'Wizard of Oz': The Tin Man Costume Poisoned the Original Actor While Filming 'That Damn Movie'

The Wizard of Oz is iconic in cinema history. You’d be hard-pressed to find a person these days who hadn’t heard it, let alone seen it multiple times. As the classic movie has woven its way into our culture, it’s easy to forget the film-making accomplishment it was at the time with its revolutionary use of color, huge budget, cast, and groundbreaking special effects. As such the film has a much deeper history of problems that went along with its creation, as filmmakers paved new ground for techniques and styles. Unfortunately, some cast members didn’t have an easy time during filming due to this novel nature, and some were even in serious danger.

Cowardly Lion costume was a little too real

Bert Lahr played the character of The Cowardly Lion in the 1939 hit. The costume he wore looked great, and he was so animated and lively in the film despite the fact that the costume itself weighed almost 90 lbs. It was made from real lion fur with a mask sculpted specifically for his face. The actor often complained of only being able to eat through a straw all day.

The costume was very hot and Lahr would sweat so profusely in it that by the end of a day of filming in the California heat, it often weighed twice what it did at the beginning of the day. Every night, two assistants would work diligently to dry it out for the next day of filming.

Nevertheless, this iconic piece of cinema history, according to CBS fetched $3 million at auction in 2014!

Deadly snow

Who can forget the poppy field scene, where Glenda, the Good Witch brings gentle snow to wake the travelers from The Wicked Witch of the West’s spell? Unfortunately, this snow was not so gentle in reality. The snow was in fact pure industrial-grade chrysotile asbestos, which was often sold in brand names that referenced its appearance to snow.

In multiple takes, the crew piled a quite significant amount of asbestos “snow” on top of the actors, despite the fact that the health dangers of asbestos had been well known for years at the time. None of the main cast was thought to have had serious health issues from the asbestos.

Tin Man poisoning

The casting of The Tin Man was complicated, to say the least. Originally, Ray Bolger had been tapped to play the part, but he was determined to play The Scarecrow and producers eventually capitulated, moving Scarecrow actor Buddy Ebsen to the role of Tin Man.

Ebsen recorded all the songs for the part and went through all pre-production rehearsals before falling ill at the beginning of filming. His health declined rapidly and he was soon hospitalized. Doctors soon diagnosed that he was suffering from aluminum poisoning due to the metallic powder being applied every day as makeup. According to The Vintage News, the studio didn’t believe he was ill, and at one point his nurse had to go to set to convince them.

The part was then given to Haley, whom the studio never informed about the effect the makeup had on Ebsen, though they did switch to paste instead of powder. Ebsen would complain of lung ailments from the episode for the rest of his life, saying it was all the fault of the makeup and “that damn movie,” according to the Sunday Express via Pressreader.

The Wizard of Oz is a historical milestone like no other in film history. Its cultural significance and filmmaking developments are very significant, and it’s hard to think of a movie like it ever being made again. For the sake of the actors who were at serious risk on the film, perhaps that’s for the best.

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