The above quote is among the most famous in films. It is, of course, the Wicked Witch of the West speaking to Dorothy in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. It is the role which gave Margaret (Maggie) Hamilton (1902 – 1985) an indelible place in American popular culture. The number of people around the world who have seen her performance is beyond estimation. Everyone associates her with this character, one of the most famous villains in movies. I read somewhere that Star Wars’ Darth Vader was a villain equal to the Wicked Witch of the West. In other words he was REALLY wicked.
But Margaret Hamilton’s career went far beyond this famous portrayal. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, she made her stage debut in 1923, but before she turned to acting full time, she attended Wheelock College in Boston and became a teacher for a few years. Thereafter, her New York stage debut was in 1932 and her film debut was in 1933. Her film success can be attributed ironically to her obvious opposite image from the so-called “Hollywood glamour girl.” Her plainness brought enormous success as a character actor in a total of seventy films including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and My Little Chickadee with W. C. Fields. Interestingly, Hamilton was cast as the Wicked Witch after another actress refused the role because she did not want to be made to look ugly. Today people who never heard of this actress know who Hamilton was.
Hamilton’s television appearances included being a regular cast member in such shows as The Partridge Family and As the World Turns. She made guest appearances on The Addams Family, Gunsmoke, Lou Grant, and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood where she appeared as herself and Fred Rogers put on the witch’s costume! She also was seen regularly as Cora, the lady who advertised Maxwell House coffee.
On the stage, she appeared in Oklahoma and in Show Boat, among other productions. She also acted in touring productions of Annie Get Your Gun, Light Up The Sky and A Little Night Music in which she co-starred with Jean Simmons. It was this tour in Boston that enabled my husband, Henry Timm, and me to meet her. At the time, Henry was chair of the Theater Department at Wheelock College in Boston. Because Maggie was an alumna of Wheelock, Henry invited her to be a guest in his acting class. Much to our delight, she accepted the invitation. When she arrived one memorable afternoon, Henry presented her with flowers from “the king of the Belgians” (her paramour character in A Little Night Music). During the class prior to her visit, Henry had impressed upon the students the extent of her career and urged them to ask her a range of questions about acting for screen, stage and television. He also admonished them to avoid focusing too much on the Wicked Witch and stressed how important it was to broaden the scope of their questions. They did very well with these guidelines and for two hours there was a lively discussion about acting in general and her experiences as well. (I confess that I attended the class.) She was gracious and gossiped about “Miss (Mae) West” and “Mr. (W.C.) Fields” during the production of My Little Chickadee. There was some discussion about The Wizard of Oz that was all behind the scenes doings. She talked about how, as a former teacher, she had to become an advocate for Judy Garland when she insisted that MGM allow Judy to attend her high school graduation when the studio executives were opposed because it meant they would lose some production time. She also talked about being in the hospital from burns she received during the filming of a second fiery exit scene of the witch which the studio never used. And in good sportsmanship she did give forth her famous witch’s laugh for the class.
When it was over, we were to taxi Maggie to her dinner engagement prior to her performance that night. As I drove across Boston, from time to time I glanced at her during our conversation. That profile was unmistakable. When we arrived at the restaurant, Henry got out and opened the door for her. Before she left, she slid over and kissed me on the cheek. As Henry escorted her into the restaurant, I put my hand against my cheek. In spite of my success all afternoon in focusing on her remarkable career, I thought “I have just been kissed by the Wicked Witch of the West.”