'The Wiz' Turns 45: The Legacy and Legends Behind the Film

A classic is celebrating a birthday, so we're reflecting

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Motown Productions

It's time to ease on down the road back to 1978 in celebration of an iconic film's birthday. On this day in 1978, 45 years ago, The Wiz was released in theaters as the film adaptation of the 1974 broadway musical of the same title. Of course, the original source of inspiration for all of these amazing films and musicals we've gotten over the decades stems from L. Frank Baum's 1900 children's novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. This version, however, is the Black version with a Black cast and a celebration of soul, funk, rhythm, and blues all in one. Upon its release in 1978 and in the years since there's been some comparisons of The Wiz to its 1939 predecessor starring Judy Garland. Other than the general storyline and characters, there are some notable differences.

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For starters, there was no mention of "not being in Kansas anymore," because Dorothy was from New York, and since The Wiz was an adaptation of the broadway musical, there was a lot more singing and dancing than the 1939 version. Today we're going to time travel back to the past and revisit a classic film that has become beloved in the hearts of many.

The Characters

Here's a breakdown of the film's main characters, who they were played by, and what they were doing in the year 1978. We have a feeling you might recognize a few of them.

Diana Ross

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Motown Productions


Diana Ross played the titular character of Dorothy. Of course by the year 1978, Ms. Ross was "The Boss" and a well established legend having started in the entertainment industry as a part of The Supremes back in the 1960s. The 1970s were spent with Ross building her solo career which also included a growing acting resume. In 1972, Ross portrayed Billie Holiday in the musical Lady Sings the Blues, and turned in a great performance in 1975's Mahogany amongst others. The Wiz was yet another addition to a strong list of films from Ms. Ross.

Michael Jackson

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Motown Production


A young fellow by the name of Michael Jackson took on the role of the Scarecrow in what was a slight preview of what we would see from him just a few short years later in terms of how he revolutionized making music videos into actual short films. By the time 1978 rolled around, Jackson had experienced a lot of musical success with his brothers The Jacksons, and was in the process of beginning his adult solo music career. The Wiz actually marks a pivotal moment in MJ's music career because it was here that he met Quincy Jones as Jones was doing the score for the film.

Legend has it Michael pronounced "Socrates" wrong, leading to Jones correcting him. As they got to know each other, apparently Jackson told Jones he was going to be working on a solo album and asked if he knew anybody from a production standpoint who would work with him. Jones thought Michael was being facetious. He wasn't, but the convo led to the three working together on Off the Wall, Thriller, and Bad. Magic.

Nipsey Russell

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Motown Productions

Tin Man

The supremely talented actor, comedian, poet, and dancer Nipsey Russell had the honor of being the pop locking Tin Man in The Wiz. Beginning his career in the 1950s, Russell had a long list of credits to his name in the year 1978 including being the first black performer to be a regular gameshow panelist on 1964's Missing Links, co-starring on the ABC sitcom Barefoot in the Park, and regularly appearing on both The Dean Martin Show and The Dean Martin Comedy World. Following The Wiz, Russell would go on to book other roles such as being a guest host on The Tonight Show during the era Johnny Carson was hosting.

Ted Ross

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Motown Productions

Cowardly Lion

Prior to the film, Ted Ross first played Courage the Cowardly Lion in the broadway version of The Wiz, which won him a Tony Award. Ross reprised the role for the movie adaptation where his performance was once again praised. By the year 1978, Ross had other credits to his name on broadway with 1969's Buck White, 1970's Purlie, and 1973's Raisin. Ross also had a role in the 1976 film The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings. In the immediate years after The Wiz, the actor would appear in the 1981 films Arthur and Ragtime.

Richard Pryor

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Motown Productions

Herman Smith/The Wiz

Richard Pryor. One of the founding fathers of comedy, Pryor is without a doubt one of the greatest comedians to ever do it. By the year 1978, Pryor was already regarded as one of the all-time greats with notable works such as Richard Pryor: Live & Smokin', and ...Is It Something I Said to name a couple of his shows. Pryor also had many notable credits in his filmography at this particular point in his career including Lady Sings the Blues as well, 1974's Uptown Saturday Night, 1976's Car Wash, and 1977's Greased Lightning.

Lena Horne

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Motown Productions

Glinda The Good Witch of the South

The great Lena Horne. A trailblazer and door breaker for African American actresses and entertainers around the world. It's hard to summarize a career that lasted over seventy years as Horne is one of the all-time greats, but 1943's Stormy Weather, her success as a nightclub performer, her 1957 record Lena Horne at the Waldorf-Astoria (which was the biggest-selling record by a female artist in the history of RCA at the time of its release), and tons of variety shows were just a few of her accomplishments before her portrayal of Glinda The Good Witch of the South in The Wiz. Trust us when we say there was plenty more in store for Horne in the years afterwards—40 years worth of more accolades.

The Director

The Soundtrack

Roger Ebert is who we're going with for today's old school review as he reviewed the film on October 24th, 1978 exactly. In the write-up Ebert States: "Our heroine, Dorothy, has been transformed from a Kansas teen-ager to a twenty-four-year-old black schoolteacher. And Diana Ross wears the same simple white frock for the entire film and projects a wide-eyed innocence that kind of grows on you. Some churlish souls suggested, however, that “The Wiz” strains our credibility too much. That a twenty-four-year-old schoolteacher should be too sophisticated to consort with cowardly lions and scarecrows and men made out of tin. Pay no attention: Critics like that wouldn't know a yellow brick road if they saw one."

Love it.

Ebert adds: "It's good that the Scarecrow is the first traveling companion she meets; Michael Jackson fills the role with humor and warmth. Nipsey Russell is fine as the Tin Man too, but Ted Ross sort of disappears into his lion's costume, done in by the makeup man. We can't see enough of him to get to know him."

Having recently re-watched the film from a 2023 perspective, I respectfully disagree with Ebert on the point about Ted Ross.

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Motown Studios

I personally don't believe that the costume of Courage the Cowardly Lion took away from Ted Ross' performance at all. In fact, I think Ross shined as you were able to see the charismatic parts of the character while also still also being slightly annoyed by him because you're kind of supposed to be as his cowardly nature has a way of getting on your nerves. I thought Ross brought a good balance to the role. However, this is me looking at it from a 2023 lens having seen many films that weren't yet around at that time where certain characters have had an emphasis on their costumes, makeup, or even CGI effects for that matter, so my opinion could be a bit jaded.

Happy 45th anniversary to a film that gives you no other choice but to smile when you watch it.

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