Sunday, April 03, 2011

"The Tragedy of the Artful Dodger"

At just 16, Jack Wild (above left) played the Artful Dodger in Academy Award-winning musical Oliver! (1968), earning his own nomination and a job offer from kid vid pioneers Sid and Marty Krofft. They thought the boyish Brit with the expressive face would be perfect for their H. R. Pufnstuf. Though the series lasted only one season on NBC, Wild's performance as Jimmy, the mischievous lad with a magic flute, became instantly iconic.

In savage, startling contrast, one of the last photos of the actor was published in 2002, when, after a horrible battle with throat and mouth cancer, Wild had part of his tongue and voice box removed. The image is indelible and heartbreaking. In place of his once puckish grin, his mouth was now misshapen and sunken. All along his nose and cheeks, decades of drink left their mark, as tiny blood blossoms. His signature pageboy haircut had given way to a receding, graying hairline. Then, at 49, Wild looked ancient. Four years later, on 3 March 2006, the cancer finally claimed his life.

Jack Wild was a remnant of Beatlemania and Carnaby Street, remade as light-hearted kids' fare. Not bad for a kid who just wanted to play football. Born in Royton in northwestern England on 30 September 1952, Wild moved with his family to London, where he was approached by a talent agent as he kicked the football around with his mates in a local park. She was Phil Collins' mother June and she saw to it that Wild received training in the art of acting. By 11, he was auditioning.

He was ready when Lionel Bart mounted his devilishly clever stage musical Oliver!. When he also appeared in the motion picture, Wild's show-stopping number, "Consider Yourself," became a show tune staple. Wild hit the variety show circuit, singing the song that threatened to overwhelm his talent.

The Kroffts saw to it that Wild was not stuck singing this same old tune the rest of his life. Yet, they created another sort of monster when they cast him as Jimmy. Wild was wonderful, performing opposite costumed creatures and human characters (including Billie Hayes as Witchie-Poo). With some memorable musical numbers and the standard quest-oriented narrative, Pufnstuf proved Wild was not a one-hit wonder.

When Pufnstuf was cancelled, the Kroffts made an unsuccessful movie version. Looking for work, Wild returned to England, where he collaborated with his Oliver! buddy Mark Lester on 1971's Melody. He then co-starred alongside Donovan in a rather disturbing version of The Pied Piper (1972), after which Columbia Records offered him a recording contract. He tried to establish a distinct pop persona (his debut, The Jack Wild Album, featured Beatles covers). He soon was reduced to performing pap for his frantic Tiger Beat brigade.

It was all more or less over by 1976. Wild was in his mid 20s, and learning the hard lesson of juvenile stardom: it fades quickly. He married his childhood sweetheart (backup singer Gaynore Jones) and worked sporadically, appearing in bit parts and the odd TV spot. Disillusioned, Wild found solace in the bottle, and quickly became a full-blown alcoholic. He also smoked like a chimney, and would later state that such a lethal lifestyle made him a "walking time bomb." When he turned up in Kevin Costner's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, he was barely recognizable.

Wild would eventually clean up, divorce Jones, and settle down with new love Claire Harding. For over a decade, the couple lived together (they finally married in September of 2005), and Wild tried his hand at pantomime. Enjoying minor success onstage, the actor eyed a return to the limelight. Then his inner explosive finally went off. Cancer robbed Wild of his distinctive voice, but he tried to remain upbeat. Roles were written specifically for him, and he continued to anticipate a new career as a mime.

Ron Moody, his costar in Oliver! was angry upon hearing of Wild's death. "Jack was cheated out of a great career," he said. "He had a talent that should have developed into even more talent as he grew older." Though that potential was left unrealized, it was in full view, for all to see. It was written in Jack Wild's cherubic face.

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