Saturday, November 8, 2014

Who Doesn't LOVE Classic Movie Character Actors!

Character actors from the classic movie age are some of the most beloved stars of the era. In my brand new book, The Name Below The Title: 20 Classic Movie Character Actors From Hollywood's Golden Age, I celebrate the lives and contributions of these fabulous personalities, some of my personal favorites, some whom are loved by a vast majority.  Below I've posted the chapter on the first famous face, and WHAT a face; Margaret Hamilton.  Enjoy and if you'd like to check out the rest of the book and the other 19 wonderful character actors, check out the book on Amazon.

Margaret Hamilton

“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?'”  That is how actress Margaret Hamilton described being cast in the classic fantasy The Wizard of Oz (1939).  The hatchet faced actress made the role iconic and created a character that would be ranked No. 4 in the American Film Institute's list of the 50 Best Movie Villains of All Time, just behind Hannibal Lecter, Norman Bates and Darth Vader, making her the highest ranking female baddie.  But as memorable as she was in Oz, she added bristling, disapproving presence to dozens of films and television appearances from the 1930s through the 1980s.

The youngest of four children, Hamilton was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and had an early interest in acting and working in local theater.  Upon her parent’s wishes, she attended Wheelock College, or as it was founded in 1888, Miss Wheelock's Kindergarten Training School, where she served as president of the senior class as well as playing Jo in a school stage production of Little Women.  Upon graduation, Margaret did indeed become a kindergarten teacher.  Her true passion, however, remained in the theater and in April 1932, at the age of 29, she made her debut on Broadway in Another Language, then on to Hollywood for the movie version at Metro Goldwyn Mayer.  She reprised yet another of her stage roles for the screen inThe Farmer Takes a Wife (1935), which also marked the movie debut of Henry Fonda.  After steady film work in a string of supporting parts, with an exceptional turn in Samuel Goldwyn’sThese Three (1936), she was cast in the role of her lifetime.  She was, however, not the first choice for the sinister and infamous Wicked Witch of the West.

Oz producer Mervyn LeRoy envisioned a slinky, glamorous witch of the West, cavorting around the haunted castle in green eye shadow and black sequins.  His conception was influenced by the wicked queen in Disney’s outrageously popular Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which premiered in late 1937.  LeRoy wanted attractive actress Gale Sondergaard, whom he had directed in the 1936 hit, Anthony Adverse (for which Sondergaard won the very first Best Supporting Actress Academy Award), but when it was decided that the witch would be ugly and scarier than originally anticipated, Sondergaard was out and thirty-six year-old Hamilton was hired at $1,000 a week.  Seeking steady employment over the potential ups and downs of show business, Maggie Hamilton, as she was called by those who knew her best, followed a common sense approach for her personal career philosophy.  “At 1,200 or $1,500 a week, I knew I wouldn’t work much,” she stated.  “And I had my young son and I wanted to work all I could [Hamilton Meserve was born in 1936 and Margaret had just been divorced from his father before being hired for Oz].  So I never let them pay me more.  And I never went under contract.”

An incident on the Oz set in December 1938 put her out of commission for weeks and made her wary about scenes regarding fire.  During the filming of a scene in which Hamilton’s character exits Munchkinland in a burst of flame and smoke, the actress received burns on her face and hand when the fire used for the special effect rose prematurely from the trap door from which she was to disappear.  Making matters worse, the green makeup used on her skin contained potentially toxic copper-oxide and had to be removed before her burns could be treated, which was an extremely painful process.  When she returned to the set after a hospital stay, she claimed, "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 fire work!”

Although best-known as the scariest gal in Oz, outside that realm the actress played characters more in line with her Wicked Witch alter ego, Miss Almira Gulch; sour-faced spinsters and gossipy snoops who lived in the neighborhood.  She was at her crabby, disapproving best in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938), My Little Chickadee (1940) and The Beautiful Blonde of Bashful Bend (1949) among others.  Ironically, as abrasive as her screen image was, she always carried an interest in nurturing children, even serving on the Beverly Hills Board of Education in the late forties.

Having graced the stage in New York and the large screen in Hollywood, the industrious Hamilton also found work on the radio with a regular role in the Ethel and Albert series, playing Aunt Eva.  Among her many television appearances, she garnered a steady gig on the 1960s soap opera, The Secret Storm.  In the 70s, she became the popular spokesperson for Maxwell House coffee, starring in numerous television commercials as Cora, the wise New England storekeeper who recommended the name-brand brew.  Hamilton died of a heart attack in 1985.

Hamilton is just one of 20 of these great unsung stars of the silver (and small) screen.
I hope you'll read about the rest at the link below.


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