September 30, 1952 - March 1, 2006
Actor who shot to fame as the Artful Dodger in Oliver!, then paid the price child celebrity often brings
JACK WILD had a truly meteoric career. A natural exhibitionist, he was discovered by an agent while playing football in a public park, entered showbiz at 11 and won an Oscar nomination at 16 for his memorably lively performance as the Artful Dodger in the musical Oliver! A teenage millionaire, he was féted by the major American entertainment companies and signed million-dollar contracts for a TV show and for records. For a while he was a staple feature of the teen magazines. But his fall was as swift as his rise.
The cheeky young lad, with the sparkling eyes and turned-up nose, was into his twenties and growing too old for juvenile roles. He was drinking heavily, his career collapsed and he virtually disappeared for many years.
After successfully fighting alcoholism, he made a modest comeback, working mainly on stage, though he played Much, the miller’s son, in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), with Kevin Costner. He became involved in A Minor Consideration, an American charity offering advice and support to child actors and he wrote an eloquent article cautioning about the pitfalls of early fame and fortune when Daniel Radcliffe was cast in the first Harry Potter film in 2000.
The following year Wild was diagnosed with oral cancer and in 2004 he had his voicebox and tongue removed. Nevertheless he continued working. He was due to appear in Cinderella at the Swan Theatre in Worcester and had the part of Baron Hardup rewritten to exploit his abilities at mime.
Born in Royton, Lancashire, in 1952, he was the son of two millworkers. In 1960 the family moved to London, where Wild’s father worked as a labourer and his mother as a butcher. Wild was spotted by the talent agent June Collins, playing football with her son Phil. Another child actor, Phil Collins, played the Artful Dodger on stage and later became even more famous as an international pop star.
Wild’s family made financial sacrifices to send their son to the Barbara Speake Stage School, but before long he was getting work on a wide variety of television shows, including the Sid James sitcom George and the Dragon, Z Cars and The Wednesday Play. He had a leading role in the Children’s Film Foundation serial Danny the Dragon (1967), with Sally Thomsett, and Peter Butterworth voicing the dragon.
Oliver!, Lionel Bart’s colourful musical adaptation of Oliver Twist, had opened in the West End in 1960, was to run for 2,618 performances and provided regular employment for hundreds of child actors. On stage Wild played Charlie Bates, one of Fagin’s boys.
When Carol Reed turned the show into a film in 1968, Wild was cast as the Artful Dodger, with Mark Lester, who was six years his junior, as Oliver; Ron Moody reprising his stage role of Fagin; and the director’s nephew Oliver as Bill Sykes. A notorious hellraiser, Oliver Reed was not the best role-model for impressionable young actors.
Wild sang several songs in the show, including You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two, Consider Yourself and I’d Do Anything. Although Wild was playing one of the oldest boys, he was so short that he had to have raised platforms on his shoes. His performance was full of natural wit, charm and charisma, without the sentimentality that infects the work of so many Hollywood child actors.
The film was a major hit, grossing $40 million worldwide. It won the Oscar for Best Picture at the 1969 Academy Awards and Wild was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.
Elevated to the status of teen idol, Wild signed up to star in his own American TV series H. R. Pufnstuf (1969-70). He played an English boy, with a talking flute, who is marooned on a magic island inhabited by an array of weird creatures, including the friendly dragon of the title. It was variously described as “campy”, “crypto-druggie” and “dark and frightening”. There was also a spin-off feature film. Wild also signed up with Capitol Records and released The Jack Wild Album in 1969. There were two further albums on the Buddha label.
“At an age when most youngsters are preparing for their GCSEs, I was suddenly a jet-setter, briefly the toast of Hollywood and London’s West End,” he said in the article he wrote for A Minor Consideration. “My immature wishes and naive opinions were treated with respect. It was all so flattering and seductive that if you were not careful, you came to believe that you really deserved instant superstar treatment.
“That was part of my problem. That, and an addictive craving for booze, which was to do me and my family so much harm . . . I can remember going to parties where the ‘nibbles’ were great bowls of LSD, marijuana, cocaine, uppers and downers. I remember my jaw dropping when I saw for the first time the stunningly sexy young ladies who were hanging on my every word.
“As an inexperienced teenager from Hounslow, West London, it took me some time to realise that these charming creatures were professional hookers, there only to flatter and to do anything I wanted. In fact, I was a traditional working-class lad and I stuck to the booze. But down the years I paid a heavy price.”
Back in Europe he was reunited with Lester on Melody (1971), a teenage romantic comedy, written by Alan Parker, and with Ron Moody on Flight of the Doves (1971), with Moody as a wicked uncle who pursues Wild’s character and his sister across Ireland. He co-starred with the pop star Donovan in The Pied Piper (1972), playing Gavin, the crippled boy, and made a cameo appearance in the popular BBC series The Onedin Line (1972).
But he was finding it increasingly difficult to cope with fame, fortune and the fickle nature of the two. Suddenly leading roles proved almost impossible to secure and he became increasingly dependent on alcohol. Dickens, the source of his greatest triumph, provided him with some relief in 1976 when he played Charley Hexam in a BBC adaptation of Our Mutual Friend.
By his own admission much of the 1970s and 1980s passed by in a drunken haze, which ultimately cost him both his marriage and his career, though he did play the Mock Turtle in 1982 in a Polish musical adaptation of Alice in Wonderland that also involved Lulu, Paul Nicholas and Susannah York.
He managed to sort out his alcohol problems and pick up the pieces of his acting career in the 1990s. Although his days as a teen idol were long gone, he found work in theatre, television and films, both in the UK and US.
He began a long-term relationship with the actress Claire Harding. His drinking and heavy smoking had taken a toll on his health and his appearance. He developed mouth cancer, which they may have caused.
Only the ghost of the Artful Dodger could be detected in his features, but he continued working, campaigned to raise awareness of the disease and was working on his autobiography. Recently he played a small, supporting role in the film Mousakka and Chips (2005), with his Oliver! co-star Ron Moody. He and Harding married last September.
Jack Wild, actor, was born on September 30, 1952. He died of oral cancer on March 1, 2006, aged 53.