Friday, March 3, 2006

Another Actor's Death: Jack Wild

It seems the past week that several celebrities have died. Don Knotts, Darren McGavin, and Dennis Weaver all died over the weekend. The lastest celebrity to die is not near as famous or as beloved as those men, but he made an impression on many of us nonetheless. Jack Wild, who played the Artful Dodger in both the original London musical and the film based upon it (and before someone else points it out to me--yes, I know Davy Jones played the role on Broadway...) and who played Jimmy on H. R. Pufnstuf, has died. Wild passed on March 1 at the age of 53 from mouth cancer.

Wild was born on September 30, 1952 in Royton, England. He was discovered by talent agent June Collins (who also happened to be the mother of rock star Phil Collins of Genesis fame) while playing football (soccer to we Americans) in London. By age 11 he was already auditioning for roles. Eventually Wild won the role of the Artful Dodger in the musical Oliver, which debuted on London's West End in 1960. Wild's career was under way.

By 1965 Wild was appearing on British television in such series as The Wednesday Play and George and the Dragon. In 1967 he appeared in his first film, Danny the Dragon. By 1968 he had a role in the short lived British TV series Knock Three Times. Nineteen sixty eight was perhaps the turning point in Wild's life. It was that year that the film version of the musical Oliver! was released, complete with Wild as the Artful Dodger. As the Artful Dodger, Wild received nominations for the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role and the Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer - Male.

Having seen Wild in the movie Oliver, producers Sid and Marty Kroft offered the young actor the lead in an American Saturday morning TV series they had in development--H. R. Pufnstuf. The series centred around Jimmy (played by Wild), a boy with a magic, talking flute named Freddie. Kidnapped by the witch Witchiepoo, who wants Freddie for her own ends, he is taken to the Living Island. There he is rescued by the island's mayor, the dragon-like creature called H. R. Pufnstuf. The series was a combination of live actors (Jimmy and Witchiepoo) and puppets (H. R. Pufnstuf).If the series sounds more than a bit strange, it was. It was also fairly successful. It debuted in 1969 and ran for a total of five years on network television.

Indeed, Wild soon found himself a pre-teen idol. His face could be seen on any number of teen magazines of the era. And he even received a recording contract. He released three albums in the early Seventies. Movie roles followed. Naturally, he was the lead in the film version of Pufnstuf, but he also had major roles in Melody (1971), Flight of the Doves (1971), and The Pied Piper (1972). Sadly, his success began to fade almost as quickly as it had come about. Wild took to drinking, which certainly did not help his career. His appearances on film are somewhat sporadic after 1973, with his most notable role being a bit part in the film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

I must say that I am saddened by Wild's passing. I always did like the musical Oliver, and his performance as the Artful Dodger always impressed me. And I must admit that I did watch H.R. Pufnstuf loyally as a child. While I have no idea if the series was actually any good (one's tastes do tend to change as one grows into adulthood), I do have fond memories of the series. It is one of the few Saturday morning shows from the Seventies that I actually recall liking, which must say something. In my humble opinion, it is a tragedy that Wild's career disentegrated the way it did and that it never did recover. He was clearly a talented young man and I think he could well have been successful as an adult if things had unfolded differently for him.

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