Margaret Brainard Hamilton (December 9, 1902 – May 16, 1985) was an American film actress best known for her portrayal of the malevolent Miss Almira Gulch and the Wicked Witch of the West in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's musical film The Wizard of Oz (1939). 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.
Hamilton was born 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 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, 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 plain 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.
Hamilton co-starred opposite Buster Keaton and Richard Cromwell, in a 1940s spoof of the long-running local melodrama The Drunkard, entitledThe Villain Still Pursued Her. Later in the decade, she was in a little known film noir, entitled Bungalow 13 (1948), in which she again co-starred opposite Cromwell. Her 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. She appeared, uncredited, in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's People Will Talk (1951), playing the part of Sarah Pickett opposite Hume Cronyn's Dr. Elwell.
In 1960, producer/director William Castle cast Hamilton as a maid named Elaine Zacharides in his 13 Ghosts horror film. Throughout the film she plays it straight when 12-year-old lead Charles Herbert's taunts her about being a witch, including one scene when she has a broom in her hand.
The Wizard of Oz
Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the Westwith Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz
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 she refused to have anything 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 she recuperated at home. Studio executives cut some of Hamilton's more frightening scenes, worrying that they would frighten children too much. 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, I had done about six pictures for MGM 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's stand-in and stunt double for the Witch, Betty Danko, also suffered an on-set accident on February 11, 1939. It was Danko who made the fiery entrance to Munchkinland, not Hamilton. She was severely burned during the "Surrender Dorothy!" skywriting sequence at the Emerald City. Danko sat on a smoking pipe configured to look like the Witch's broomstick. The pipe exploded on the third take of the scene. She spent eleven days in the hospital. Her legs were permanently scarred. Hamilton's new stunt double, Aline Goodwin was hired to finish the broomstick riding scene for Danko.
Hamilton, often asked about her experiences on the set of The Wizard of Oz, 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. 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 children's usual reaction to her portrayal of the Witch:
"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. 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."
Hamilton played three roles in the famous film: Almira Gulch, the Wicked Witch of the West, and the Wicked Witch of the East. (Although Hamilton was never officially credited for this third role, the Witch that she played in the tornado sequence is undoubtedly the Witch of the East: she is wearing the Ruby Slippers.) Only co-star Frank Morgan played more roles in the film (five roles). Hamilton and Morgan never appear on screen together in this film; however, her appearance in the earlier film Saratoga (1937) is a colloquy with Morgan regarding her use of a cosmetic product he invented (with side glances and eye rolls by Morgan as to its effect on her "beauty").
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.
A few months after filming Oz, she had another antagonistic role in Babes in Arms which also starred Judy Garland in a leading role. Hamilton portrayed Jeff Steele's mother, Martha Steele.
Radio, television and stage career
Hamilton with Oscar the Grouch on Episode #0847 of Sesame Street
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 (1965–1966). (Hamilton had been offered the role of Grandmama but turned it down.)
In 1962, Hamilton played Leora Scofield, a suffragette who arrives in Laramie, Wyoming, to bolster feminist causes in a territory where women had already obtained the right to vote, in the episode "Beyond Justice" of NBC's Laramie western series. In the story line, she is depicted as a long lost friend of series character Daisy Cooper, played by Spring Byington. Series lead character Slim Sherman (John Smith) is skeptical of the suffragettes, and he and Sheriff Mort Corey concoct a tale that the women should head to Cheyenne, where their services are more needed than in Laramie. This episode also has another plot in which a corrupt territorial politician is shot by his equally dishonest lawyer.
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 a veteran journalist named Thea Taft (in 1979 and 1982, respectively) on Lou Grant.
Throughout the 1970s, Hamilton lived in New York City's Gramercy Park neighborhood and appeared on local (and some national) public service announcements (PSAs) 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.
Hamilton as Madame Armfeldt in the national tour of A Little Night Music
Hamilton produced the stage productions An Evening with the Bourgeoisie, The Three Sisters, and House Party.
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. She did not remarry. They had one son, Hamilton Wadsworth Meserve (born 1936), whom she raised on her own. She had three grandchildren: Christopher, Scott, and Margaret.
Later years and death
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, and was a Sunday school teacher during the 1950s. She lived in New York City for most of her adult life. Her Gramercy Parkapartment building also boasted James Cagney and Jonathan Frid as tenants. She later moved to Millbrook, New York. She died in her sleep following a heart attack on May 16, 1985, in Salisbury, Connecticut. She was cremated at Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery and her ashes were scattered in Amenia, New York.