Playing it was no great shakes of acting—just a lot of screaming and yelling, and waving my hands around,” says Margaret Hamilton, who has been terrorizing kids since 1939 as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz (shown again on CBS TV last month). She was only 36 at the time.
Today, at 74, Hamilton—whose face is as stern as her temperament isn’t—remains a hard-working actress. In March she opened in a revival of Lang-don Mitchell’s The New York Idea at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. She got fine notices in the part of a straight laced, no-nonsense dowager.
Paid a mere $23,000 for her performance in Oz, Hamilton has been identified with that role ever since. “I’ve been interviewed for a part, and every one’s enthusiastic till somebody says, ‘Trouble is, the minute the audience sees her, they’ll think of the witch.’ ”
But in her 50 years on stage, radio, TV and in films, Hamilton has proven her versatility in roles like Madame Armfeldt in A Little Night Music, Cap’n Andy’s wife in Show Boat and Aunt Eller in Oklahoma! TV watchers know her as Cora, the busybody store owner who sells Maxwell House coffee. When people recognize her on the street, they often ask about the store. “I have to stop and think, ‘What are they talking about?’ ” (The “store” is actually an elaborate set in Queens.)
Born in Cleveland, Hamilton was stagestruck from the moment she landed a part in her senior play. During three years at the Cleveland Play House she did 25 character roles including one from Shakespeare. “I hate to tell you what I played—the first witch in Macbeth.”
A New Yorker since 1951, Hamilton lives alone in a four room co-op in the elegant Gramercy Park section of Manhattan. Her son, Hamilton Meserve, a banker, his wife Helen and their three children live in Princeton, N.J. Margaret divorced her husband, a landscape architect, when her son was 2 years old.
Though a commanding presence in her roles, Hamilton is only five feet tall. “I’ve lost four inches from slipped disks,” she says. “Maybe I’m melting.”