The rise and fall of Oliver! child star Jack Wild

After being Oscar-nominated as the Artful Dodger in 1968's Oliver!, Jack Wild was a millionaire before the age of 20, but struggled with addiction.

Original Film Title: OLIVER!.  English Title: OLIVER!.  Film Director: CAROL REED.  Year: 1968.  Stars: RON MOODY; JACK WILD. Credit: COLUMBIA PICTURES / Album
Ron Moody (left) as Fagin with Jack Wild as the Artful Dodger (right) in Carol Reed's 1968 musical Oliver! (Alamy)

In the late 1960s there were few child stars bigger than Jack Wild. As one of the lead actors of 1968’s Oscars-guzzling musical Oliver!, his may not have been the title role, but this diminutive 16-year-old’s turn as Charles Dickens’ Artful Dodger was the performance that everyone was raving about. Even when it came to the Academy Awards, of the kid actors, it wasn’t the movie’s lead Mark Lester that was nominated, but his dark-haired, saucer-eyed co-star.

Within a year, this 5’ 5” teen from Royton in Lancashire, had upped sticks to the US, to headline NBC’s big-budget fantasy show H.R. Pufnstuf. To anyone paying attention, it looked like Jack Wild had adult stardom in the bag, so effortless was his cheeky chappy charm. The series, and its 1970 spinoff movie, made him a millionaire before he was even 20.

But rarely has an actor’s star fallen so quickly and so dramatically. It was only in Hollywood that his alcohol consumption began to escalate, and while other thrill-seekers around him had an off-switch, moderation simply wasn’t part of Jack Wild’s DNA.

41ST ANNUAL ACADEMY AWARDS - Pre-Show Arrivals - Airdate: April 14, 1969. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images)
Mark Lester and Jack Wild attended the 1969 Oscars where Wild was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. (ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images)

"At the start of 1980, I wasn’t working, so I filled in the time with… drinking," he wrote in his posthumously published autobiography, It's A Dodger's Life. "I began to make sure I had a good supply and always had some in the boot of my car, especially if I did manage to get some work and we were on location. Booze came before anything or anyone. And so it continued. Work became sporadic and gradually my friends disappeared. I couldn’t figure out where everything had gone wrong."

It was all a far cry from 10 years before when, arriving in LA for the 1969 Oscars, he was greeted by a giant billboard that read ‘Hollywood welcomes Jack Wild’. On his return to London, he was mobbed by the press.

"I had suits hand-made by a Mayfair tailor," he recalled in his book. "If I asked for something, I got it. In restaurants, I’d get the best table and there were always chauffeur-driven cars to take me everywhere."

H.R. PUFNSTUF, H.R. Pufnstuf, Jack Wild (holding Freddie the Magic Flute), 1969-70
Jack Wild starred in NBC's cult puppet show H.R. Pufnstuf from the people behind The Banana Splits. (Alamy)

More films followed in the wake of Pufnstuf; a reunion with Mark Lester in 1971’s Melody and a lead role opposite John Hurt and Donald Pleasence in the 1972 musical The Pied Piper among them. The actor’s star wattage was so dazzling in the early 70s that he was even courted by Capitol Records, in an effort to turn him into a pop star. 1970’s The Jack Wild Album may have stiffed commercially, but it did spawn the No.46-charting single Some Beautiful. (Three other albums followed, in 1971 and 1972)

But as Jack Wild grew up, the film world, it seemed, didn’t know what to do with him. "When I first entered showbusiness, of course I didn't mind playing younger roles," he reflected in 1999.

"However, it did bug me when I would be 21 being offered the role of a 13-year-old."

Melody (1971) Mark Lester, Jack Wild,     Date: 1971
Jack Wild (right) reunited with his Oliver! co-star Mark Lester in the 1971 film Melody. (Alamy)

By 1979 his drinking was so out of control that, after being diagnosed with acute pancreatitis his doctor told him bluntly, "If you carry on drinking you will die." Instead of quitting completely, Wild simply cut out spirits.

Despite periods of sobriety over the next decade, he’d always return to the drink, having long given up his ‘no spirits’ rule. Once, while rehearsing for a pantomime, he began hallucinating, convinced that East End gangsters were planning on assassinating him. He was later taken to hospital and sectioned under the Mental Health Act, only to start drinking again after he was released. His intake on a typical day would, he later revealed, be half a bottle of vodka and a couple of bottles of wine.

With work having dried up, he found himself signing on, using his Unemployment Benefit money primarily for alcohol. His marriage to actress Gaynor Jones, who he’d wed in 1976, collapsed in 1985, forcing the actor to enter a drying-out clinic.

Jack Wild during American Cinema Awards Foundation Presents 1987 Summer Spectacular and Auction at Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, United States. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)
Jack Wild in 1987. (Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

"As part of the therapy, I had to tell my life story," he recounted in his book. "I’d had a ball, so how had I ended up here? I tried to explain: ‘When children become stars in showbiz, it’s almost like becoming an orphan.

"You are taken from your normal surroundings and put on thrones and made out to be superhuman, and there is just so much time and money to play with but you’re not prepared, mentally, physically or financially for the life of a celebrity…’"

It would take another five years, but eventually Jack Wild did ditch the booze. After hiring a new agent, work began trickling in once more for the freshly-sober actor. There was even a role, as Much the Miller's Son, in the 1991 Hollywood blockbuster Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves.

USA. A  scene from the (C)Warner Bros. film: Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991). Plot: Robin Hood decides to fight back as an outlaw when faced with the tyranny of the Sheriff of Nottingham. Ref: LMK110-J8841-090323 Supplied by LMKMEDIA. Editorial Only. Landmark Media is not the copyright owner of these Film or TV stills but provides a service only for recognised Media outlets.
Jack Wild (left) played one of the merry men in 1991's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. (LMK/Alamy)

Sadly, years of drinking and smoking caught up with Wild in 2001, when he was diagnosed with oral cancer. Three years later, he would have his tongue and larynx removed, only for the cancer to return in 2005.

"Until I was diagnosed with mouth cancer, I'd never heard of it," Wild told the BBC in 2005. "What I learned very quickly was that my lifestyle had made me a walking time bomb. I was a heavy smoker and an even heavier drinker and apparently together they are a deadly mixture."

Though he’d begun to work again in the years following his quitting alcohol, his career never returned to those heady days of the early 70s and his final roles were, due to his throat surgery, without dialogue.

Jack Wild's final screen performance was a non-speaking role in 2005's low budget thriller Moussaka & Chips. (YouTube screenshot/Empire Productions)
Jack Wild's final screen performance was a non-speaking role in 2005's low budget thriller Moussaka & Chips. (YouTube screenshot/Empire Productions)
In 2005 Jack Wild launched a mouth cancer campaign. (Ray Tang/Shutterstock)
In 2005 Jack Wild launched a mouth cancer campaign. (Ray Tang/Shutterstock)

His last film before his death in March 2006 aged 53 was a low-budget thriller, Moussaka & Chips, a movie that, by also starring his old Oliver! co-star Ron Moody, brought his big screen career full circle.

“I only wish I’d invested the money and not drank quite so much,” Wild said shortly before his death. “But other than that I don’t think there is much else I’d change.

"And I did have a lot of fun.”

Drinkline is the national alcohol helpline. If you're worried about your own or someone else's drinking, you can call this free helpline in complete confidence. Call 0300 123 1110 (weekdays 9am to 8pm, weekends 11am to 4pm).