As The Wizard of Oz opened in 1939, it’s not so shocking that much of its cast has passed away since then, and many of them—including Judy Garland (Dorothy Gale), Ray Bolger (Scarecrow), Jack Haley (Tin Man), and Bert Lehr (Cowardly Lion)--decades ago. But some of the film’s smaller stars have lasted longest, helping to maintain the legacy of the adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s beloved book The Wonderful World of Oz. Of course, I’m referring to the Munchkins, but with CNN announcing the death of Margaret Pellegrini, there are only two left. Survived by 93-year-old Jerry Maren, who played a Lollipop Kid, and ninety-five-year-old Ruth Duccini, Pellegrini passed away on Monday at the age of 89 from complications following a stroke she suffered in 2012.
Pellegrini, who was only three foot five inches tall, made her screen debut in The Wizard of Oz, playing a villager and a Sleepyhead. However, acting wasn’t something she sought out. The opportunity to play a part in a movie that went on to define her public image found her. When the unofficial Wizard of Oz prequel Oz The Great and Powerful opened earlier this year, Pellegrini told CBS5 how she was essentially discovered at age 13, when a talent scout saw her at the Tennessee State Fair. He asked for her contact information (name and address), and two years went by with no word. Then, came the piece of mail that changed her life.
She recalls her father telling her, “You got your letter from Hollywood,' and I jumped up and down. Oh, I was so excited." It was the letter asking her to be a part of the Munchkins. At the time she was elated that the studio was paying for the train that would take her from her hometown in Alabama to Hollywood, and that she’d be paid $50 a week for her work. It may not sound like much now, but she explained it was ten times what her father made. She even had a line! Sort of.
"Wake up you sleepyhead. Rub your eyes. Get out of bed. Wake up, the Wicked Witch is dead," Pellegrini sang before confessing that it didn’t matter how poorly she sounded as the songs were overdubbed by professional singers. However, she still is irked that Toto got paid more than twice what she made. “He got $125 a week, and I only got $50. So he got paid more than I did.” But she had the last laugh, adding, “But look where he's at today. He's pushing daises."
The movie meant a lot to Pellegrini, not just because it was her most famous film role, but also because of how it made her feel about being a little person. "It showed that we were not only little, but we could do what big people did," she declared. No wonder she remained active in the film’s legacy for decades, attending various events with her fellow Munchkins, including when the group was given a coveted star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2007. In memorial, flowers have been placed on this star.
You can watch Newsroom Tonight’s interview below: CBS 5 - KPHO