Ironically, Margaret Hamilton’s role as the Wicked Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz put a curse on her career.
The Cleveland, Ohio, kindergarten teacher had once played the witch in a local theatre production of the classic story but she almost didn’t get the Hollywood part. The producer wanted a famous face, but actresses feared the role would make them look too ugly.
Hamilton wasn’t that vain.
So, the studio took a gamble on the single mom with a long chin and hooked nose, especially since she’d appeared in several plays and a few movies. At the audition, it was her cackle that sealed the deal.
On set, Hamilton covered herself in green paint and took some big risks. In one scene, the Wicked Witch escapes from Munchkinland in a fiery ball. That meant slipping into a hidden trap door before the fire was set.
But, in one take, Hamilton’s broom ignited, leading to serious burns on her face and hand. Stagehands were frantic to stop her copper-based makeup from getting into her bloodstream through the burns, which could’ve been fatal.
They removed it with rubbing alcohol but Hamilton needed six weeks to recover and had to wear green gloves to disguise heavy scarring.
Although on screen for only 12 minutes, Hamilton became a pop culture icon as the film took on cult status. She immortalized the lines: “I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too!” and “I’m melting!”
Still, she worried about frightening children and wasn’t happy that so many feared and hated her. In real life, Hamilton was warm and kind. She even became a penpal with several children.
After the movie, her career suffered because people could see her only as the Wicked Witch. She played a witch in a few films, was the mother of Morticia Addams in The Addams Family, and, for a time, did public appearances as the Wicked Witch but stopped.
She was afraid her defining role would give children the wrong idea of who she really was. But she also noted kids were often confused because the witch had melted in the movie.
“It’s as though they think maybe I’m going to go back and cause trouble for Dorothy again,” she said. ”Little children’s minds can’t cope with seeing a mean witch alive again.”
The only exceptions to her Wicked Witch retirement were appearances on Sesame Street and Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, to show kids the witch was only an act.
In one of those latter episodes, she told Mr. Rogers the Wicked Witch was “frustrated” and “very unhappy” because “she never got what she wanted.”
But Hamilton did. She devoted her life to young people, serving on the Beverly Hills, Calif., board of education, teaching Sunday school and appearing in university children’s literature classes.
In 1985, she died in a nursing home at 82. Although she appeared in 75 productions, Hamilton is remembered for just one role.
We get typecast, too. People define us by past behaviour, how we’ve always come across or perhaps by our biggest sin. So, when we try to make a big change in our attitudes and behaviour, people don’t always know how to react.
Sometimes they don’t take it well — especially when the change is motivated by faith.
Friends and family often get defensive, worried we’ll pressure them, or look down on them, or because they know some of their behaviour is plain wrong. Other times we lose those we’ve been close to because we no longer share pivotal values or the common interests that once kept us together.
Sometimes it’s even worse.
“Of course,” says the apostle Peter, “your former friends are surprised when you no longer plunge into the… destructive things they do. So they slander you.” But he goes on to say that God is the only judge that matters (1 Peter 1:4,5).
Still, none of us want to be looked down on by others.
In scripture and in life, there are countless examples of people who turn their backs on the past and the role they played in public while they figured out who they really were. Jesus radically transformed the lives of the despised and disdained, including the tax collectors Matthew and Zacchaeus, and Saul who persecuted the church.
When the latter had a genuine conversion, he was accepted by believers when he was vouched for by the devout Christian, Barnabas, a man willing to take a chance on the new believer.
We all need a Barnabas, too — someone to come alongside us as we commit to change and transformation. Redemption, after all, is the core message of the Gospel and our change of heart can be a powerful testimony to the grace and power of God.
As Paul says, “God had mercy on me so Christ Jesus could use me as a prime example of his great patience with even the worst sinners. Then others will realize they, too, can believe in Him and receive eternal life.” (1 Timothy 1:16)
We may bear the scars from the role we’re best known for, and some people will never see past our biggest failure. But God is always ready to give us what we always wanted, even when we didn’t know we wanted it.
He’ll guide us into the next act, and — before you know it — we’ll see the past melting away.
Share your thoughts with Rick Gambe at firstname.lastname@example.org. A former TV reporter, he pastors a non-denominational church in Brantford, Followers of Christ (www.followers.ca), and teaches media at Laurier Brantford.