Movie Clips, YouTube
Movie Clips, YouTube

12 Things You Might Not Know About The Wiz

Movie Clips, YouTube
Movie Clips, YouTube

Two years ago, NBC treated us to a live rendition of The Sound of Music. Last December, 9.21 million viewers caught their take on Peter Pan. Tonight at 8 p.m. ET, the network will air The Wiz Live!, a brand new production of the 1975 smash that descended on Broadway like a Kansas twister. Here’s a quick introduction to the musical and its Oz-sized legacy.

1. IT WAS CONCEIVED AS A TV SPECIAL.

NBC is about to come closer to realizing late producer Ken Harper’s original vision than anyone ever has. During the early 1970s, Harper hatched the idea of dramatizing L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz with an all-black cast. At first, he wanted to put this concept not on Broadway, but on network TV. Harper pictured a big-budget televised extravaganza starring Melba Moore as Dorothy, Flip Wilson as the Scarecrow, Godfrey Cambridge as the Lion, and Bill Cosby as the Tin Man, but the idea went nowhere. After mulling over the prospect of turning the premise into a feature film, Harper set his sights on the Great White Way.

2. THE MAIDEN RUN’S COSTUME DESIGNER WAS A FORMER JAMES BOND VILLAIN.

For his work on The Wiz, Geoffrey Holder won a Tony for Best Costume Design. It was one of several that the show would bring home (keep reading). At the time, this son of Trinidadian immigrants was also a director and an up-and-coming actor who had appeared in such movies as Doctor Dolittle (1967) and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) (1972). Film buffs will always associate him first and foremost with the 007 thriller Live and Let Die (1973), in which he portrayed a bombastic fiend known as Baron Samedi.

3. FINISHING THE SCORE TOOK THREE YEARS.

“I’d start to work at 11:30 at night, when everyone else went to bed,” lead composer Charlie Smalls told The Los Angeles Times. The musician went on to claim that The Wiz’s signature style could be described as “sophisticated funk.” Smalls also helped to write some new songs for the movie version before dying of cardiac arrest in 1987, when he was just 43 years old.

4. “EVERYBODY REJOICE” WAS WRITTEN BY LUTHER VANDROSS.

Though the score was mostly written by Smalls, he couldn’t take credit for every single number. One of the show’s most popular songs, “Everybody Rejoice” (a.k.a. “A Brand New Day”) was penned by Luther Vandross, the vocalist who later wrote such Billboard hits as “Don’t Want to Be a Fool,” “Power of Love/Love Power,” and “Here and Now.”  

5. STEPHANIE MILLS (THE ORIGINAL DOROTHY) DIDN’T EVEN WANT TO AUDITION.

Mills was 16 years old when she found out about The Wiz. She hadn't yet had much theatrical success, and, according to the actress, she didn't even want to audition for the show. “I had gone out for so many things and did not get them,” she told ChicagoPride.com. Eventually, Mills’s mother persuaded her to try out anyway—and “that experience ended up changing my life,” Mills said. The Wiz kicked off Mills’s career as a musician and Broadway star. For a long time thereafter, Dorothy’s solo “Home” was her signature song. In The Wiz Live!, Mills will return to her roots to play Aunt Em.

6. THE WIZ’S FIRST DIRECTOR WAS FIRED BEFORE THE SHOW REACHED NEW YORK.

The Wiz had its world premiere in Baltimore on October 21, 1974. Prior to the curtain’s rise that night, director Gilbert Moses III addressed his audience, confessing that one actor was sick, another had been replaced, and that there hadn’t been time for a single technical rehearsal. Moses was dismissed shortly thereafter.

Holder then took over and started making significant changes. He cut an Act I song titled “Which Where, Which What, Which Why?” The costume designer also removed a number of puns and a character known as the “Queen of the Field Mice.” The revised musical came to Broadway’s Majestic Theatre on January 5, 1975.

7. THE WIZ WAS ONLY THE SECOND BROADWAY SHOW TO EMBRACE TV ADVERTISING.

Before 1972’s Pippin, no Broadway musical had ever mounted a TV ad blitz. After a few weeks’ worth of poorly-attended performances, The Wiz followed suit to make up for lost time; 101 television commercial spots were purchased at a cost of $120,000.

Harper and 20th Century Fox (which helped finance The Wiz) had a strong disagreement about what these ads would look like. “They wanted to use part of the lion in the poppy field scene,” Harper said, “but I said no. We were aiming for families, so I thought the ‘Ease on Down the Road’ segment was more appropriate.” Harper won out and, thanks largely to those memorable advertisements, The Wiz finally found its audience.

8. SOME EARLY REVIEWS WERE NOT FAVORABLE.

By and large, the reviews were unkind to this bold new interpretation of The Wizard of Oz. “The quickest way to start a race riot, other than bombing the White House, is for someone to tamper with an American classic like The Wizard of Oz,” wrote critic Rex Reed. Walter Kerr of The New York Times called it “feeble at every turn.” His colleague, Clive Barnes, more or less concurred, writing, “There are many things to enjoy in The Wiz, but, with apologies, this critic noticed them without actually enjoying them.” Still, a combination of effective advertising and word-of-mouth buzz sent The Wiz onto a four-year, 1672-performance run.

9. IT WON SEVEN TONY AWARDS.

The critics really ate their words when The Wiz claimed seven Tonys, including awards for Best Musical, Best Choreography, and Best Original Score. Holder’s efforts were rewarded with not one but two Tonys: Best Costume Design (Play or Musical) and Best Direction of a Musical. Finally, Dee Dee Bridgewater (Glinda) and Ted Ross (the Lion) were respectively named Best Featured Actress and Actor.

10. PHYLICIA RASHAD WAS IN THE ORIGINAL ENSEMBLE.

Long before she became TV’s Clair Huxtable, Rashad brought her talents to The Wiz, playing a Munchkin.

11. AT THE TIME, ITS 1978 FILM ADAPTATION WAS THE MOST EXPENSIVE MOVIE MUSICAL EVER MADE.

The film, which cost $24 million, bombed at the box office.

12. MICHAEL JACKSON’S SCARECROW MAKEUP TOOK FOUR HOURS TO APPLY.

The Wiz marked Jackson's film debut, and while most critics panned the movie, his performance was widely praised. “It’s good that the Scarecrow is the first traveling companion [Dorothy] meets,” Roger Ebert wrote. “Michael Jackson fills the role with humor and warmth.”

Legendary special effects artist Stan Winston (one of the geniuses behind The Terminator and Aliens) oversaw Jackson’s makeup. Every morning, this required four hours to put on and, sometimes, the singer wouldn’t bother removing it before going to bed after a long day’s shoot.

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Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA
12 Surprising Facts About Robin Williams
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA

Robin Williams had a larger-than-life personality. On screen and on stage, he embodied what he referred to as “hyper-comedy.” Offscreen, he was involved in humanitarian causes and raised three children—Zak, Zelda, and Cody. On July 16, HBO debuts the documentary Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, directed by Marina Zenovich. The film chronicles his rise on the L.A. and San Francisco stand-up comedy scenes during the 1970s, to his more dramatic roles in the 1980s and '90s in award-winning films like Dead Poets Society; Good Morning, Vietnam; Awakenings; The Fisher King; and Good Will Hunting. The film also focuses on August 11, 2014, the date of his untimely death. Here are 12 surprising facts about the beloved entertainer.

1. ROBIN WILLIAMS GOT HIS START AT A COMEDY WORKSHOP INSIDE A CHURCH.

A still from 'Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind' (2018)
HBO

After leaving Juilliard, Robin Williams found himself back in his hometown of San Francisco, but he couldn’t find work as an actor. Then he saw something for a comedy workshop in a church and decided to give it a shot. “So I went to this workshop in the basement of a Lutheran church, and it was stand-up comedy, so you don’t get to improvise with others, but I started off doing, ostensibly, it was just like improvising but solo," he told NPR. "And then I started to realize, ‘Oh.’ [I started] building an act from there."

2. HE FORMED A FRIENDSHIP WITH KOKO THE GORILLA.

In 2001, Williams visited Koko the gorilla, who passed away in June, at The Gorilla Foundation in Northern California. Her caregivers had shown her one of his movies, and she seemed to recognize him. Koko repeatedly signed for Williams to tickle her. “We shared something extraordinary: laughter,” Williams said of the encounter. On the day Williams died, The Foundation shared the news with Koko and reported that she fell into sadness.

3. FOR A TIME, HE WAS A MIME IN CENTRAL PARK.

In 1974, photographer Daniel Sorine captured photos of two mimes in New York's Central Park. As it turned out, one of the mimes was Williams, who was attending Juilliard at the time. “What attracted me to Robin Williams and his fellow mime, Todd Oppenheimer, was an unusual amount of intensity, personality, and physical fluidity,” Sorine said. In 1991, Williams revisited the craft by playing Mime Jerry in Bobcat Goldthwait’s film Shakes the Clown. In the movie, Williams hilariously leads a how-to class in mime.

4. HE TRIED TO GET LYDIA FROM MRS. DOUBTFIRE BACK IN SCHOOL.

As a teen, Lisa Jakub played Robin Williams’s daughter Lydia Hillard in Mrs. Doubtfire. “When I was 14 years old, I went on location to film Mrs. Doubtfire for five months, and my high school was not happy,” Jakub wrote on her blog. “My job meant an increased workload for teachers, and they were not equipped to handle a ‘non-traditional’ student. So, during filming, they kicked me out.”

Sensing Jakub’s distress over the situation, Williams typed a letter and sent it to her school. “A student of her caliber and talent should be encouraged to go out in the world and learn through her work,” he wrote. “She should also be encouraged to return to the classroom when she’s done to share those experiences and motivate her classmates to soar to their own higher achievements … she is an asset to any classroom.”

Apparently, the school framed the letter but didn’t allow Jakub to return. “But here’s what matters from that story—Robin stood up for me,” Jakub wrote. “I was only 14, but I had already seen that I was in an industry that was full of back-stabbing. And it was entirely clear that Robin had my back.”

5. HE WASN’T PRODUCERS' FIRST CHOICE TO PLAY MORK ON MORK & MINDY.

Anson Williams, Marion Ross, and Don Most told The Hallmark Channel that a different actor was originally hired to play Mork for the February 1978 Happy Days episode “My Favorite Orkan,” which introduced the alien character to the world. “Mork & Mindy was like the worst script in the history of Happy Days. It was unreadable, it was so bad,” Anson Williams said. “So they hire some guy for Mork—bad actor, bad part.” The actor quit, and producer Garry Marshall came to the set and asked: “Does anyone know a funny Martian?” They hired Williams to play Mork, and from September 1978 to May 1982, Williams co-headlined the spinoff Mork & Mindy for four seasons.

6. HE “RISKED” A ROLE IN AN OFF-BROADWAY PLAY.

Actor Robin Williams poses for a portrait during the 35th Annual People's Choice Awards held at the Shrine Auditorium on January 7, 2009 in Los Angeles, California
Michael Caulfield, Getty Images for PCA

In 1988, Williams made his professional stage debut as Estragon in the Mike Nichols-directed Waiting for Godot, which also starred Steve Martin and F. Murray Abraham. The play was held off-Broadway at Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. The New York Times asked Williams if he felt the show was a career risk, and he responded with: “Risk! Of never working on the stage again! Oh, no! You’re ruined! It’s like you're ruined socially in Tustin,” a town in Orange County, California. “If there’s risk, you can’t think about it,” he said, “or you’ll never be able to do the play.”

Williams had to restrain himself and not improvise during his performance. “You can do physical things,” he said, “but you don’t ad lib [Samuel] Beckett, just like you don’t riff Beethoven.” In 1996, Nichols and Williams once again worked together, this time in the movie The Birdcage.

7. HE USHERED IN THE ERA OF CELEBRITY VOICE ACTING.

The 1992 success of Aladdin, in which Williams voiced Genie, led to more celebrities voicing animated characters. According to a 2011 article in The Atlantic, “Less than 20 years ago, voice acting was almost exclusively the realm of voice actors—people specifically trained to provide voices for animated characters. As it turns out, the rise of the celebrity voice actor can be traced to a single film: Disney’s 1992 breakout animated hit Aladdin.” Since then, big names have attached themselves to animated films, from The Lion King to Toy Story to Shrek. Williams continued to do voice acting in animated films, including Aladdin and the King of Thieves, Happy Feet, and Happy Feet 2.

8. HE FORGOT TO THANK HIS MOTHER DURING HIS 1998 OSCAR SPEECH.

In March 1998, Williams won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting. In 2011, Williams appeared on The Graham Norton Show, and Norton asked him what it was like to win the award. “For a week it was like, ‘Hey congratulations! Good Will Hunting, way to go,'” Williams said. “Two weeks later: ‘Hey, Mork.’”

Then Williams mentioned how his speech accidentally left out one of the most important people in his life. “I forgot to thank my mother and she was in the audience,” he said. “Even the therapist went, ‘Get out!’ That was rough for the next few years. [Mom voice] ‘You came through here [points to his pants]! How’s the award?’”

9. HE COMFORTED STEVEN SPIELBERG DURING THE FILMING OF SCHINDLER’S LIST.

At this year’s 25th anniversary screening of Schindler’s List, held at the Tribeca Film Festival, director Steven Spielberg shared that Williams—who played Peter Pan in Spielberg’s Hook—would call him and make him laugh. “Robin knew what I was going through, and once a week, Robin would call me on schedule and he would do 15 minutes of stand-up on the phone,” Spielberg said. “I would laugh hysterically, because I had to release so much.”

10. HE HELPED ETHAN HAWKE GET HIS AGENT.

During a June 2018 appearance on The Graham Norton Show, Ethan Hawke recalled how, while working on Dead Poets Society, Williams was hard on him. “I really wanted to be a serious actor,” Hawke said. “I really wanted to be in character, and I really didn’t want to laugh. The more I didn’t laugh, the more insane [Williams] got. He would make fun of me. ‘Oh this one doesn't want to laugh.’ And the more smoke would come out of my ears. He didn’t understand I was trying to do a good job.” Hawke had assumed Williams hated him during filming.

After filming ended, Hawke went back to school, but he received a surprising phone call. It was from Williams’s agent, who—at Williams's suggestion—wanted to sign Hawke. Hawke said he still has the same agent today.

11. HE WAS ALMOST CAST IN MIDNIGHT RUN.

In February 1988, Williams told Rolling Stone how he sometimes still had to audition for roles. “I read for a movie with [Robert] De Niro, [Midnight Run], to be directed by Marty Brest,” Williams said. “I met with them three or four times, and it got real close, it was almost there, and then they went with somebody else. The character was supposed to be an accountant for the Mafia. Charles Grodin got the part. I was craving it. I thought, ‘I can be as funny,’ but they wanted someone obviously more in type. And in the end, he was better for it. But it was rough for me. I had to remind myself, ‘Okay, come on, you’ve got other things.’”

In July 1988, Universal released Midnight Run. Just two years later, Williams finally worked with De Niro, on Awakenings.

12. BILLY CRYSTAL AND WILLIAMS USED TO TALK ON THE PHONE FOR HOURS.

Actors Robin Williams (L) and Billy Crystal pose at the afterparty for the premiere of Columbia Picture's 'RV' on April 23, 2006 in Los Angeles, California
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Starting in 1986, Williams, Billy Crystal, and Whoopi Goldberg co-hosted HBO’s Comic Relief to raise money for the homeless. Soon after Williams’s death, Crystal went on The View and spoke with Goldberg about his friendship with Williams. “We were like two jazz musicians,” Crystal said. “Late at night I get these calls and we’d go for hours. And we never spoke as ourselves. When it was announced I was coming to Broadway, I had 50 phone messages, in one day, from somebody named Gary, who wanted to be my backstage dresser.”

“Gary” turned out to be Williams.

Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind premieres on Monday, July 16 at 8 p.m. ET on HBO.

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Walt Disney Pictures
10 Facts About Hocus Pocus
Walt Disney Pictures
Walt Disney Pictures

In a 2014 Reddit AMA, Bette Midler said she'd be interested in doing a Hocus Pocus sequel. "You have to go to send in your cards to the Walt Disney company," she said. "The ball's in their court." While you get those cards ready, here are some facts about the original, which arrived in theaters 25 years ago today.

1. THE STORY ORIGINATED AS A BEDTIME STORY.

The story for Hocus Pocus came about after writer David Kirschner invented a bedtime story for his kids. He later wrote the story up and submitted it to Muppet Magazine (why does this not still exist?), where it gained recognition.

2. THE WRITERS USED PROPS TO PITCH IT TO STUDIO EXECUTIVES.

Bette Midler in 'Hocus Pocus' (1993)
Walt Disney Pictures

To pitch the story to Disney, the writers had execs enter a dark room with broomsticks and a vacuum cleaner hanging from the ceiling. They also scattered 15 pounds of candy corn throughout the room in an effort to invoke Halloween nostalgia. It obviously worked!

3. IT WAS NOT AN IMMEDIATE HIT.

Though it’s a cult classic now, Hocus Pocus didn’t do that well when it first came out in 1993, perhaps because it was released in July instead of September or October. Though it didn’t have a terrible opening—$8,125,471, putting it in fourth place at the box office that weekend—it fell to $2,017,688 a few weeks later, and bad reviews from the critics didn’t help matters.

Entertainment Weekly was particularly put off by the movie, calling it a “piece of corny slapstick trash” and saying that “It’s acceptable scary-silly kid fodder that adults will find only mildly insulting. Unless they’re Bette Midler fans. In which case it’s depressing as hell.”

4. BETTE MIDLER LOVES IT.

Bette Midler, by the way, has said that Hocus Pocus is her favorite film out of all of the films she’s ever done. (At least as of 2008.) Thora Birch agreed, recently saying, “The most fun I ever had on a film was Hocus Pocus.”

5. KATHY NAJIMY LOVES IT, TOO.

Midler isn't the only star of the film who isn't immune to its allure: Kathy Najimy has said she watches the movie with her family every year on August 15.

6. IT COULD HAVE STARRED LEONARDO DICAPRIO.

The role of Max was originally offered to Leonardo DiCaprio. He turned it down to do What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.

7. SARAH JESSICA PARKER IS RELATED TO A WOMAN FAMOUSLY ACCUSED OF BEING A WITCH.

Had Sarah Jessica Parker known then what she knows now, she might have approached the role of Sarah Sanderson a little differently. When the actress went on the show Who Do You Think You Are to trace her family history, Parker discovered that one of her ancestors was Esther Elwell, one of the women accused of being a witch during the Salem Witch Trials. After a young girl said she saw Esther’s “spectre” strangling neighbor Mary Fitch, Elwell was arrested, but escaped going to trial.

8. THORA BIRCH REVISITED THE NEIGHBORHOOD IN AMERICAN BEAUTY.

While the kids are prematurely celebrating victory against the Sanderson sisters after locking them in the kiln, they’re shown talking in front of a house as they walk to a park. The house was later used as the house Thora Birch’s character lived in for American Beauty.

9. THE KIDS WEREN'T HUGE FANS OF THE CATS.

The kids all hated working with the cats. Many different cats were used to represent Binx, and each one served a different purpose—one was good at cuddling with the kids, one would jump on command, etc. Every time a new cat was used, the children would have to coerce the kitty to trust them by using treats and a clicker. They got sick of it.

10. MUCH OF THE ORIGINAL CAST REUNITED FOR A 20TH REUNION.

Most of the cast participated in a 20th anniversary event for D23 (the Disney fan club) members. Sarah Jessica Parker and Bette Midler were not in attendance, but pretty much everyone else was, including Kathy Najimy (Mary Sanderson), Vinessa Shaw (Allison), Omri Katz (Max), Thora Birch (Dani), and Doug Jones (Billy Butcherson). You can watch some of that reunion above.

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