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

October 1, 2012  |  
8 of 10

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.

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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