Buddy Ebsen was initially set to play the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz

"If I only had a part..."

CBS Television Distribution

By now, most of us are familiar with the story of Buddy Ebsen in The Wizard of Oz. He was cast as the movie's Tin Man, before falling seriously ill from the aluminum dust in the Tin Man's makeup. The chronic sickness forced him to drop out of the famous production, and fans were left with one of Hollywood's great "could've-been" castings. The tale is the stuff of show business legend.

But here's something you might not know: According to Ebsen in his 1993 autobiography The Other Side of Oz, he was originally told he'd secured a different role altogether. Instead of walking down that yellow brick road with a rusty hitch in his giddyup, Ebsen was almost the Scarecrow.

Ebsen characterizes producer Arthur Freed as a bit of a kiss-up to studio honcho L.B. Mayer, stating that Freed never strayed too far from the boss' sight. Perhaps that advantageous position gave Freed the inside scoop for movie plans, as he prematurely told Ebsen of a life-changing offer for the young actor. However, as history would show, any celebration of Ebsen's new part as the Scarecrow was short-lived.

"I was to have an important part," Ebsen wrote. "Maybe the most important in my life as an actor. It meant prestige, a building of my career, and a practical guarantee they would want me to stay beyond my brief two-year deal, which pretended juicy negotiations and fat profits on the next contract go-around. An actor is nothing without a part to play. Just the anticipation can send him into the upper realms of a pink cloud of euphoria. I shared the good news with my wife, my friends, my agent Walter Batchelor in New York, and my parents. It was a time I'll always remember. I rushed to the rehearsal hall and began plotting my Scarecrow dances and wobbles."

That rehearsal hall is where Ebsen would receive some crushingly bad news. Ray Bolger was an actor with a very powerful agent named Abe Lastfogel. Ebsen was familiar with Bolger from their time in New York and praised the other actor for his comic dancing abilities and vaudeville pratfall routines. Even before the news was delivered, Ebsen saw the writing on the wall. Bolger was a perfect Scarecrow.

That's when Abe Lastfogel told Ebsen the news that his client, Ray Bolger, would be the Scarecrow, not Ebsen. Lastfogel worked with the William Morris agency, which Ebsen described as "all-powerful."

But what of the producer who told Ebsen the role was his?

"Arthur Freed didn't want to be labeled the 'trouble-making blabbermouth,' so he quickly grabbed me, fearful that I would walk into someone's office and start screaming that I had been promised the Scarecrow part. 'Look, I'm just a buck private around here,' he told me. His face was deadly serious, and he said, 'Whatever you do, don't tell anybody that I said you were going to play the Scarecrow. Ray is going to be the Scarecrow.' Then, with what seemed like remarkable daring, he blurted out, 'You're going to play the Tin Woodman!'"

Of course, that role never came to pass either, and we're all forced to imagine what The Wizard of Oz would be like if Buddy Ebsen had starred in either role!

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2 Comments

McGillahooala 25 days ago
Buddy had two of the most memorable roles in television history. I think he did alright without ever making it to Oz.
cperrynaples 27 days ago
Perhaps Buddy should have settled for the Cowardly Lion! At least there wasn't poisoned paint needed...LOL!
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