Everyone knows how an actor or actress can come to be identified with a single role (Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, for example), but there have also been performances which have come to define not just a role, but an entire character type. Ask someone what a vampire sounds like, and there’s a good chance they’ll imitate Bela Lugosi’s Hungarian accent from Dracula. Whenever people shout “Arrrr!” as they try to talk like a pirate, it’s thanks to Robert Newton’s Treasure Island turn as Long John Silver. And that gleeful cackling that everyone associates with witches? Apologies to Broadway’s Wicked and the new movie Oz: The Great and Powerful, but the most famous, if not the very first, example came courtesy of Hollywood’s most famous witch–and one of its most recognized character actresses–Margaret Hamilton.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1902, Margaret Brainard Hamilton’s interest in acting began in high school, where she played the male lead of her senior play. Her parents, however, wanted her to have a more stable career, so Hamilton attended college in Boston and worked as a kindergarten teacher in Massachusetts, Ohio and New York (among her young charges over the years were future actors Jim Backus and William Windom). Margaret still found time to work in stage plays (including a pre-MGM turn as the Wicked Witch of the West in a production of The Wizard of Oz), and she made her New York stage debut in 1932, the year after she wed architect Paul Meserve (their troubled marriage would end in 1938).
Hamilton moved to Hollywood in 1933 when MGM hired the actress to reprise her Broadway role of Helen Hallam in the drama Another Language, starring Helen Hayes as a woman who marries into a family ruled by a domineering mother. Hamilton’s character, the stern spinster sister of Hayes’ new husband (Robert Montgomery), helped set the tone for what would become a nearly 50-year screen career of playing flinty servants, prim and proper schoolmarms, well-intentioned busybodies, and what she herself termed “women with a heart of gold and a corset of steel.” Among her more memorable early ’30s credits were a pair of appearances with future Wizard co-star Frank Morgan–There’s Always Tomorrow for Universal and RKO’s By Your Leave–in 1934, and a supporting turn that same year as the landlady with an romantic eye on racetrack tout Raymond Walburn in director Frank Capra’s equestrian comedy Broadway Bill (both Hamilton and Walburn would play the same characters 16 years later in Capra’s song-filled remake, Riding High, with Bing Crosby).
She appeared with Henry Fonda in his first two films, Fox’s The Farmer Takes a Wife and Way Down East (both 1935); gave rumor-spreading schoolgirl Bonita Granville a memorable (and well-deserved) slap in 1936’s These Three, Lillian Hellman’s bowdlerized version of her own stage drama The Children’s Hour; played Mrs. Harper in 1937’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; and that same year was a Vermont drugstore clerk who dressed down New York reporter Fredric March in the screwball gem Nothing Sacred. Margaret was also a standout as Beulah Flanders, the shotgun-toting, five-time farm widow who catches egg thieves Wallace Beery and Mickey Rooney in her barn and puts them to work, in Stablemates (1938).
By 1938, Hamilton was a steadily working, divorced mother of a young son. She had refused to sign a long-term contract with any one studio, preferring to keep her options open and try to avoid typecasting, and asked for a $1,000-per-work salary so as not to price herself out of roles. It was at this time that she received a call from her agent that would make her a screen icon. As Margaret later recounted, “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.’ I said ‘The Witch!?,’ and he said ‘What else?'”
After considering actress Gale Sondergaard as a more glamorous Wicked Witch of the West (à la the Queen in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), MGM painted Hamilton in green makeup, dressed her in black, and put her to work terrorizing Dorothy (Judy Garland) and her companions along the Yellow Brick Road. The six-week assignment became a nearly six-month ordeal, thanks in no small part to a potentially fatal on-set accident. During the scene when the Witch threatens Dorothy–and her “little dog, too!”–in Munchkinland, a trap door that was supposed to allow her to drop under the stage failed to open before the fire effects of her “disappearance” went off. Hamilton’s costume caught fire, and she had to be hospitalized with second- and third-degree burns on her face and hands. “I won’t sue, because I know how this business works,” she said during her month-long recovery, “and I would never work again. I will return to work on one condition…no more firework!” Her injury was one of several–among them a makeup allergy that forced Buddy Ebsen to step down from the role of the Tin Man–that plagued the production. In fact, Hamilton’s stunt double, Betty Danko, received burns on her legs when the smoking pipe “broomstick” she was perched on for the “Surrender Dorothy!” skywriting scene exploded.
In spite of her fiery mishap–and the relatively lukewarm reception that met the picture upon its initial release–The Wizard of Oz would, over the decades, become one of the best-loved movies of all time, and Hamilton’s gleefully menacing turns as both the Wicked Witch and Kansas antagonist Miss Gulch would endear her to generations to come. In the meantime, it was back to work for Margaret, who got a second chance in 1939 to antagonize Garland–along with Mickey Rooney–when she played a nasty townswoman trying to shut down the show business kids’ stage show in the lively musical Babes in Arms.
The ’40s opened in grand form for Hamilton, who in 1940 lent support to W.C. Fields and Mae West in their western romp My Little Chickadee, to Buster Keaton and Anita Louise in the melodrama spoof The Villain Still Pursued Her, and as scientist John Barrymore’s tart-tongued housekeeper in Universal’s The Invisible Woman. Her turn as a hard-drinking, card-cheating prisoner’s wife sharing a boardinghouse with other inmates’ spouses livened up the “B” drama City Without Men (1943); she appeared with silent funnyman Harold Lloyd in his ill-received “comeback” film, Preston Sturges’ The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947); and she was in fine form as the maid who remembers the number 7612 as “76, that’s the year of the revolution, and 12 for the 12 commandments” in Frank Capra’s political tale State of the Union (1948), with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.
By the 1950s and ’60s Margaret was dividing her work between film, the stage (with roles in Show Boat, Annie Get Your Gun, and more), radio (a recurring part on the sitcom Ethel and Albert), and the blossoming television industry, but still found time to occasionally teach and also serve on the Beverly Hills Board of Education. On the big screen, she played a backwoods spellcaster who gets into a voodoo doll pin-stabbing duel with Lou Costello in the 1951 Abbott and Costello feature Comin’ Round the Mountain, and later poked fun at her Oz role as the stern, broom-wielding housekeeper who may be more than she seems (when her new employer’s son asks her if she’s really a witch, she replies “Ask me no questions, and I’ll tell you no lies.”) in William Castsle’s light-hearted 1960 chiller 13 Ghosts. She had roles on such popular soap operas as The Secret Storm and As the World Turns, and guest-starred on shows as diverse as Laramie, The Patty Duke Show, The Partridge Family, Gunsmoke, and The Addams Family, where she played Morticia’s mother, Hester Frump.
Robert Altman’s 1970 comedy Brewster McCloud features a suitably quirky title sequence with Hamilton, as a wealthy Houston eccentric, rehearsing a screechingly off-key rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in the Astrodome…and actually halting the opening credits until she can re-do the song. She later turns up crushed to death by a giant iron birdcage, dressed in a red, white and blue outfit that includes a pair of ruby slippers! She was one of the apartment building tenants robbed by master thief Sean Connery in 1971’s The Anderson Tapes, and had a feature film swan song as the voice of Aunt Em (with Liza Minnelli as Dorothy) in the 1974 animated feature Journey Back to Oz. Margaret kept busy on TV, with a role in the Saturday morning live-action show Sigmund and the Sea Monsters and a cameo as a professor lecturing reporter Karl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) on the occult in 1973’s The Night Strangler. Her most memorable ’70s small-screen role may well have been Cora, the general store proprietress who only stocks Maxwell House coffee, in a series of commercials.
There was no escaping the pull of The Wizard of Oz, though, thanks to its annual TV airings. Margaret would don her black dress and pointed hat in some unusual tube guest spots. In 1976 she paid a visit to Sesame Street that was never re-aired after complaints from the parents of scared youngsters, and later that year she teamed with H.R. Pufnstuf’s Witchiepoo, Billie Hayes, to torment Paul Lynde–and introduce the rock band KISS–on Lynde’s Halloween special. Perhaps in response to her Sesame Street turn, Hamilton also appeared as herself on an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, dressing as the Witch while gently explaining to Fred Rogers’ audience that the role was make-believe. She also took the opportunity to say hello to her three grandchildren.
Hamilton lived her last years in an apartment in New York’s Gramercy Park section before moving to a suburban Connecticut nursing home, where she passed away in her sleep after a heart attack, at the age of 82, in May of 1985. About her young Oz fans she once said, “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 ye gods, they wish they hadn’t asked. They’re scared…and then they go, ‘Oh!’ 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.” They were also, no doubt, happy to meet the loving and talented woman behind the Witch’s makeup.