‘The Wizard of Oz’: How Old Was Judy Garland When She Played Dorothy?

Actor Judy Garland starred in numerous famous films throughout her decades-long career. However, far and away the one she is best known for is The Wizard of Oz. Garland got her start in Hollywood at a young age. How old was she in The Wizard of Oz, and how long did her career last?

Judy Garland starred in ‘The Wizard of Oz’

Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale in 'The Wizard of Oz', 1939.
Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale in ‘The Wizard of Oz’, 1939. | Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Based on the fantasy novel The Wonderful Wizard of OzThe Wizard of Oz premiered in 1939. The film starred Garland as Dorothy Gale, a young girl living with her aunt and uncle in Kansas. A tornado takes her to the Land of Oz, where she tries to figure out how to get home (with the help of a few friends).

Today, it’s common for teenage characters to be played by adults. But that wasn’t the cast for The Wizard of Oz. During the entirety of filming, from late 1938-early 1939, Garland was only 16 years old. She had signed with Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer at 13 and attended school via the studio alongside Ava Gardner and Elizabeth Taylor.

Did she experience problems as a child on set?

'The Wizard of Oz'
‘The Wizard of Oz’ | Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

The Wizard of Oz is nearly as famous for the film’s content as it is what (allegedly) occurred behind-the-scenes. There’s the now-debunked rumor about a munchkin actor hanging themself, as well as the regular cast and director changes, which led to a lengthy production. But what about Garland’s own experience?

Once again, there are conflicting reports. In The Making of the Wizard of OzGarland’s co-stars remember her as “light-hearted,” “absolutely enchanting,” and “one of the happiest people I’ve ever seen.” But years later, Garland herself “spoke bitterly” of the experience, including her closest companions on set.

‘The Wizard of Oz’ made Garland a star

Judy Garland entertains civilian employees at the Philadelphia Navy Yard during a War Bond Drive in 1944.
Judy Garland entertains civilian employees at the Philadelphia Navy Yard during a War Bond Drive in 1944. | Bettmann / Contributor

At the time, MGM had no idea that The Wizard of Oz would become the hit movie it is today. Garland wasn’t the studio’s first choice — or even second choice — for the part of Dorothy. But her rendition of “Over the Rainbow” and the whimsical story’s timeless nature cemented the actor’s status in Hollywood forever.

Garland earned an honorary Academy Award, the Academy Juvenile Award, at 17, for her work in The Wizard of Oz and other films she starred in that year, including Babes in Arms. At the time, she was continuing to film and do publicity for subsequent MGM films. And like other stars of the period, she did drugs to keep up with the pace.

How old was Garland when she died?

Judy Garland on 31st December 1968.
Judy Garland on 31st December 1968. | C. Maher/Daily Express/Getty Images

‘The Wizard of Oz’: Dark Secrets Behind the Making of the Hollywood Classic

A little over 10 years after The Wizard of Oz premiered, Garland and MGM parted ways. She revived her career on stage. Later, she returned to Hollywood, starring in the 1954 remake of A Star Is Born, earning her an Oscar nomination. Subsequent projects include the Emmy nominated series The Judy Garland Show.

In 1969, 30 years after her breakout role, Garland died at 47 years old. The cause of death was an accidental overdose. “If she was a normal kid, allowed to go to a normal school and not come into the industry until she was an adult,” said The Making of the Wizard of Oz author Aljean Harmetz (via Time), “I doubt the tragedy that became her life in her last years would have happened.”