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Margaret Hamilton, 82, Wicked Witch of 'Oz,' Dies

May 17, 1985|JERRY BELCHER | Times Staff Writer

Margaret Hamilton, who flew a broomstick to fearsome fame as the Wicked Witch of the West in the classic film "The Wizard of Oz," died Thursday in a Connecticut nursing home.

Miss Hamilton, 82, apparently succumbed to heart failure, according to JoAnn Luning, nursing supervisor at Noble Horizons in Salisbury, where the retired actress had been under care for six months.

"She was a very pleasant, very happy woman who never put on any airs," Luning said.

And in Beverly Hills, Ray Bolger, the last surviving featured player from the 1939 film, commented: "She was a terrifying villain in the picture but an angel in life."

Although she was admired as a serious actress and an accomplished comedienne for years before and after "Oz," it was her role as the green-faced, consummately evil witch with features as pointy as her conical witch's hat that made her a movie immortal. Her cackling screech--as she pursues poor little Judy Garland (Dorothy) and her eccentric friends along the Yellow Brick Road--will echo down through generations yet to come.

Oddly, although she was a night mare figure in the movie, goading her ghastly flying hench-monkeys to commit the most dastardly deeds, she also was able to stir sympathy from her audience. Even Dorothy seemed horrified when she dashed water on the Wicked One and the witch slowly dissolved into a puddle of nothingness, moaning pathetically: "What a world. . . . What a world."

"I didn't mean to kill her!" cried the dismayed Dorothy

In later years, Miss Hamilton became the center of an admiring cult, often appearing at "Wizard of Oz" festivals across the country. "Somebody in Chillicothe would want to put on something about Oz, and she would just jump on her broom and get there," Bolger said Thursday.

Bolger, 80, played the brainless, straw-stuffed Scarecrow in the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer hit. He described Miss Hamilton as "one of the loveliest people I know on this Earth," adding that because of the quirks of movie making, he didn't really get to know her while they were shooting the picture.

"But later we got to know each other during a seminar about the picture at USC," he recalled. "She had a sense of humor--a wry New England type of humor--but she was a serious person . . . a wonderful actress who could play almost any kind of part."

Letters From Children

In a 1977 interview, Miss Hamilton said she received--and faithfully answered--as many as 2,000 letters a year from children who knew her from television reruns of the famous film.

Miss Hamilton said she won the role largely because of her shudder-producing witch's cackle, which she developed while playing the same part in stage versions of the L. Frank Baum classic children's book.

Despite the fame the character brought her, Miss Hamilton did not consider it her best work as an actress. "It's not the part I'd most like to be known for," she said in a 1970 interview. But she also admitted: "I adore the picture." And, like millions of Americans, she said she watched it almost every year when "Oz" was rerun on television.

Born in Cleveland, Miss Hamilton was trained as a teacher and taught kindergarten while studying acting at the Cleveland Play House.

She made her Broadway debut in 1932 in "Another Language" and came to Hollywood a year later to appear in the film version. She often played the part of gossipy, mean-spirited spinsters--she was a master of the behind-the-hand sneer--but could also portray sympathetic characters with equal skill.

Other Movies

Among her other movies were "Way Down East" and "The Farmer Takes a Wife" in 1935, "Nothing Sacred" in 1937, "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" in 1938, "My Little Chickadee" in 1939 and "The Ox-Bow Incident" in 1943.

All told, she appeared in 75 motion pictures and at least as many stage productions. She performed in countless television and radio dramas and most recently was seen as the kindly Cora in Maxwell House Coffee commercials. Her last movie was "The Anderson Tapes" in 1971, and she continued working on the stage until 1977.

She is survived by a son, Hamilton Meserve of Millbrook, N.Y.

There will be a private funeral service, and a memorial service is planned later.

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