Bet You Didn’t Know: Secrets Behind The Making Of “The Wiz”

October 1, 2012  |  
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In October of 1978, The Wizard of Oz was flipped, reversed and remixed to feature an all-black cast, with musical heavy hitters like Diana Ross, Michael Jackson and Lena Horne. The movie has become a cult classic but it wasn’t always that way. Check out the behind the scenes secrets of how this movie came together.

Source: Tony Awards

The Musical

Before the movie, studios had faith that The Wiz would be a successful film because it had done so well as a Broadway play. It premiered on January 5, 1975 and won a Tony for the best musical score. By the time it had finished its Broadway run, Stephanie Mills, who played the role of Dorothy, and her cast mates had completed 1,672 performances.


Was Diana too Old?

Motown Productions had a TV and film division that ultimately partnered with Universal Studios to produce the movie. Like the music side, Berry Gordy, played a significant role in film’s production and initially wanted Stephanie Mills, the Broadway star to play the role of Dorothy in the film as well. But Diana wanted this role in the worst way. She told her manager/boo thang Berry Gordy that she wanted to play Dorothy. But Berry told Diana, at thirty-three, she was too old to play the role. So she went over his head to the film’s executive producer Robert Cohen from Universal Pictures. She arranged a deal with him to have him produce the film if she was cast as Dorothy.


If Diana does it, Michael will come

One of the reasons Diana was able to nab the role was because she promised that Michael would be a part of the film if she was cast. This was Michael’s first feature film and critics and audiences agreed he put his foot in it. He prepared for the film by studying the movements of gazelles, cheetahs and panthers to make the Scarecrow more graceful. He was certainly smooth when he and Diana eased on down that yellow brick road, wouldn’t you agree?


The original director was not happy about Diana

Everybody wasn’t happy about Diana landing the lead role. In fact, John Badham, who had signed on the direct the film either quit or was fired (there are dissenting opinions) because he didn’t think Diana should take on Dorothy. Cohen, who Diana convinced earlier, gave the director hat to Sidney Lumet. Badham later revealed that he told Cohen that he thought Diana was “a wonderful singer. She’s a terrific actress and a great dancer, but she’s not this character. She’s not the little six-year old girl Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.”



The replacement director, Sidney Lumet, also happened to be Lena Horne’s son-in-law at the time. Lumet, who had directed the Academy Award winning 12 Angry Men, was hired because he had a reputation of getting movies done on time and under budget. (That didn’t happen this time.) He was married to Lena’s daughter, Gail Jones, for 15 years. Surprisingly, the couple divorced the same year that movie was released into theaters. Lumet passed away last year at the age of 86.


The Budget

Originally the movie was going to be made with the help of 20th Century Fox, but they backed out and Universal required the rights to make the movie. They were so sure that it would be a hit that they didn’t originally establish a budget for the film. It ended up costing them $24 million, making it the most expensive musical of the time. But they certainly overspent because it only grossed $13.6 million at the box office. The movie ended up losing Motown and Universal about $10.4 million dollars.


The Script

The script was heavily influenced by the teachings of author Werner Erhardt. His est Training focused on changing a person’s mentality so they’d be better able to handle the situations they found themselves in. Again, flexing her muscles, Diana suggested incorporating Erhardt’s teachings into the script. Executive producer Cohen wasn’t too excited about all of that. He expressed his concerns after the movie was released: “the movie was becoming an est-ian fable full of est buzzwords about knowing who you are and sharing and all that. I hated the script a lot. But it was hard to argue with [Ross] because she was recognizing in this script all of this stuff that she had worked out in est seminars.” Even Joel Schumacher, who actually wrote the script said that he was thankful for the teachings but in reality those who had been exposed to them didn’t really implement them in their lives. “Everybody stayed exactly the way they were and went around spouting all this bullShyte,” he said.


Don’t Hurt Yourself

I don’t know about you but The Wiz scared me as a young one. Apparently, it wasn’t just scary to watch, it was scary to be a part of as well. Diana Ross suffered a an injury from a lighting effect that nearly blinded her. She was taken the hospital but eventually recovered and completed the film.


The Reception

Critics as well as audiences did not like the film upon its initial release. Critics had all types of terrible things to say about the film, calling it “expensive crud,“…too scary for children, and too silly for adults” and “one of the decade’s biggest failures.”Just as Badham had predicted, people wondered why Diana was cast in the film, one critic even called her performance neurotic and oddly unattractive. People did appreciate Michael as one of the few bright spots in the movie. Though folks didn’t review it so favorably when it first came out in 1978, as the years went by it became a cult classic and by 2005 critics called it delightful even though they found it to be a mess at times. The Academy saw past the acting, the script and the casting and nominated The Wiz for four academy awards for best art direction, best costumes, best original music and best cinematography.


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  • She Says

    I feel ‘The Wiz’s’ decidedly unattractive locations detracted from the actors stellar performances. Whatever the film’s budget was spent on, most of its sets got short shrift. That aside, the wonderful cast really did put their heart & soul into their roles & sang their guts out. Since it’s established early on that Diana Ross’s Dorothy is a super shy teacher, her age didn’t bother me. Her living situation is something many families with limited incomes can relate to. Lots of things can hold you back in life that may or may not be in your control. This film addresses the ones you can control.

    Some critics ragged on the ‘Believe In Yourself’ song as being too schmaltzy but those critics miss the entire point of this film. This song is so important that it’s sung twice by two powerhouse singers. It’s a message kids NEED to hear & don’t hear enough. Dorothy’s age in this version of The Wizard of Oz is more relevant than the average critic may realize. The messages in The Wiz are not just for children starting out in life but also for adults starting over with theirs.

  • AJ

    Ross was a disgrace in the film. Had she not screwed over Stephanie Mills we would have had an outstanding movie cast….

  • Mike made the movie.

  • bigdawgman

    For a kids movie, that scene at the end where all the nearly naked people are dancing around was a bit much. Enjoyed it a little too much as a kid. And why the heck was Richard Pryor’s part so small? They must have paid him a lot to act like Mr. Chicken. And why couldn’t they include the Wiz’ song (So you wanted to see the Wizard) in the movie??? That’s my favorite song from the soundtrack. Loved the movie, but the effects were lame, even back in the 70’s. Can’t believe they spend a lot of money on it. Must have spent most on the coke supply.

  • I grew up with that movie. I could relate even though i do think that she was too old for this role, but it wasn’t supposed to be a black verison of the wizard of Oz. There had to be a Dorothy who was different. I thought they’d make her a teenager just starting out. I still enjoy this movie and the message that is in it. my kids even watch it

  • RandomTandem

    you should have entered the fun fact that the thing on michael’s nose is from the Reese’s peanut butter cup lol

  • RandomTandem

    I didnt like this movie when i was a child, and I still dont.

  • ijs

    to be honest, i still like the origianl wizard of oz better than the wiz, a lot of ppl put my down for it but thats how i feel lol

  • Ms_Sunshine9898

    That movie used to freak me out as a kid with the exception of the MJ parts lol. . .

  • mijac girl

    This article is so poorly written it’s shocking! Cannot believe this was actually published. I have loved the wiz for most of my life and am embarrassed to read this….

  • monica miller

    I was scared of the columns in the subway following them lol

    • Chanda

      That was also the same place where Michael’s “Bad” video was made.

  • clove8canela

    Lamut?? Who dat? You just got the whole dang name wrong. Anyway, I love the Wiz and Michael (as usual) was truly the star of that show. What an amazing spirit. Too bad he never did more movies. And I love Diana but I’ve never been a huge fan of her film work, and not only did I think she was too old, but I also hated her hair, even if it was the 70s.

    • Michael was very cute in his role. The movie just didn’t make sense though.

  • Princess D.I.E

    I remember watching this in the 90s and was so freakin excited Micheal Jackson was the scarecrow. Im not even gonna lie tho, I always wondered why Diana was Dorothy she was soo skinny she looked sick as hell. these were the days Mike and Di were homies, even lovers at one point. Mike stopped fkin wit her tho, curious ad to what happened.

  • lateshia

    I have this movie and I have to say when I had learned that Stephanie Mills was to play the role of Dorothy I was kind of surprised. Stephanie Mills would have been great for the role I’m not sure how old she was then in 1979. Diana Ross she is a good actress and singer but I do think she was too old to play Dorothy. The only thing that save this movie for me is Michael Jackson I’m forever a huge fan of Michael Jackson and I love the song “ease on down the road”. This movie is not that scary. I first saw this movie when I was 17 this was in 1999, Wizard of Oz was more scarier.

  • huh

    That’s when the truth came out Diana’s can’t sing! Her voice sounded like fingernails on a chalk board. Her tonsils had lap strain fore that part

    • Justmyopinion


  • Lia

    Oh, and them flying monkeys gave me nightmares when I was a kid!

    • IllyPhilly

      They have returned as Rick Ross! All of them are him.

      • TheLovliest…

        I always thought they looked like Lil’ Jon…

      • MamaChitChatChitterling

        Ha! Dead.

    • I agree. A creepy movie.

  • Lia

    The Wiz is my movie! Don’t sleep! Micheal had the original nose so you know he was at his best! I love the songs in it to this day.

  • The director was the famed Sidney Lumet. Who is Sidney Lamut?

    • phyre123

      sooo many typos in this article its hard to read.

  • Tankreeper

    Anybody could have played this role for the emptiness that we feel when we are lost in the world is ageless. Diana played the heck out that role and when she sang of home it was just as beautiful as when i heard Mrs. Stephanie Mills sing it on stage in the play. Regardless if u are 6,16,26 when u cant find ur way home ur equally vulnerable abd Mrs Ross, in my opinion, was a very believable Dorothy.

    • Nia

      Sorry, Stephanie Mills killed Home. Diana shouldn’t have even tried to follow in Ms. Mills footsteps.

  • I agree.. Diana was super old.. And its not so much about her age.. just that she looked too old. =/. She obviously didn’t age gracefully..

    • chaka1

      I remember seeing this in the theater as a kid. It was extremely creepy. I didn’t like it ALLLLL…

      • YEah. I agree. It was a very disfunctional movie. Like an unusual dream that didn’t really happen.

    • Well, somebody convinced Diana to do this, probably Michael if I had to bet on it. Diana looks good but I agree it didn’t mirror the original Wizard of Oz at all & came across as a strange movie especially if you had never known of the original Wizard of Oz. But then, who has not known about the original Wizard of Oz?

  • Chanda

    Now Diana Ross knew she was too old for that role. That ego of hers! And Dorothy was suppose to be 16 not 6, MN. In the original movie the Wicked Witch of the West was thought of to be “wicked” but all she really wanted were her dead sister’s shoes back(that at first weren’t red). I haven’t seen this movie in many years though.

    • RandomTandem

      the real wicked one was Dorothy! bytch runnin round stealing shoes off dead bodies lmao

    • I agree.