, I start watching Bewitched with new, adult eyes.
If I had ever thought that there were other qualities to the show beyond the magic, it was now — I mean, then. And if that Bewitched reunion movie was ever going to happen — I was the one who wanted to write it.
So I did just that.
I made it an anniversary script. I called it Behold Bewitched: Happy 25th Anniversary to Darrin and Samantha. I envisioned its debut in the fall of 1989 — and I was inspired to title it as such because on September 17th, 1984, while in the page lounge, I ran across a full-page ad in Variety that read, “Happy 20th Anniversary to Darrin and Samantha.”
I couldn’t believe it — and felt butterflies in my stomach.
So, now, here I was in January of 1986 — back in Santa Monica, broken-toed, watching Bewitched every day, and inspired to bring Samantha and Darrin back to the small screen.
I try several times to contact Elizabeth Montgomery, to send her the script. I called around to friends, colleagues, and strangers.
“Do you know Elizabeth Montgomery?”
“Do you know someone who knows Elizabeth Montgomery?”
Finally, I get a bite.
My Friend’s Mother Is Good Friends With…
A friend of mine with whom I was a page at NBC, lives in Beverly Hills — and his mother knows Elizabeth Montgomery. My friend’s mother likes and respects me — because during my tenure at NBC, the Los Angeles Times does an article about pages — and I was at the center of the story — front-page picture and all.
So my friend’s mom sends my script to Elizabeth.
But then, something happens. There’s a family disagreement, and somehow — my script-mailing-to-Elizabeth gets caught in the fall-out.
The mailing never takes place. The script never makes it into Elizabeth’s hands.
I’m bummed — until…months later, when I contact Bill Asher.
I hear he’s doing a new version of Bewitched — an updated version called Bewitched Again.
I can’t believe it. That would be my dream job…to be a staff writer on the new Bewitched series…and boy do I have the spec-script that’s going to land me the job.
I contact Bill through the Director’s Guild. He calls me back, and I introduce my Bewitched passion. He tells me about the new show, and I tell him about my reunion spec-script.
He’s astounded that I actually wrote one, and excitably instructs me to send it to him.
I do so— and he loves it. “Boy,” he says, “you’re quite a fan.”
“Yes, I am,” I say. “Do you think Elizabeth would do it?’
“Well, this is the thing,” Bill goes on to explain, “With this new [Bewitched] show I’m working on, I’ve already asked her to make a cameo in the pilot, and she has agreed.”
“Wow!” I reply. “That is fantastic.”
“And,” he continued, “I would definitely like to consider you to be on the staff of the new show.’
But a few months passed, somehow — the financing for Bewitched Again fell through.
The new series was going to be shot in London, and introduce a new witch who was in love with a mortal. But this time, the mortal would encourage his magical love to do magic, instead of, as with Darrin, discouraging it. Elizabeth’s Samantha was going to pop in for a bit, introduce the new witch, and pop off.
It was a dream series — and a dream job for me.
But it never happened.
So, now what?
So, now what was I gonna do?
My toe was all healed, but I still have all this Bewitched energy…
Will Elizabeth now consider my Bewitched reunion movie?
Bill doesn’t think so. I contact Harry Ackerman, who was the original show’s executive producer and the studio executive at Screen Gems, which produced (and many other classic TV sitcoms of the day). But he doesn’t think Elizabeth would do my reunion movie either.
In fact, none of my friends or colleagues in the business think she would do it.
So what do I do?
“Hey…?” I think, “What about a book….?
Would Elizabeth grant interviews for a book about Bewitched? THEE official Bewitched book….?
“Yeah,” Bill eventually says, “I think she would do that.”
So he talks to her for me, and in a few days, calls me back with her phone number.
Wait? Her phone number?
Elizabeth Montgomery’s phone number?!
So I call it — for six months…and she doesn’t call me back.
Meanwhile, I get pissed off at TV Guide for running an article on the history of the Emmy’s and failing to mention in the article that Elizabeth Montgomery — one of the biggest TV icons in history:
The contents of the original letter, dated May 5th, 1989, follows:
That’s it! I’ve had it! First, you mistreat Bewitched in your magazine in June 1983 (the article on TV Cultists), now you eliminate Elizabeth Montgomery from your Hall of Fame — and fail to even mention her or the super supernatural sitcom anywhere in your 50th Anniversary issue. Montgomery was Emmy-nominated five times for her role as “Samantha Stephens,” and created one of the most popular characters in TV history as the “witch with a twitch.” In addition, she personified the first female sex symbol of the television generation — long before Charlie’s Angels and Suzanne Sommers ‘combed’ the ‘hairwaves.’ To not include a Bewitched reference in a special salute, and to disregard Montgomery as one of the medium’s top icons — defames her ‘witches honor’ and is an ‘immortal’ sin of the television times.”
Bewitched, Bothered & Infuriated,
Herbie J Pilato
“This is crazy!”
Meanwhile, I still haven’t heard from Elizabeth…and I keep calling her.
Then, two weeks go by after I write the letter, and TV Guide actually publishes it, or at least an edited version of it.
By now, I’m working as a waiter at the Bel-Air Bay Club in Pacific Palisades. And one Thursday night, the tips suck, and I come home — drained, exhausted, and depressed.
But there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel.
At least, a flashing light…on my answering machine as I walk in the door.
I press play, and “Hi…It’s Liz Montgomery……”
I’m like, “WHAT?”
“Hi…It’s Liz Montgomery. We’ve been missing each other — Well, you’ve been missing me. I’m finally back for a while. I will give you a call again. You call me. I’ll call you. Hopefully, we’ll be in touch. [Pause] This is crazy. [Pause, with a smile in her voice, then adding]. Okay, bye-bye!”
I call her back.
All the other times, the answering service takes a message.
THIS time, when the service relays that I am on the phone returning her call, “Liz” picks up the phone.
What’s the first thing I say…?
“So, when we gonna meet?”
Not — How are you? Nice to talk to you.”
“So, when we gonna meet?”, asked as casually and comfortably, as if I’d known her for years — which of course, I did.
And — then:
“So did you see TV Guide?”
“What do you mean?” she says.
“The letter…? The letter I wrote to TV Guide….? They published it this week.”
“Okay…lemme me read it to you.” (The TV Guide was next to the phone).
And I went on to read the water-down version of my letter that was published, but importantly it included my reference to Elizabeth being “the first female sex symbol of the TV generation.”
She loved that.
We went on to meet, and I went on to write The Bewitched Book, which led to other books, live events, TV documentaries, TV shows, and so much more.