Sunday, October 26, 2014

WHAT A CHARACTER: MARGARET HAMILTON


When I recently showed by 4 year old The Wizard Of Oz (1939), I thought he would be afraid of the flying monkeys as I was growing up. It was not those monkeys that gave him nightmares, but it was the Wicked Witch. It is a testament to the actress that played the Witch, Margaret Hamilton that could still scare little children some 75 years after the movie came out.

A former schoolteacher, she worked as a character actress in films for seven years before she was offered the role that defined her public image. The Wicked Witch of the West was eventually ranked No. 4 in the American Film Institute's list of the 50 Best Movie Villains of All Time, making her the highest ranking female villain. 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.

Margaret Hamilton was born on December 9, 1902 to Walter J. Hamilton, and his wife, Jennie (née Adams), in Cleveland, Ohio, and was the youngest of four children. She later attended Hathaway Brown School, while the school was located at 1945 East 93rd Street in Cleveland. 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, her parents insisted that she attend Wheelock College in Boston, which she did, later becoming a kindergarten teacher.

Hamilton's 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 looks helped to bring steady work as a character actor. She made her screen debut in 1933 in Another Language. She went on to appear in These Three (1936), Saratoga, You Only Live Once, When's Your Birthday?, Nothing Sacred (all 1937), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938), and My Little Chickadee (1940). She strove 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 $1,000 a week.

In 1939, Hamilton played the role of the Wicked Witch of the West, opposite Judy Garland's Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz, creating not only her most famous role, but one of the screen's most memorable villains. Hamilton was cast after Gale Sondergaard, who was first considered for the role, albeit as a more glamorous witch with a musical scene, declined the role when the decision was made that the witch should appear ugly.


She suffered a second-degree burn on her face and a third-degree burn on her hand during a second 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 further to do with fire for the rest of the filming. After she recuperated, she said, "I won't sue, because I know how this business works, and I would never work again. I will return to work on one condition — no more fireworks!" Garland visited Hamilton while the latter recuperated at home. 

When asked about her experiences on the set of The Wizard of Oz, she said that her biggest fear was that her monstrous film role would give children the wrong idea of who she really was. In reality, Margaret Hamilton was very nice and had a great love for children, frequently giving to charitable organizations. 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 in 1975, where she explained to children that she was only playing a role, and showed how putting on a costume "transformed" her into the witch. She also made personal appearances, and Hamilton described the children's usual reaction to her portrayal of the Witch.

In the 1940s and 1950s, Hamilton had a long-running role on the radio series Ethel and Albert (a.k.a. The Couple Next Door) in which she played the lovable, scattered Aunt Eva (name later changed to Aunt Effie). During the 1960s and 1970s, Hamilton appeared regularly on television. She did a stint as a What's My Line? Mystery Guest on the popular Sunday Night CBS-TV program. She played Morticia Addams' mother, Hester Frump, in three episodes of The Addams Family (1965–66; Hamilton had been offered the role of Grandmama but turned it down.)


In the 1960s, Hamilton was a regular on the CBS soap opera, The Secret Storm, playing the role of Grace Tyrell's housekeeper, "Katie". In the early 1970s, she joined the cast of another CBS soap opera, As the World Turns, playing "Miss Peterson". 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 Paul Lynde Halloween Special (1976), she portrayed Lynde's housekeeper, reprising the Wicked Witch role as well as introducing Lynde to the rock group KISS. She reprised her role as the Wicked Witch in an episode of Sesame Street, but after complaints from parents of terrified children, it has not been seen since 1976. She appeared as herself in an episode of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and continued acting regularly until 1982. Her last roles were two guest appearances as veteran journalist Thea Taft (in 1979 and 1982, respectively) on Lou Grant.


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 began failing; the couple divorced in 1938. They had one son, Hamilton Wadsworth Meserve (born 1936), whom she raised on her own. She had three grandchildren, Christopher, Scott, and Margaret. Hamilton never remarried. She died in her sleep following a heart attack on May 16, 1985, in Salisbury, Connecticut. She was cremated at Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery. Her ashes were scattered in Amenia, New York. As a character actress, there was no one better than Margaret Hamilton. Even ask my son who currently is not allowed to watch The Wizard Of Oz because of her. Hamilton was so wicked in that role, she was good…


3 comments:

  1. Great post on a marvelous character actor! Even if I'm out of the room when one of her movies is playing, I can recognize that voice. I always liked how she spoofed her image in William Castle's 13 GHOSTS.

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  2. In one of her pre-Wizard roles, Hamilton was in the Carole Lombard-Frederic March screwball comedy, "Nothing Sacred." She briefly appeared as a hatchet-faced, taciturn Vermont shop keeper who deftly fends off reporter March's questions about "dying" Hazel Flagg (Lombard). It was a classic small town versus big city interaction that's almost stereotypical. She steals the scene with her first, "YEP!"

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  3. my grandaughter played margaret hamilton as the wicked witch for her school timeline of famous people from ohio. margaret would have been proud. ohio proud!!! Catherine curtis

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