Author: Karen Barker Crowley
Margaret Hamilton's portrayal of the wonderfully nasty Wicked Witch of the West has scared the daylights out of young children for more than sixty years, but it almost didn't happen. Hamilton landed the role after the producer's first choice refused to make herself ugly.
Producer Mervyn LeRoy originally wanted the Wicked Witch of the West to be glamorous, much like the wicked queen in Disney's Snow White, a huge success in 1938. His first choice for the part was Academy-Award-winning actress Gale Sondergaard; he envisioned her wearing a tight-fitting black sequined dress, a black sequined hat, and green eye shadow.
Fortunately, LeRoy's vision of a slinky, glamorous witch was not to be. When he informed Sondergaard she'd be playing an "ugly, hateful" witch instead, she backed out of the film.
"I said, 'Fine Mervyn. I really don't want to be an ugly, hateful witch,'" Sondergaard remembered in The Making of The Wizard of Oz by Aljean Harmetz. "And that was the end of it. In those days, I was not about to make myself ugly for any motion picture."
Enter Margaret Hamilton, a character actress from Cleveland, Ohio. When she stepped onto the set of Oz, she was 36 years old, recently divorced, and raising a 3-year-old son alone. She was an experienced Wicked Witch of the West, having already played the role twice in community theatre productions in her hometown.
She'd been trained as a kindergarten teacher and even opened her own nursery school in Cleveland, but she never gave up her dream of acting. She eventually appeared on stage in New York, and in 1933 she landed her first movie role in the MGM film Another Language. She went on to make 25 more films in the next five years.
Hamilton worked on Oz for four months, earning $1,000 per week. She arrived at the studio at 7 a.m. each day and suffered through two hours in the makeup chair. A rubber nose, chin, and wart had to be glued to her face, and her face, arms, and hands were coated with green paint. Partway through the filming, she noticed her skin had acquired a green tinge, even when she wasn't in makeup. It was months before her skin was back to normal.
Green-tinted skin was a mild problem compared to HamiltonÕs life-threatening accident on the Munchkinland set. When the witch disappeared in a ball of fire and smoke, Hamilton dropped down through a hidden trapdoor. During one take, the flames shot up too soon. Hamilton felt warmth on her face. Crew members ripped away her hat and her broom. It wasn't until she looked down at her right hand that she realized something terrible had happened Ð all of the skin on the back of her hand had burned away. Her face was also severely burned. Because of its copper content, her green makeup had to be painfully wiped off with alcohol.
"I'll never, as long as I live, have anything that took my breath away like that pain," Hamilton remembered.
She spent six weeks recovering from the burns. She decided not to sue MGM, out of fear that sheÕd never work again. Once she returned to the set, however, she refused to do any more scenes involving fire.
After Oz, Hamilton continued to work in movies, theater, radio, and television. In the 1970s, she appeared in commercials as the spokesperson for Maxwell House coffee. She also provided the voice of Aunt Em in the animated Journey Back to Oz in 1974. She continued to work until 1979, when she gave her final performance as Grandma Miller in the TV movie Letters from Frank. Six years later, Margaret Hamilton died of a heart attack at the age of 82.