For Jack Wild, the 1970s and 1980s were about lots of drinking and less work. Still, the former teen idol once said, he was grateful for the journey--"because I have learnt a hell of a lot."
Wild, the Oscar-nominated bundle of energy who burned bright, if briefly, in the late 1960s and early 1970s in Oliver! and the classic kids' show H.R. Pufnstuf, died Wednesday of mouth cancer. He was 53, an incongruous age for an actor who in reruns of those signature credits never has boasted a wrinkle or battled a demon tougher than Witchiepoo.
Even before his death, Wild's Cockney accent had been silenced by surgery that removed his tongue and voice box. According to the U.K. news agency, the Press Association, the cancer-stricken actor relied on his wife to read his lips and speak on his behalf.
Three months ago, Wild helped promote a mouth cancer awareness campaign in England. The star, presumably through his wife, warned that his old ways had made him a "walking time bomb."
"I was a heavy smoker and an even heavier drinker and apparently together they are a deadly mixture," Wild said, according to the Press Association.
Wild's end was a world away from his beginnings as a star.
In 1969, Wild was 16 and an Academy Award nominee for Oliver!, the musical version of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist. His buoyant song-and-dance routines as thief Fagin's best young agent, The Artful Dodger, a role he'd played on the London stage, earned him like recognition at the British Academy Awards and Golden Globes. Wild didn't convert any of the nominations into wins--61-year-old Jack Albertson bested him at the Oscars--but his future seemed bright.
And, for a time, it was bright.
An oft-told tale had Wild meeting producers Sid and Marty Krofft at the Hollywood premiere of Oliver! Soon, Wild was dispatched by the brothers Krofft to Living Island, where as Pufnstuf's Jimmy, he and his talking magic flute made nice with life-sized puppets and feared the wrath of Witchiepoo.
The first of the Kroffts' colorful and outright weird children's shows, H.R. Pufnstuf ran on Saturday mornings on NBC from 1969-71. It was a rerun favorite of the 1970s, and subsequently was preserved on video and DVD.
For all of its pop-culture longevity, Pufnstuf was not a long-term job for Wild. The show lasted 17 episodes.
But still, at the time, Wild's future seemed bright.
Pufnstuf begat the 1970 Pufnstuf movie. His fame from Oliver! begat a pop career, launched with his first album in 1969. And his pop career begat a slew of TV appearances and concert dates, including a surreal one at the Hollywood Bowl in which he shared a bill with the Brady Bunch kids, Johnny Whitaker and assorted Krofft characters. At least Brady dad Robert Reed, shown seated in the audience in footage from the event, seemed to enjoy it.
Together, Pufnstuf, Oliver!, the albums and Wild's M.O.--he was the still-huggable moptop for girls either left behind by or tired of the Beatles and Davy Jones--made the teen a teen idol, a status reinforced with every new issue of 16 and Tiger Beat magazines.
"On paper, I was a millionaire," Wild said in 2004, per the U.K.'s Manchester Evening News. "If I saw a Rolls-Royce that I wanted to buy, I could buy it."
In 1971, he costarred with Oliver!'s Mark Lester in Melody, a Bee Gees-scored film about marriage-minded children. In 1972, he starred in the children's fantasy The Pied Piper. In 1973, he played an orphaned child in David Hemming's The 14, a film once called "avowedly offbeat" by London's Guardian.
"Perhaps unsurprisingly," the Guardian observed, "[the film] failed to achieve wide popularity."
The same could have been said of Wild's post-Pufnstuf screen career. The 14 marked the end of the line. He never again starred in a movie. His run was done at 21.
"I wasn't being offered as many films or TV work or theater work, and so my automatic answer to that was to have a drink that would send me to sleep," Wild was quoted as saying in the Manchester Evening News.
Wild's preferred drink was dry white wine--because, he said in the Evening News, "I thought that you can't smell [it] on your breath."
Wild's self-described "drunken haze" ate up most of the 1970s and 1980s. The 1990s and 2000s were, by comparison, a triumph in that he'd gotten sober in 1989, he said, and stayed sober.
Wild's most notable latter-day credit came in the 1991 Kevin Costner hit, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. He played one of Robin's merry men.
In 2000, Wild was diagnosed with mouth cancer. After radiation treatment, the disease went into remission for two years. It returned in late 2004, necessitating the tongue and voice box removal.
"I look at what I've gone through in my career, and I really shouldn't be talking to you now," Wild said in the Manchester Evening News. "I should be dead ten times over."