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Margaret Hamilton

as the Wicked Witch of the West
in The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Born December 9, 1902(1902-12-09)
Cleveland, Ohio, U.S.
Died May 16, 1985 (aged 82)
Salisbury, Connecticut, U.S.
Occupation Actress
Schoolteacher
Years active 1933–1971

Margaret Hamilton (December 9, 1902 – May 16, 1985) was an American film actress known for her portrayal of the Wicked Witch of the West in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz.[1] A former schoolteacher, she worked as a character actor in films for seven years before she was offered the role that defined her public image.

In later years, Hamilton made frequent cameo appearances on television sitcoms and commercials. She also gained recognition for her work as an advocate of causes designed to benefit children and animals, and retained a lifelong commitment to public education.

Contents

Early life

Hamilton was born to Walter J. Hamilton and his wife, Jennie (Adams), in Cleveland, Ohio. She later attended Hathaway Brown School in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Drawn to the theater at an early age, Hamilton made her stage debut in 1923. Hamilton also practiced her craft doing children's theater while she was a Junior League of Cleveland member She later moved to Painesville, Ohio.

Before she turned to acting exclusively, Hamilton attended Wheelock College in Boston and then became a teacher. Over the years, her students included future actors William Windom and Jim Backus.

Film career

in Nothing Sacred (1937)

Hamilton's unlikely career as a film actress was driven by the very qualities that placed her in stark contrast to the stereotypical Hollywood glamour girl. Her image was that of a New England spinster, extremely pragmatic and impatient with all manner of "tomfoolery". Hamilton's plain looks helped to bring steady work as a character actor. She made her screen debut in 1933 in Zoo in Budapest. Hamilton went on to appear in These Three (1936), Saratoga, You Only Live Once, Nothing Sacred (all 1937), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938), and My Little Chickadee (1940). She strived to work as much as possible to support herself and her son; she never put herself under contract to any one studio and priced her services at $1000 a week.[2]

In 1939, Hamilton played the role of the Wicked Witch of the West, opposite Judy Garland's Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, creating not only her most famous role, but also one of the screen's most memorable villains. Hamilton was chosen when the more traditionally attractive Gale Sondergaard refused to wear makeup designed to make her appear ugly.

Hamilton suffered severe burns during a second (and unused) take of her fiery exit from Munchkinland, in which the trap door's drop was delayed to eliminate the brief glimpse of it seen in the final edit. Hamilton had to recuperate in a hospital and at home for six weeks after the accident before returning to the set to complete her work on the now-classic film, and refused to have anything to do with fire for the rest of the filming. Judy Garland had visited her while Hamilton recuperated at home.[3]

Studio executives cut some of Margaret's most wicked scenes, worrying they would frighten children. Whatever ill will she may have felt toward the role quickly disintegrated; later on in life she would comment on the role of the witch in a light-hearted fashion. For an interview, she joked:

"I was in a need of money at the time, and my agent called. I said, 'Yes?' and he said 'Maggie, they want you to play a part on the Wizard.' I said to myself, 'Oh Boy, The Wizard of Oz! That has been my favorite book since I was four.' And I asked him what part, and he said 'The Witch' and I said 'The Witch?!' and he said 'What else?'" (Hamilton presented this as the punchline to the joke.) [DVD commentary track]

Hamilton co-starred opposite Buster Keaton and Richard Cromwell, in a 1940s forgettable spoof of the long-running local melodrama The Drunkard entitled The Villain Still Pursued Her. Later in the decade, she was in a now-forgotten film noir from one of the "poverty row" studios, entitled Bungalow 13 (1948), in which she again co-starred opposite Cromwell, although that film did nothing for either of their careers.[citation needed]

Hamilton's crisp voice with rapid but clear enunciation was another trademark. She appeared regularly in supporting roles in films until the early 1950s, and sporadically thereafter. Her uncredited nearly 10-minute performance in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's People Will Talk from 1951 playing the part of Sarah Pickett opposite Hume Cronyn's Dr. Elwell was especially memorable.[citation needed]

In 1960, producer/director William Castle cast Hamilton as the maid in his 13 Ghosts spookfest. Throughout the film she plays straight face to 12-year-old lead Charles Herbert's barbs about her being a witch, including one scene with broom in hand.

Hamilton was often asked about her experiences on the set of The Wizard of Oz. Hamilton said she sometimes worried about the effect that her monstrous film role had on children. In real life, Hamilton deeply loved children and gave to charitable organizations benefiting them. She often remarked about children coming up to her and asking her why she had been so mean to poor Dorothy. She appeared on an episode of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, where she explained to children that she was only playing a role and showed how make-up transformed her into the witch. She also made personal appearances, and Hamilton described the usual reaction:

"Almost always they want me to laugh like the Witch. And sometimes when I go to schools, if we're in an auditorium, I'll do it. And there's always a funny reaction, like Oh geez, they wish they hadn't asked. They're scared. They're really scared for a second. Even adolescents. I guess for a minute they get the feeling they got when they watched the picture. They like to hear it but they don't like to hear it. And then they go, 'Ohhhhhhhhhh.'... The picture made a terrible impression of some kind on them, sometimes a ghastly impression, but most of them got over it, I guess... Because when I talk like the Witch and when I laugh, there is a hesitation, and then they clap. They're clapping at hearing the sound again."[4]

Robert Altman's Brewster McCloud, a film about flying, pays homage to Hamilton's wicked witch character: in the film, Hamilton plays a wealthy woman who is crushed by a large birdhouse. As the camera pans down her body, you see that on her feet are the ruby slippers.

Television career

During the 1960s and 1970s, Hamilton appeared regularly on television. She did a stint as one of the What's My Line? Mystery Guests on the popular Sunday Night CBS-TV program. She reprised the image of Almira Gulch from The Wizard of Oz for her role as Morticia Addams' mother Hester (Granny) Frump in The Addams Family.(She was offered the role of Grandmama but turned it down[citation needed].)

During the 1960s she was a regular on the CBS soap opera, "The Secret Storm," playing the role of Grace Tyrell's (Marjorie Gateson) beloved housekeeper, "Katie." In the early 1970s, she joined the cast of another CBS soap, "As the World Turns," playing "Miss Peterson," affectionately called "Pete" by her millionaire boss, "Simon Gilbey" (Jerry Lacy.) She had a small role in the made-for-TV film The Night Strangler (1973) and appeared as a befuddled neighbor on Sigmund and the Sea Monsters. In the 1976 Paul Lynde Halloween Special, she portrayed Paul's housekeeper of 15 years and reprised her role as the Wicked Witch of the West. She would reprise her role as the Wicked Witch of the West in an episode of Sesame Street but after complaints from parents of terrified children it hasn't been seen since 1976. http://muppet.wikia.com/wiki/Episode_0847

She also appeared as herself in an episode of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. She continued acting regularly until 1982. Her last role was a guest appearance as a veteran journalist on an episode of Lou Grant.

Margaret Hamilton as Cora, spokesperson for Maxwell House coffee.

Throughout the 1970s, Hamilton lived in New York City's Gramercy Park neighborhood and appeared on local (and some national) public service announcements (PSA's) for organizations promoting the welfare of pets. Her most visible appearances during this period were as general store owner Cora, in a national series of television commercials for Maxwell House coffee ("I think it tastes best.").

Personal life

Hamilton married Paul Boynton Meserve on June 13, 1931, and made her debut on the New York stage the following year. While her acting career developed, her marriage became troubled, and the couple divorced in 1938. They had one son, Hamilton Wadsworth Meserve (born 1935), whom she raised on her own. She in turn had three grandchildren: Christopher, Scott, and Margie.

Later years

Hamilton's early experience as a teacher fueled a lifelong interest in educational issues. Hamilton served on the Beverly Hills Board of Education between 1948 to 1951, long after her success in films. She also taught Sunday school in the 1950s.

She lived in New York City for most of her adult life. Her Gramercy Park apartment building also boasted James Cagney as one of its tenants. She later moved to Porterville, California. Hamilton died in her sleep following dementia and natural causes on 16 May 1985 in Salisbury, Connecticut at the age of 82.[1] She was cremated at Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery and her ashes were scattered in Amenia, New York.

Legacy

Years after her death, Hamilton's celebrated screen performance as the Wicked Witch of the West continued to capture the public's imagination and inspired numerous tributes. In Gregory Maguire's novel Wicked which is also dedicated to her, the Witch is portrayed as being deeply concerned about the exploitation of Animals in Oz. This is seen by some fans as a tribute to Hamilton, who was a member of Friends of Animals and did a series of PSAs for the Humane Society in the 1970s.

Overview of stage career

  • Stage debut 1923; New York debut 1932; 39 total Principal Stage Appearances, including:
    • Appeared at The Muny Theater in Forest Park in St. Louis, Missouri, in several roles including reprising her role as the Wicked Witch of the West and also appearing in productions of Oklahoma! (as Aunt Eller) and Show Boat (as Parthy Ann Hawks).
    • Reprised the role of Parthy Ann in Show Boat in the 1966 Lincoln Center revival of the musical.
  • Appeared in 3 major tours, including "Annie Get Your Gun", "Light Up the Sky", and "A Little Night Music"
  • Produced 3 productions, including "An Evening with the Bourgeoisie", "The Three Sisters", and "House Party".[5]

Quote

Hamilton's line from The Wizard of Oz - "I'll get you, my pretty . . . and your little dog, too!" - was ranked 99th in the 2005 American Film Institute survey of the most memorable movie quotes. Her son, interviewed for the 2005 DVD edition of the film, commented that Hamilton enjoyed the line so much, she sometimes used it in her real life.

Filmography

Television

  • The Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney Show - cast member from (1953 - 1954)
  • The Way of the World (1955) - canceled after a few episodes
  • Valiant Lady - cast member in 1955
  • The Secret World of Eddie Hodges (1960)
  • 13 Ghosts (1960)
  • The Addams Family (1965 and 1966) - guest star as Hester Frump
  • The Secret Storm - cast member from 1964 - 1967
  • Ghostbreakers (1967) - unsold pilot
  • As the World Turns - cast member in 1971

Notes

  1. ^ a b "Margaret Hamilton, 82, Dies; Played Wicked Witch In 'Oz'". New York Times. May 17, 1985. "Margaret Hamilton, the actress whose role as the cackling Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz unnerved generations of children, died yesterday, apparently of a heart attack, at a nursing home in Salisbury, Connecticut. She was 82 years old. Miss Hamilton was a gentle, lively woman who taught kindergarten for years before she began a career of 50 years in the theater, movies, radio and television. But she seared a fearsome image on the public consciousness in 1939 when, at the age of 36, she played the Wicked Witch, the terror of Judy Garland's long dream in the classic film of L. Frank Baum's story." 
  2. ^ Harmetz, A. (1998). The Making of the Wizard of Oz: Movie Magic and Studio Power in the Prime of MGM. New York: Hyperion Books. p. 123
  3. ^ Harmetz, A. (1998). The Making of the Wizard of Oz: Movie Magic and Studio Power in the Prime of MGM. New York: Hyperion Books.
  4. ^ Harmetz, Aljean; "The Making of the Wizard of Oz," p/297
  5. ^ http://www.filmreference.com/film/91/Margaret-Hamilton.html accessdate 2007-08-16

External links








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