Makeup man Stan Winston assembled a team of makeup artists to apply the fantastic faces to the otherworldly Ozites in The Wiz. Whether Winston had full knowledge of the appropriateness of the man he assigned to turn Michael Jackson into the Scarecrow or it was just pure serendipity, your humble History of Oz Examiner does not know.
Nevertheless, Jackson’s personal make-up artist was something of an old hand on the subject of portraying the Scarecrow; his name was Michael R. Thomas, and he had played the straw-stuffed Oz notable in Barry Mahon’s 1969 kiddie matinee The Wonderful Land of Oz (please see my articles on that movie). He had also been responsible for all of the character makeups in that film.
The two hit it off well professionally and personally. On the set, Thomas made sure that the famously frenetic Jackson’s unbounded energy didn’t dislodge the foam latex appliances that had been glued to the young performer’s face. Of course it happened anyway, as it tends to happen with pretty much any such makeup– tales from the sets of the various Planet of the Apes movies have been told for decades– but Thomas was always on hand to do repair work.
While many actors who have had to wear prosthetic appliances found themselves unable to endure them for long– Sal Mineo, who was in agony over his makeup as the chimpanzee Dr. Milo in Escape from the Planet of the Apes, for instance– first-timer Jackson loved his Scarecrow visage, so much so that he is said to have worn it home (“home” being a suite of rooms he shared with his sister La Toya in a New York hotel for the duration of the filming) once or twice.
While the subject of Thomas’s having played the Scarecrow must have come up during their many conversations, I personally do not know if Thomas offered Jackson any pointers. But they became good friends while The Wiz was in production, and along with playing games and telling jokes on the set, Thomas welcomed Jackson (and his security guard) to his modest New Jersey apartment for dinner one evening.
Though they fell out of touch in the years that followed, Thomas remembered Jackson fondly, noting his childlike interest in everything around him and how easy it was to make him laugh. While Jackson went on to become one of the most successful singers of all time, Thomas, who had a lifelong love of the classic Universal monster movies, continued his career in makeup and acting, as well as making horror movie convention appearances as Ygor, the sinister, broken-necked lab assistant played by Bela Lugosi in the movie Son of Frankenstein. He also did a dead-on– or perhaps that should be undead-on– impersonation of Lugosi’s famous Count Dracula.
Poignantly, both Scarecrows named Mike passed away in 2009; Michael Jackson on June 25th and Michael R. Thomas on August 24th (three days short of his sixtieth birthday).