Jerry Maren, the last living member of the group of actors who played the Munchkins in the 1939 classic The Wizard Of Oz, has died. An actor, stunt performer, and advocate for little people in Hollywood, Maren was a born performer, taking the stage at the age of 13, and continuing to act and make public appearances well into his ’90s.
A trained singer and dancer on the vaudeville circuit, Maren (born Gerard Merenghi) was scouted by MGM producers when they began looking for performers to play the residents of Munchkinland. Only 18, Maren scored one of the prime Munchkin roles, appearing as the middle member of the trio of dancers who welcome Dorothy to Oz on behalf of the Lollipop Guild:
Unlike many of the Munchkins, who mostly returned to their non-Hollywood lives in the aftermath of the massive hit, Maren continued to work and perform. His later jobs ran the gamut of performances for a working actor with pituitary dwarfism; he played stunt roles for child performers (including Ron Howard and Jodie Foster), drove around the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile, tossed confetti on The Gong Show, and even played Mayor McCheese in a series of McDonald’s ads. (Per his memoir, published in 2006: “Big Mac built my house.”)
Although he was happily patient to appear at fan events and other Munchkin-related nostalgia activities, Maren frequently pushed back against the public perception—fueled at least in part by Oz star Judy Garland—that the Munchkin performers were wild or violent partiers. “Judy was telling it according to her pills and booze that day,” he wrote. “She left behind a legacy of untruths about us.”
Outside his acting work, Maren was also an advocate for little people, helping his friend Billy Barty co-found the organization Little People Of America in 1957. But he never shied away from his part in Hollywood history, either; at one of his final public appearances, in 2013, he appeared at TCL Chinese Theatre (formerly Grauman’s) to place his hands and feet in the theater’s famous concrete.
Maren reportedly died earlier today, of congestive heart failure. He was 98.